The Diamond Age is set a few hundred (?) years in the future, when mastery of nanotechnology has brought the world into a post-scarcity state. Massive structures called the Feeds pull in raw materials, break them down to their molecular or atomic levels, then use these ingredients in matter compilers to create items on-demand. Like 3D printers for anything, or like Star Trek’s replicator. The catch is that, while Feed lines are ubiquitous, their bandwidth is not. Only the wealthy tribes can afford massive and quick production of whatever they can dream up. (Everyone else at least has food and shelter taken care of though, so that’s good.)
“Tribes?” you mutter? Yes, the world’s governments have collapsed, and people have organized generally along lines of mutually shared values rather than nationality. The story mainly takes place in and around Shanghai, but is concerned mostly with the Neo-Victorian “clave” (enclave). The Vickys (a term they find offensive) reject the moral relativism of the 20th century and instead hearken back to the heyday of the British Empire of the 19th; indeed claiming that the carefully governed morality of that age and people is precisely what made it so great.
Alexander Chung-Suk Finkle-McGraw is a Neo-Victorian Equity Lord (one of those with a non-insignificant stake in controlling and maintaining the Feeds) who is dissatisfied with the life he sees ahead for his granddaughter. He’s convinced that education fails to instill a certain “subversive” or creative / confident quality that is absolutely essential for innovation — something that the founders of a great endeavor certainly possess by definition, but something that is frequently missing from the second and following generations due to excessive conservatism and lack of real-world trial and testing.
So, Finkle-McGraw commissions a special book for his granddaughter, “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” from one of the greatest nanotechnological engineers of the day, John Percival Hackworth (“Hack”-er, get it?). This is no ordinary book; it almost magically adapts to the reader and is designed to teach anything naturally and in-depth, while also forcing the reader to learn to solve problems and be self-reliant. Kind of reminded me of Wikipedia crossed with a massive, personalized computer RPG. A kind of weak part of the story is the link to and reliance on “ractors” (reactive actors), real people to provide voiceovers for the book’s stories. The reason given, that a computer-generated voice could never be as realistic, is kind of lame … but maybe the uncanny valley will reign forever, who knows.
A copy of this book ends up in the hands of Nell, a girl among the (still) many poor and miserable denizens of this future world of wonders. The parts where Nell is reading through the Primer are actually very charming — she has a pretty miserable and abusive real-world existence, but in the Primer she is a fairy tale Princess, and her friends there teach her things that actually help her overcome her real problems. Nell becomes the ideal leader and innovator that Finkle-McGraw was hoping for, but the Primer didn’t seem to work for some others, so maybe some personal struggle somewhere is required? (eg. Nell had to escape her life in the “projects.”)
Besides Nell’s stories, the overarching plot of the book was mediocre at best and really convoluted at worst. There’s a civil war in China, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars, only the “opium” now is technology and the Feeds. Some want to replace them with “Seeds” which would more directly be controlled by the people. They try to get there by sending (imprisoning?) Hackworth to the tribe of Drummers, who live in tubes under the ocean and engage in sexual orgies most of the time, and seem half-stoned the rest of the time…but apparently they are really utilizing some STD-like nanotech to become some kind of shared intelligence brain-powered computer. Or something like that.
With a group like the Drummers in the story, it might be hard to believe, but this book actually made me think quite a bit about morality. There’s a conversation between characters in the book about how the 20th century rejected the Victorians and basically anyone espousing absolute right and wrong — with moral relativism, the only sins are intolerance and hypocrisy. But of course, one character contends, it is impossible to always live up to a strict moral code, so everyone is a hypocrite — yet that’s not the point:
The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of morality…determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.
In other words, moral ideals are just that … it’s ok to not be there yet, but it is important to be on the path!
A somewhat related quote, on culture and how some are better that others (*gasp*, totally non-PC, I know!):
There was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors. Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident. Now we understand that it’s all cultural. That, after all, is what a culture is — a group of people who share in common certain acquired traits… 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.”
And finally a bit on education, continuing the thread from Finkle-McGraw’s concerns for his granddaughter:
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
The Diamond Age is available from Amazon.
Why do so many other countries do so much better than the US on standardized tests, like PISA? That’s the question this book tries to address. Many of the countries at the top of the charts — like Finland, South Korea, and Poland — spend a fraction on education vs. the US, and computers and iPads are virtually absent from their schools, but they still are able to make almost every student into a decent critical thinker by the time they graduate. Ripley investigated a few of these countries during her own visits, but also by profiling some US exchange students who went abroad.
The main finding is that American schools have something of an identity crisis. The undisputed focus of schools in these other countries is to teach children how to think. The idea of the importance of education is universal in those countries. In contrast, American high schools seem to place a higher priority on football or other sports. People who want to be coaches become a teacher “on the side.” I remember having a few of these; while they were nice people, but it was very obvious that what they valued most and what they spent most of their time on was not their classrooms, but the athletic field.
Finland in particular has very strict standards on who can become a teacher. Finnish teaching colleges are about as selective as MIT. This makes sense — you want to make sure that your teachers are undisputed masters of the subject they are teaching. Teachers are respected, by the students and by society, since everyone knows what elite levels of scholarship they have attained. They are well-trained, intelligent, and creative and thus are given large degrees of autonomy as to what and how they teach, while still conforming to some top-level guidelines on curriculum (which is derived from the comprehensive graduation exam; more on that later). In the US, the importance of good teachers is also recognized, but the standards for becoming a teacher are so low that many teachers are not well prepared for the job, and probably will never achieve very high performance — you can’t teach a goat to be a sheep. US schools and school districts have multiple levels of bureaucracy to try to counter poor teacher performance by dictating a detailed curriculum, conducting training, and otherwise trying to turn those goats into sheep. Wouldn’t it have been easier to only hire the sheep in the first place?? Along with the misplaced emphasis on technology, this is the second reason why US education is so expensive.
The other thing the top countries have in common is a rigorous, comprehensive end-of-school exam. Besides being required for graduation, the test results sometimes directly determine a student’s professional and economic opportunities. This is very much the case with the Korean test. It’s a big deal. The Finnish test is spread over three weeks and takes about 50 hours total to complete. These tests motivates students to learn throughout their career. Schemes have been tried in the US, but they are so watered down that they don’t mean anything.
So in the end, it’s all about setting the bar. Set it high for teachers, and you will have great teachers. Set it high for students, and they will rise to the challenge.
Sign of a good school — are the students engaged and actively thinking, or are they bored?