Book Review: The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson. The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995).

In Four Futures Peter Frase poses, as a thought experiment, an “anti-Star Trek”: a world that shares the same technologies as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s post-scarcity communist society, but in which those technologies of abundance are enclosed with “intellectual property” barriers so that capitalists can continue to live off the rents of artificial scarcity.

“…[I]magine that unlike Star Trek, we don’t all have access to our own replicators. And that in order to get access to a replicator, you would have to buy one from a company that licenses the right to use it. You can’t get someone to give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license and get them in legal trouble.

What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. Captain Jean-Luc Picard customarily walks to the replicator and requests “tea, Earl Grey, hot.” But his anti-Star Trek counterpart would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea.”

In such a world, earning the money to pay for the things will be a problem, since there is no need for labor to actually make anything. What remaining work there is will be a small pool of intensely competed-for jobs designing stuff, some amount of guard labor enforcing “intellectual property” against piracy and protecting the accumulated property of the rich, and an odd assortment of work in household service or hand-crafting luxury goods for those in the propertied classes who value the status symbolism entailed in such things.

This is the world of The Diamond Age. In Stephenson’s medium-term future, Star Trek’s matter-energy replicators are a reality (well, the food replication is considerably well below Star Trek standards). A world of plentiful sustenance for all, without money, is technologically feasible. But there the similarity ends.

The story is set at some indefinite point in the mid-21st century—presumably somewhere around the 2060s or so, given that a quite old lady reminisces about being a thrasher in the ’90s.

The world in this future is governed by the international order that emerged from a period of chaos—the Interregnum—following the collapse of most major nation-states that occurred when encrypted currencies starved them of tax revenue. The basic unit of organization is the phyle—a deterritorialized, networked opt-in community with associated support platforms, which is based on some shared point of affinity like ethnicity, ideology or religion.

The first phyle to emerge from the Interregnum was the First Distributed Republic, apparently an entirely pragmatic, non-ideological platform whose chief purpose—like the lodges in Poul Anderson’s Northwestern Federation (Orion Shall Rise)—was to keep the lights on and the trash picked up. By the time of the story, there are many scores of phyles. The largest and richest are the neo-Victorians (recruited largely from the Anglosphere) and the Nipponese, both governed by an intensively work-oriented and capitalistic ethos and making money through nanotech and other forms of engineering and design. The others—Mormons, Israelis, Parsis, Boers, Ashanti, Hindustani, Sendero Luminoso, etc., etc.—range widely in size. CryptNet is a phyle governed by a pirate ideology, and classified somewhere between subversive and terrorist by the mainstream phyles and their international order.

Depending on their size and wealth, the various phyles maintain territorial enclaves ranging in size from city-states to clusters of a few buildings in cities around the world, with the largest and most widely proliferated belonging to the neo-Victorians and Nipponese for obvious reasons.

Given the existence of technologies of abundance, the profitability of neo-Victorian and Nipponese industry obviously depends on patents and copyrights. And the post-scarcity potential of matter-energy replicators—“matter compilers”—is limited by the Feed. Feeds are long-distance pipelines of various volumes transferring feed stocks of assorted atoms to supply mater compilers. A Feed, in turn, is supplied by a Source—a facility which uses nanotech membranes and other nano-filtering mechanisms to sort out the various elements from seawater and air and store them in separate holding tanks. The major Sources are located in, and operated by, enclaves of the most technically advanced phyles.

The combination of “intellectual property” and the dependence of matter compilers on the Feed severely hobbles the potential for abundance. Some basic minimum of essential life support—fabricated staple foods, clothing, blankets—is available for free from public matter compilers. Everything else has a price, often steep. The “thetes”—a large underclass of people, perhaps a majority of the Earth’s population, unaffiliated with any phyle—stay alive through a combination of casual labor for members of the rich phyles and access to free stuff from the MCs. A considerable burden of high-interest debt, enforced in the last resort by workhouses for defaulters, is apparently the norm among this population.

This system of artificial scarcity is maintained through an international regime called the Common Economic Protocol (CEP). The CEP is enforced by the joint military forces of Protocol Enforcement. Constable Moore, himself Scottish, is a retired Brigadier who served with the Second Brigade of the Third Division of the First Protocol Enforcement Expeditionary Force—largely recruited from the American, British, Ulster Protestant and Uitlander lumpenproletariat, and other thetes of the Anglosphere. Mention is also made of a Nipponese division. The primary purpose of Protocol Enforcement is to enforce “intellectual property” law and secure the Feeds against attack from disgruntled local populations in the territories they pass through.

