Rereading the Diamond Age 25 years later

Neal Stephenson published the Diamond Age in 1996. I read it while I was in high school (about 1997). I was hooked on the ideas of nanotechnology and post-scarcity presented in the novel. I earned my PhD in bioanalytical chemistry in 2008. I went into my field in some ways because of this science fiction novel. I wanted to learn how to analyze and then build the kinds of nano-machines that life is made of.

I decided to re-read it recently. I put up a video review, too.

There’s this TED talk where Andrew Mcafee goes through major world-changing events (plagues, rise of religions, and fall of empires) and concludes that none of that really mattered very much. “There has been one story, one development in human history that bent the curve – bent it just about 90 degrees – and it is a technology story.”

I’m not as sure of that anymore. Maybe on a centuries timescale, but on a lifetime scale or a decade scale I think other stuff matters. Plagues and politics can have a big impact on how things are going today. But when I was a fresh faced young college freshman, I would have agreed with it 100%.

It makes sense looking back that I loved this novel. The Diamond Age is about this interplay between world-changing technology and life-changing personal choices. It’s about a technological revolution… played out in the dysfunctional and political lives of individuals.

The Plot

The book starts with a birthday present: an extremely advanced AI-powered computer disguised as a children’s story book: The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Or Primer for short. The book’s purpose is to educate a young woman from elementary through, apparently, graduate school. The book starts with the alphabet and reading lessons and advances through programming a Turing machine and the nuts-and-bolts operation of matter compilers (nanotech 3D printers that can make almost anything).

A few girls get a copy of the primer and eventually become accomplished professionals. They create artifacts of power and beauty. They do their best to change the world for the better – in short, they live interesting lives, just as the Primer was designed to accomplish.

As all this is going on, we get introduced to a world of diamond airships, steampunk themed augmented reality parties, and rollerblading thugs with firearms implanted into their skulls. It’s a vibrant world.

Drexlerian Nanotechnology

The plot gives us a window into what peoples lives might look like in the context of advanced nanotechnology. Neal Stephenson was influenced by a futurist named Erik Drexler, who wrote the Engines of Creation in 1986 and co-founded the Foresight Institute. You can get a reasonable idea what molecular nanotechnology is all about from Richard Feynman’s lecture, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” in 1959.

The central idea is this: How might we “3D Print” atoms into molecules into materials into objects? And, if we could do that, if we had that much control over matter, what might we do with it?

Just an aside, “3D printing of atoms” is how it’s presented in the Diamond Age and in the Engines of Creation, but that’s not how it’s ever really going to work. If you want to know why, there’s a great debate between Erik Drexler and Richard E. Smalley (winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes). It’s worthy of a separate discussion.

However it works in practice, the idea it represents is arbitrary control over matter. And that idea is very exciting for a science fiction novel. As one example, carbon is very cheap. It’s freely available in the air we breathe. If we had complete control over matter, we could pull carbon out of the air and arrange it into carbon nanotubes to make incredibly strong cables and fabrics. We could make diamond windows and tools. The title comes out of this idea: carbon materials like diamond are so central to this imagined future that they call it the diamond age, like the stone age and iron age before.

Nanotechnology really could enable lots of potential big projects. Things like a space elevator become reasonable. Computers could be ultra-miniaturized and vastly more powerful than we have now. Computing with the flow of electrons is crude compared to the use of direct mechanical push-actions of diamond nano-rods. Nano-mechanical rod logic computing might be more energy efficient, and avoids the quantum weirdness where electrons begin to tunnel between neighboring circuits. Lots of that comes into play in the Diamond Age: things like a sword with an edge like a chainsaw under the electron microscope. It’s able to cut through steel like butter. There are vast underwater habitats, synthetic nano-coral islands, and airships with lifting envelopes filled with hard vacuum.

The imagined matter compiler can make all of these things, but it can also make food and clothes and kilometer tall apartment buildings. Basic needs can be met essentially for free. It’s like the Replicator in star trek except much of it is owned and operated by imperial capitalists, like the neo-Victorians. The big idea in the book is a walled garden version of post-scarcity.

Post scarcity

The fact that everything COULD be free and ubiquitous doesn’t necessarily mean it WILL be. Utopian post-scarcity is not the vision that is presented in the book. In the book, there are people who own the matter compilers, people who can program the compilers, and people who must trade their service for access to the products of the compilers.

If someone doesn’t have connections or talents, they need to work for people who do. Oh, some people live off of charity: the compilers will make basic food, clothes, a blanket for free. People do live in shelters, subsisting off of the these free concessions to basic human needs. But it’s an ugly life. In those sad places, there is rampant violence and drugs. For anyone who wants to escape, there are predatory lenders offering an easy (if temporary) way out, followed by forced labor in debtors prisons.

When I read this book in 1999, I decided I wanted to be a nanotechnologist. I wanted to make some small contribution to ending material scarcity forever. Maybe material needs could be satisfied by nanotechnology as efficiently as the need for music was solved by Napster. I rejected the supposition that we would do something so transparently stupid as to create Artificial Scarcity.

I may have been slightly naive.

Upon re-reading in 2022, this dystopian book feels like how we really might use the technology of post-scarcity to maintain unjust inequality. An in-group might enforce artificial scarcity in order to coerce subservience. The in-group gets to have never ending luxury, and the out-group can clean their toilets. Oh, the post-scarcity in group COULD engineer a self-cleaning toilet, but there’s always going to be people who want to see someone in a maid outfit.

