Hugh Reviews Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Or, more precisely: Hugh Reviews the Critique of Institutionalised Education in Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

a-young-ladies-illustrated-primer-copyI’ve recently been listening to this podcast on politics and science fiction by Courtney Brown (featuring various of his students).* In the class on Diamond Age, one important point seems to be constantly on the edge of the discussion, never quite breaking through. The discussion centres, understandably enough, on the Primer, the value systems and institutions of the various phyles, and the personalities of Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona. Much is made of the differences in the education received by the three girls and the Mouse Army, but what seems to be to be one the central ideas of the novel is always tantalisingly beyond reach.

Very early in the novel Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw have a conversation in which Finkle-McGraw asserts that the Neo Victorian phyle’s brightest citizens have come exclusively from outside it, having been raised in other, less disciplined phyles and taken the oath as adults.** He decries the educational institutions of his phyle as being incapable of raising children to reach their full potential. He speaks, euphemistically, of life being ‘interesting’. ‘Full of adversity’ is what he means. This is why the Primer is created in the first place; it’s an attempt to create a mechanism whereby a child can be raised simultaneously within a culture and outside of it. And, of course, it doesn’t work.

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

The only girl (leaving aside the Mouse Army for the moment) who truly exemplifies the desired outcomes of the Primer is Nell, who lives the first few years of her life outside of the Neo Victorian phyle, in a position of extreme adversity. Even when she is adopted by the Vickies, her life is far from average; she remains an introverted outsider, cultivating only a few close relationships, all of them with individuals who’s worldviews (and lives in general) Finkle-MGraw would no-doubt describe as ‘interesting’. In short, she isn’t raised within the institutions that the Primer was intended to side step. Elizabeth and Fiona both have experiences more benign than Nell’s. Fiona, certainly experiences her share of adversity, albeit packaged in the repressed bubble-wrap of the Neo Victorians, and her father ensures that she develops a worldview a little more complex than the average Vicky teenager, but the Primer is not quite as central in her life as it is in Nell’s, and this tells in the end. Of course the personality differences play their part, as does the variability of the ractors backing the Primer, but this is all dealt with pretty clearly in the novel itself.

The lack of ractors behind the Primers of the Mouse Army is also a point made clear in the novel, and it is, in itself, an analogy for the cultural institutions with which the work is largely concerned. Courtney Brown’s discussion group deals well with the individualist/collectivist differences between Western and Eastern culture, so I won’t go into that except to say that both Nell and the Mouse Army attain, in a culturally dependent way, the ultimate benefit of the Primer; Nell leads an interesting life to become a strong and capable individual and the Mouse Army experience a rigorously homogenised upbringing to become a perfectly integrated collective. It takes both successes to form their breakaway new phyle. What is note-worthy throughout is that in all cases the primer serves an amplifying function by facilitating a more efficient transmission of the institutional memes of each phyle. It is dependent upon, not independent of, the wider upbringing each girl receives. This is diametrically opposed to Finkle-McGraw’s original intent.

What Stephenson seems to be saying is that learning happens inside memetic institutions and that it can’t be removed from those institutions without the learner actually being removed (physically, socially, philosophically) from those institutions, in which case the learning occurs inside a whole other set of institutions. In this way, the strength of Nell’s position is due to (beside any personality- and intellect-based advantages) the experience of living within multiple social institutions, each imposing their own shadow on the learning she receives both from the Primer and from the larger world around her.

* I recommend it, by the way, to anyone particularly interested in either field.

** This idea is revisited later in the story when Carl Hollywood joins the phyle.

Concept-map image source: Dr Beat A Schwendimann

Hugh Reviews All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

“This is as story about the rise of the machines” is the opening salvo of each of the three episodes in this 2011 BBC mini-series, but it is not about the development of technology itself, or our increased integration with, and reliance upon, machines in everyday life, it goes a layer deeper than that; into the very way we perceive the world. From ecology to politics to counter culture, this documentary explores a fundamental paradigm shift in 20th century Western thought.

Utopian ideals of various form are a key theme to the series, and serve as the primary focus to the first episode; a wandering examination of the links between Ayn Rand and Silicon Valley. The logical train of the episode jumps constantly between the two timelines, including original footage, later interviews with some of Rand’s inner circle, and reflections on Randian thought by individuals involved in the Silicon Valley boom. This episode sets the tone of the series both conceptually and aesthetically, laying the foundation for a building designed by M. C. Escher and built by automatons and slave labour.

Self-organising systems creating a world free form hierarchy, a utopia devoid of political control of any kind, this is the egalitarian ideal of Silicon Valley in the ’90s, and of Ayn Rand in the ’50s. It is an idea that will be put to the test by the counter culture communes of the ’60s, and shown to fail in our misguided views of the ecosystems around us in the ’70s. And it is an idea that is born, not of human-, but of machine-organisational systems. The struggle between idealism and pragmatism becomes, in these films, a struggle between the perfection of machine intelligence and the flawed hierarchy of political systems, a theme which transmutes seamlessly into a critique of the Byzantine relationship between the state and a free market.

Footage in the films is drawn from many eras, from the ’50s through to modern day, most of it old enough to lend the films a scratchy world-of-the-past aesthetic that creates a detached feeling -heightened by glitchy, inelligant edits that seem to belong in another era- that this is all something that happened to a world divorced from this one, even as the insights of the narrator force you to come to terms with the fact that what is happening in the films has had a string of follow-on consequences in the world around you, and is, in fact, continuing to happen unabated.

The greatest triumph of this series is the web it weaves; a map of the territory so detailed that is seems to become the territory itself. Nothing is left unlinked, these three rambling stories tie together a beautiful and complex and marvelously chaotic picture of a system that is not a system but rather an inter-meshing of countless systems so vast and convoluted that to understand it fully would be to dive headlong into the maw of madness.

Verdict: Disquieting, haunting, and breathtaking. This series forces us to confront, in a very intimate fashion, the idea that no ideal, especially the ideal of a society in balance, can ever be achieved. And it manages an eloquent, poetically ironic, and damning critique of the power- and money-hungry individuals and organisations that are holding the rest of the world to ransom and have driven us, again and again, into situations from which they have extricated themselves without harm, whilst billions suffer. 4.5 impossible utopian dreams out of 5.