Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson


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Science Fiction is something of a didactic literature, keeping readers up-to-date with the latest advances in science and technology and offering a vision of what might be possible in our near and far-flung futures. But The Diamond Age is didactic in a literal way. A teaching primer is tied into the narrative arc of the book. Not only is the book a bildungsroman—Nell grows up and out of a life of abuse at the hands of her mother’s degenerate boyfriend, Bud—but Nell’s development comes as a result of an interactive teaching primer aided by a ractor, a virtual teacher that takes on roles of personalities in the book to better interact and instruct the reader.

When I first read this book, I thought the interactive primer was the future of education. I wished that I could have had a book that analyzed my social and cognitive abilities and constructed lessons tailored to my needs. Perhaps AI-enhanced primer-based learning will be the future of education, but if it is, it is simultaneously part of the past’s conception of education in sci-fi.


Stephenson isn’t the first sci-fi writer to consider an interactive teaching module. Orson Scott Card had Ender learn about his own psychology on a personal computer in Ender’s Game, and that was the early ‘80s. Before that, Philip K. Dick considered the future of education would consist of AI historic personalities as ideal teachers. Computer intelligence is patient, can have complete knowledge of all subjects, and is unbiased, not given to paying more attention to either sex or to gifted or non-gifted students or to wealthy or non-wealthy students. It might sound odd to question a teacher that pays undue attention to not especially clever students, but this sort of thing is encouraged in public school systems, where teachers are supposed to aim to the middle, since gifted students will supposedly excel no matter what instruction they do or do not receive and students at the bottom end of the curve are often on their own unalterable trajectory. But consider learning civics from Abraham Lincoln, physics from Albert Einstein, economics from Adam Smith. Do better teachers exist than the geniuses of history? Still, Dick was just playing with the genre's megatext. Isaac Asimov’s robots with their positronic brains functioned as leaders and teachers and before Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt conceived of a computer as governmental authority and archive of all information in The World of Null-A.

A.E. Van Vogt et al aside, Stephenson’s idea is worth considering because of its scale and because we currently aren’t using our technology all that well. The primer is a copyable program. The hardware is the expensive part, but something like an iPad or Galaxy would perform more than adequately as host to an interactive teaching primer, especially since electronic devices are nearly ubiquitous, at least in the first world. It wouldn’t be all that hard to give students a series of learning tasks that they can complete for credit toward various learning goals. With instruction on a handheld device, oversight is easy enough. Teachers can see who completes their work and who falls behind. And with lessons at students’ fingertips, physical schools can be done away with, saving enormous sums. Rather than providing the maintenance for school buildings, students can receive a per diem for groceries. Instead of paying out large sums for effete administration and teachers-as-babysitters, students can receive funding for educational trips and research materials. But these are pipe-dreams. In the US at least, the education system exists more to give the 3.2 million educators a salary than to educate students.

And Stephenson’s primer in The Diamond Age isn’t a teaching tool that most people would want students to adopt. Why? Because the primer’s function is to guide students in resisting conformity, in recognizing the shortcomings of popularly accepted social norms. Though the primer isn’t a reality, not even a quarter century after The Diamond Age’s publication, science fiction does talk back to power. SF teaches us skepticism of authority. It teaches us how to question what we’re told, and it teaches mathematical and astrophysical concepts while it’s at it.

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