Neo Victorianism and Racism

In the Diamond Age, the Victorians take their style and ethic from gaslamp era England. They dress in ornate but prim and proper attire. They have strict rules of conduct. Their technology is under strict central control. And, ultimately, they represent strict conservative hierarchy.

It’s a powerful way to organize people to do big things. But it has an ugly underside. The Victorians value status. There’s status in having hand-made goods when everything made by the matter compiler is more-or-less free. There’s status in employing real people where automation could suffice. And to have that status, there must be people to exploit.

The book’s Victorians are not obviously racist. That being said, I was interested enough in the idea of Neo-Victorianism to look up whether it was a real thing. It is, but it’s mostly just racist reactionaries looking back fondly to an era where white supremacy was accepted. Sigh.

In the book, Victorianism is not all positive. The protagonist, Nell, grows up in the slums that were created by the Victorians as a labor pool. The people in the slums need the Victorians’ Feed to survive. By putting a price on the Feed, the Victorians make a constant supply of desperate people. Desperate people can be coerced to do the degrading work that builds others’ status.

I am sad to say that our present level of technology seems to have gone that way, too. I don’t think that more advanced technology will fix that, at least not in one lifetime.

Articles

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid
“By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would ‘go viral’ and make you ‘internet famous’ for a few days… This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.”
I’m ashamed to admit that even to me – a jaded “professional” – that game looks deeply enticing. The better way is to join local institutions with some political diversity and try to solve local problems. It’s just much less addictive than engaging with the social media machine where I perceive less risk and more immediate dopamine rewards.

Why Being Anti-Science Is Now Part Of Many Rural Americans’ Identity
There’s a tribe forming that distrusts “experts” on principle. “It’s hard to share information if people reject it because it comes from experts and is reported through the mainstream press. That will determine, as much as anything, how we respond to serious challenges moving forward.”
I relate this to Jason Pargin’s article about trump voters: “In the small towns, this often gets expressed as ‘They don’t share our values!’ and my progressive friends love to scoff at that. ‘What, like illiteracy and homophobia?!?!'”
Tribal rejection of reality is rooted in trying to protect a way of life that is no longer economically viable. Reality has betrayed them. They are perfectly willing to give up on reality. Small towns have been gutted. Globalization moved the big employers overseas and Walmart ate every small retailer. Urban centers don’t share that experience. The rural tribe is organizing around a lost cause: trying to remake what feels like utopia in retrospect. And the urban tribe really does have contempt for that.

I Joined Counter.Social to Become More Social and Less Awkward on Social Media
I started a counter.social account. Is it better than twitter? Maybe, for now. We’ll see. It’s still not what I should be doing. But it’s a lot easier than joining a service organization.

Videos

Making the Pharaoh’s Serpent
This demo reminds me of a crazy toxic version of the fire snake or carbon snake or black snake firework I used to get as a kid. You light it and it grows into a long black cylinder. The carbon version is pretty safe. The Pharaoh’s snake is chock full of mercury. Not for kids. But they look like a terrible portal into an alternate, hostile dimension.

Heat Pumps are Not Hard: Here’s what it will take to start pumping
Heat pumps are awesome and we should use them more. With a big thermal block they could be basically energy storage systems.

Why Jet Boats are AWESOME (U.S. Coast Guard’s Workhorse) – Smarter Every Day 272
I did not know I would be interested in this. It is very cool. Thrust vectoring is awesome.

Sam Ryder – SPACE MAN (Official Lyric Video)
This gets in my head every time, and I’m OK with that. No idea what eurovision is, but this came out of it?

Scientist teaches **How to do Your Own Research**
This is a critical skill at this point.

Stunning timelapse of bioluminescant mushrooms!
It doesn’t look real, but it is awesome. Misspelling forgiven

What Happens If You Put A Giant Propeller On A Bike?
It’s hard to make it go, and it looks like it’s from a Ghibli movie, but it works way better than I thought it would. That propeller looks very inefficient to me. I feel like a proper aerodynamically designed propeller would improve the system.

Trying coffee from the Awesome Coffee Company
Here’s Amanda’s review of the Awesome Coffee Company. I think I’m more excited than she is. I signed up for the awesome coffee company subscription on Day 1. I’m a heavy coffee consumer and I like to think that I’m moving toward more ethical consumerism and this supports a good charity.

How Electricity Actually Works
This is a cool demo of electric fields from Veritasium. I like his style. My electrical intuition is sort-of based on the idea that wires are “electron pipes.” I think that’s a pretty common simplification. In reality, it’s not much like that. This demonstrates.

Comic

The comic for this week’s blog was mine with some help from Harshshikha. “Things could be worse” doesn’t help me cheer up. Gallows humor works better for me. The cupola pigeons return.

Skibbi-dibbi-dib yo da-dub dub – 223 | RedGreenBlue
This one is gross but I laughed my head off.

I mean close enough really – 229 | RedGreenBlue
Same creator, not gross, still laughed.

There once was Q from Nantucket… : HermanCainAward
It’s more of a shitpost than a comic, but I still laughed. I think I have a better version of the limerick, though:

There once was an anti-vax nurse
Who quit ’cause “the vaccine is worse”
She said “I’m a martyr!”
The virus was smarter
And so now she rides in a hearse

Ventriloquist Club. : webcomics
This one’s weird, but I laughed. Ventriloquists rank above mimes, but not by much. What are the rules of Ventriloquist Club? It has to do with lips (hint hint).

I think my scale is trying to tell me something. : funny
This guy posted a picture of his scale malfunctioning. But his feet are so bizarre, I knew reddit would jump on his toes. And I WAS RIGHT! That comment section is a comedy gold mine.

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