Although David De Ugarte‘s adoption of the term “phyle” for neo-Venetian platforms like the Las Indias Group was obviously an homage to The Diamond Age, the capitalist phyles in the story are nothing like De Ugarte’s vision of networked platforms incubating cooperative enterprises for commons-based peer production. The neo-Victorians, the only phyle whose internal workings are described in much detail, adhere to a social regime based—as their name suggests—on intense social hierarchy and strict sexual mores. The majority of their members are salaried laborers in the engineering firms like Machine-Phase Systems Limited and Imperial Tectonics Limited that produce most of the phyle’s income. The phyle itself is a giant corporation governed by “Equity Lords” with ownership stakes of various sizes (earl-level, duke-level, and so forth).

The main geographic setting of the story is the southern coast of China—the coastal city-states and the neo-Victorian clave of New Atlantis—along with the regional successor states of the Chinese interior. The relationship Stephenson depicts between the capitalist phyles, Protocol Enforcement and the various Chinese states is reminiscent—deliberately so, obviously—of the era of the Open Door and gunboat diplomacy, with the Rape of Nanking thrown in for good measure.

At the time of the story, the disemployment of hundreds of millions of peasants in the Chinese interior by newly developed synthetic rice from the MCs has resulted in a radical uprising—the Fists of Righteous Harmony—obviously based on the Boxer Rebellion. Peasant armies are marching southward, preparing to invade the coastal city-states and phyles, and burning Feeds along the way. Protocol Enforcement is fighting a losing war against them and gradually retreating southward.

Meanwhile, a coalition of CryptNet, other dissident phyles, and local mini-states allied with the Fists is at work developing a genuine post-scarcity alternative to the Feed, which will destroy the material foundation of the CEP’s global order. This rival technology—the Seed—will use self-assembling nanotech to compile food, tools and goods of all kinds from ambient matter on-site, independently of Feed lines.

The various subplots of the novel involve, directly or indirectly, the complex intrigues between New Atlantis and Protocol Enforcement, which are trying to thwart completion of the Seed, and the coalition struggling to complete it. Central to the latter coalition is the Celestial Kingdom, a city-state in the Greater Shanghai area governed by a caste of Mandarins with a Confucian ideology. Their leadership sees the Seed, a producer-centered technology amenable to village economy, as a way to restore the dignity of the peasantry and create an independent society with an organic social order independent of the CEP’s international order.

The attitude of the capitalist phyles and Protocol Enforcement towards the Seed is, understandably, one of revulsion. John Hackworth, an artifex (senior engineer) in one of the New Atlantan nanotech firms, describes it from his point of view:

“CryptNet’s true desire is the Seed—a technology that, in their diabolical scheme, will one day supplant the Feed, upon which our society and many others are founded. Protocol, to us, has brought prosperity and Peace—to CryptNet, however, it is a contemptible system of oppression. They believe that information has an almost mystical power of free flow and self-replication, as water seeks its own level or sparks fly upward…. It is their view that one day, instead of Feeds terminating in matter compilers, we will have Seeds that, sown on the earth, will sprout up into houses, hamburgers, spaceships, and books—that the Seed will develop inevitably from the Feed, and that upoin it will be founded a more highly evolved society….

Of course, it can’t be allowed—the Feed is not a system of control and oppression, as CryptNet would maintain. It is the only way order can be maintained in modern society—if everyone possessed a Seed, anyone could produce weapons whose destrucive power rivalled that of… nuclear weapons. This is why Protocol Enforcement takes such a dim view of CryptNet’s activities.”

The real reason for his horror—of course—is that the Seed would “dissolve the foundations of New Atlantis and Nippon and all of the societies that had grown up around the concept of a centralized, hierarchical Feed.” More specifically it would, by enabling people to meet all their needs for free and without limit or permission, destroy the wealth of those who lived by claiming ownership over the right to use ideas.

The Mandarins of the Celestial Kingdom, on the other hand, envisioned a high-tech neo-Confucian order in a China “freed from the yoke of the foreign Feed,” in “the coming Age of the Seed.”

“Peasants tended their fields and paddies, and even in times of drought and flood, the earth brought forth a rich harvest: food, of course, but many unfamiliar plants too, fruits that could be made into medicines, bamboo a thousand times stronger than natural varieties, trees that produced synthetic rubber and pellets of clean safe fuel. In an orderly procession the suntanned farmers brought their proceeds to great markets in clean cities free of cholera and strife, where all of the young people were respectful and dutiful scholars and all of the elders were honored and cared for.”

The book ends, as the victorious Fists surge through the coastal claves, with the destruction of the near-complete design for the Seed. The clear implication is that, absent any alternative to the Feed, the Fists’ uprising will collapse and the hegemony of the CEP will reassert itself over China. At the same time there is also a hint—but perhaps this is just my wishful thinking—that the setback to development of the Seed is only a temporary postponement.

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