In the future, we will live in a nano-world. Technology so tiny it is, by almost any reasonable measure, invisible. But rather than craft a story in the spirit of a swashbuckling adventure of Luke Skywalker, author  Neal Stephenson paints a neo-victorian world and tells the story of a young girl, Nell as the story’s protagonist. (The Diamond Age)

The book was published in 1995, twenty-seven years ago. Past the first and second ‘winter’ of AI, but before Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov and gave popular culture a look at what the future might hold. 

But unlike the fanciful adventures of Star Wars, the world that Stephenson brought to life wasn’t hard to imagine. The technology was heading toward powerful, general intelligence AI and microtechnology. 

In the world of nanotechnology, characters on the walls of Merkle-Hall – make clear that this story is based on real-world science. Feynman, Drexler, Merkle are among the scientists whose portraits are displayed. (“The Diamond Age – Setting”)

To be fair, inventions like lighter-than-air buildings and bacteria-size cameras seem plausible even back in 1995. It is in Diamond Age that the impact of technology on society seems – today – remarkably prescient. The Vickys, neo-Victorians, are a tribe. The arrival of cryptocurrency (though not called that), the electronic transfer of money and information, has erased nations and borders. When Percival creates the Young Woman’s Primer, he hardly thinks of it as a revolutionary device. But when, after he loses control of it and it ends up in the hands of a poor young woman, does its power and knowledge break down barriers and create an information revolution. 

In “Notes Towards A Postcyberpunk Manifesto,” (Person) Lawrence Person writes that the class structure is defined clearly by one thing – literacy, the lower class are only able to understand mediaglyphics, animated picture writing, memes by today’s definitions. Being illiterate hurts the lower-class characters of The Diamond Age by removing their opportunities and alienating them from society. The upper class, the Equity Lords – can read. And, the Primer breaks this divide, putting AI power in the hands of the middle and lower class.

IA breaks down the barriers of access to knowledge and power. But the Young Woman’s Primer is a positive provider of info-power. Today the internet and cyber and potentially the metaverse will flatten access and provide upward mobility in a techno-flattened world. But, what Stephenson didn’t contemplate was the flattening of access to media, the dramatic shift from barrels of printers ink and FCC licensed broadcast licenses, to the ubiquitous iPhone pocket broadcaster and the ‘free’ platforms to amplify publication. 

Stephenson’s fable of access to knowledge as a liberating force couldn’t know about the enormous financial incentives that would be unleashed by Section 230’s safe harbor provisions and the almost unimaginable wealth to be gained by playing information broker to the lowest stories and images of human nature. (Cowen)

Speaking on a podcast with Tyler Cowen, Stephenson is asked what the downside of the failure of social media is. Says Stephenson:I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret tho

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se facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.’

The Book “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, A Propaedeutic Enchiridion” is meant to be a teaching handbook. The book isn’t a set of fixed words on a page; it bonds with the child and adapts its stories and lessons to the child’s age and personality. It teaches them how to read, how to respond to threats, how to fight, how to act in society, simply put – how to thrive. The book ‘bonds’ with the child and adapts its lessons and stories to the child’s personality. (Evans)

If this sounds familiar, it should. Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok all have algorithms that do a version of this – without a sentient AI at the helm. At least, not yet. But – unlike Stephenson’s Primer, the mission is different. Social media platforms are designed to drive engagement, serving up the most salacious content and optimizing for an endless stream of images and stories that will keep impressionable children hooked. And attention equals revenue. The content is immaterial; the outcome is to monetize attention. And here Stephenson’s hopeful vision of a Primer without a profit motive misses a dangerous outcome. Imagine if the Young Girls Primer sold cosmetics? It might well have been Instagram. (Woo) The impact on the body image and wellness of young women by that platform is now well known. 

 

Works Cited

Cowen, Tylor. “Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71).” Conversations with Tyler, 17 July 2019, https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/tyler-cowen-neal-stephenson-science-fiction-writer-7fbe020e60b6. Accessed 19 February 2022.

The Diamond Age. penguinrandomhouse, 2000. Accessed 19 February 2022.

“The Diamond Age – Setting.” LiquiSearch, https://www.liquisearch.com/the_diamond_age/setting. Accessed 19 February 2022.

Evans, Jules. “The Diamond Age — Philosophy for Life.” Philosophy for Life, 29 January 2011, https://www.philosophyforlife.org/blog/the-diamond-age. Accessed 19 February 2022.

Person, Lawrence. “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto.” Slashdot, 0 October 1999, https://news.slashdot.org/story/99/10/08/2123255/notes-toward-a-postcyberpunk-manifesto. Accessed 19 February 2022.

Woo, Erin. “Teenage Girls Say Instagram’s Mental Health Impacts Are No Surprise.” The New York Times, 5 October 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/05/technology/teenage-girls-instagram.html. Accessed 20 February 2022.