“The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” by Neal Stephenson is a science fiction book which contains ideas that I have kept in the back of my mind for nearly thirty years now. The book was first published in 1995.
Let me start out by saying that this is a rather challenging book to read. When I first read the book back in the day I had to have a dictionary next to me. Now you can just use a smartphone. Also, the end of the book is what we’ll call rather adult with regards to sex. Not something I would recommend for the younger set. However, none of that really matters to me, I’m looking for interesting ideas. There be some here!
The Diamond Age: Exploring Technology, Education, and Society
The book has three main themes. There’s technology. In particular:
- Nanotechnology: The novel is set in the future where nanotechnology changes the way that people interact with the real world. A more reified idea how a “Start Trek” type replicator might work in real life.
- Intelligents Systems: The actual “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” is an AI in the form of a book which acts as a teacher, mentor, and guide. The main character of the book, a young girl named Nell, utilizes the book to learn life skills.
- Virtual Reality: The book features simulations which teach Nell, allowing her to explore different scenarios.
- Augmented Reality: Characters in the book use special devices to overlay information and virtual objects on the real world before them.
- Cybernetics: Some characters in the book implant cybernetic devices to enhance their physical and cognitive abilities.
A Unique Approach to Education
The primer brings education to life. There are complex narratives, interactive simulations, and augmented reality experiences. The book that Nell uses is bespoke. Only a few of these are in existence.
However there is a group of similar books which are a less technically sophisticated, making them less expensive. This makes them more available to a larger group of people. Broadly, the idea is that the primer becomes a friend to the student. A mentor, a teacher, something that can help give the student the power to shape their own destiny.
Examining Social Classes and Inequality
A lot of the book examines social issues, and how inequality limits peoples potential. This is not the interesting part of the book to me. I figure being a little preachy here and there was the price of admission, much like a lot of the entertainment we see today.
Where Are We Now?
The book is more than 25 years old. How much closer are we to having devices that can supplement learning to the degree that it makes us “better people” fulfilling our “potential”?
In technology, 25 years is a long time. Some of the baseline AI described in the book is either here, or you can see it from here. It’s not clear how you go about authoring the content of such a primer. But a lot of the building blocks are lying about.
The interesting question to me is how do we start making the first “crude prototypes” of such a device.
“The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” by Neal Stephenson is one of my must reads. One interesting idea that I thought was true when I first heard it, and still do, is the job of the science fiction writer to describe the future. It is the job of the scientist, engineers and technologist to bring it to reality. It’s also important to pick the right science fiction to attempt to implement. This book has a lot of those good ideas.