The Diamond Age

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

I was in no hurry to read Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age when it was new, because I had barely managed to finish his breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, which sounded right up my alley, but which really, really rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like it was written by a clever 15-year-old who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was. For instance:

The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, whose business card reads “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world.” When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise fifteen-year old girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard Kourier (courier), and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA after the U.S. government’s loss of power).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called “Snow Crash” that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the machines of unwise hackers in the Metaverse and a crippling CNS virus in Reality. It is distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in) they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife, and his aircraft carrier of refugee boat people who speak in tongues. Also, both in the Metaverse and in Reality, they confront one of Rife’s minions, an Aleut harpoon master named Raven whose motorcycle’s sidecar packs a nuke wired to go off should Raven ever be killed. Raven has never forgiven the U.S. for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitka.

Everything is dialed up to 11. Years later, I heard good things about Cryptonomicon. Then I read about his Baroque Cycle, and it sounded even more up my alley — but reading a few pages drove me up the wall. Phant’sy that.

So, when I started noticing more and more references to The Diamond Age, it took a while before I decided to read even the first few pages of the free preview online — and I found nothing that made me want to throw my monitor at the wall.

The near-future Stephenson presents follows the fall of modern nation-states, as cryptography makes taxation and regulation impractical. Instead, individuals belong to phyles of the likeminded and live in city-state-like claves reflecting their values. The hard-working neo-Victorians buy hand-made artisanal goods while designing complex nanotech systems. The thetes, on the other hand, live a Jersey Shore-like existence. Surprisingly — that’s saying something — the book comes down squarely on the side of traditional values over modern non-values:

Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage — reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. … Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

Unsurprisingly, the book comes down squarely against any hint of human biological diversity — although that description of Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw’s childhood as a Korean orphan adopted by white, Midwestern parents would seem rather ambiguous without the explicit disclaimers.

Stephenson drops pro-Victorian thoughts throughout the book. For instance, he defends them against accusations of hypocrisy:

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,“ Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception — he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, Stephenson notes:

“It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost — swallowed up in the ocean — unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes.”

More on such tribes:

“Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

“New Atlantis, like many tribes, propagates itself largely through education. That is the raison d’être of this Academy.”

More wisdom:

“The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code — but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it — they grow up to be small minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel — as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded — they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

Nell is the thete protagonist effectively raised by her neo-Victorian LeapPad, the so-called Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer — which must have seemed much more futuristic in 1995. I’m having trouble remembering life before iPads.


  1. Buckethead says:

    My frustration as I homeschool my kids is that having read The Diamond Age, iPads do not provide an Illustrated Primer level of education.

    You can see the potential, but educational apps are too simplistic. There’s lots of decent ones for the very lowest levels of math and spelling, but beyond that, not so much. Khan academy is getting there, but doesn’t have the scope or depth that the primer did.

    The best part so far is just being able to load up lots of books from a century ago for the boy to read. He just finished reading a half dozen Verne books, and is reading Journey to the Center of the Earth now.

  2. James James says:

    When I re-read The Diamond Age two years ago, post Moldbug, the only thing that jarred was the explicit disclaimer against HBD. I can’t tell if Stephenson really believes this, or whether it’s just to emphasize that the book is about nurture. I find it hard to believe that Stephenson doesn’t believe in HBD since tthe book allows for intelligence to vary among individuals – so why not races? (I’ve noticed that people who deny HBD are forced to deny differences on intelligence as well, to be consistent.) Perhaps he just didn’t want controversy to distract from the book’s message, like Charles Murray saying he wishes he left the chapter on race out of “The Bell Curve” because it distracted from all the other chapters, and how he deliberately ignores race in “Coming Apart”. But for me this means the book doesn’t quite work, because while society is downstream from culture, culture is downstream from HBD. A lesson of The Diamond Age is that societies can be created from scratch. This seems unlikely. Would education really keep them stable? I think indoctrination is not sufficient to prevent memetic drift.

    The ending was bad too :-)

  3. James James says:

    The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer certainly seemed futuristic when I read The Diamond Age in 2000. Now it seems possible. The artificial island now seems likely to me, therefore perhaps more futuristic because it’s within the realms of possibility, not magic.

    I’m able to self educate now that I’m in my twenties, but I needed compulsion to learn when I was young, which needs a human to be present. The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer relies on being more interesting/entertaining than alternatives, which worked for Nell because she was bright and lived in a shithole. Might not have worked for her fellow thetes.

  4. James James says:

    I love Finkle-McGraw’s monologue. It seems Stephenson got there before Moldbug. But perhaps, like with Carlyle, one needs Moldbug’s exegesis to understand it. Or, in the case of Stephenson, to spot what’s in plain sight, and put it in context. One can see plenty of neoreactionary things said in the media/popular culture, but they’re not controversial because they lack neoreactionary emphasis or their significance is not pointed out.

  5. Anomaly UK says:

    You should probably try Cryptonomicon if you haven’t. It’s less silly than Snow Crash, but more coherent than the Baroque Cycle, which had some good parts but was too vast to really succeed at anything in particular.

    Anathem didn’t do anything for me and I haven’t read Reamde.

  6. Dan Kurt says:

    A few weeks ago I met an acquaintance after an interval of a few years. He is a brilliant individual who has done nothing with his life, never bothering with educating himself, but supporting himself (barely) making furniture while his wife is the real money earner having a government job (low level). He had massive a heart attack circa six months ago, was helicoptered to a medical center 100+ miles away and had multiple bypasses so now has a clean bill of health for 10 to 20 years. So what does he do as his furniture business is bankrupt and he feels he is too old to actually continue it? He is a sales clerk in a building supply company and happy. I have known him for nearly 20 years and found that he reads more than just about anyone I am acquainted with save me. He also reads some of what I also read. He told me he just read again Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and that I should give it a second try. So I did and I am now just over half way through it. I am loving it.

    Now my opinions on some of Stephenson’s oeuvre: Snow Crash was a difficult read as it never really gelled but I finished it. The Big U was enjoyable but he definitely ran off the rails in the last 20%. Diamond Age was simply brilliant until I got a little past the halfway point when I decided the author must have forgotten to take his Haldol. The book in in a pile of “should I finish these books or not.” Note: I usually finish books that I have started since I was a teenager. This goes against the advice in a book I recommend to anyone who is a book lover: Thinking As A Science by Henry Hazlett, 1916.

    I have the Baroque Cycle but have not started reading the eight books. Perhaps I will start when I retire. Stephenson is a most frustrating author with so much talent.

  7. Isegoria says:

    You’re absolutely right that educational apps are nowhere near the Illustrated Primer level yet, Buckethead. Interestingly, the Illustrated Primer itself wasn’t at the Illustrated Primer level yet either; it required live actors to provide the voice-acting and motion capture for the various characters, in real time.

  8. Isegoria says:

    I agree that the explicit disclaimer against HBD stood out enough to feel forced, James, but I think his point about culture was already transgressing norms quite a bit. Also, I think Stephenson would readily agree that indoctrination is not sufficient to prevent memetic drift.

  9. Isegoria says:

    Being more interesting and entertaining than alternatives was the explicit goal of Sesame Street, which was directed at the thetes of its day. Of course, it quickly endeared itself far more to suburban, upper-middle-class families. (The real-world setting of Sesame Street is probably the most otherworldly element to most viewers.)

  10. Calm down, folks. It helps if you introduce the crimethink a bit at a time. ;-)

  11. Tschafer says:

    Yes, just stating that some cultures are better than others is likely to get you Derbyshired these days.

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