Comment on Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age:” Hackworth, Authorship and Philosophy

Subject to change when I reread the book.

IT IS POSSIBLE to conceive of knowledge as reflecting an eternal order, a way things should best be done. Knowledge in this case would be linked to Being, whose permanence would be seen in moral laws, aesthetic standards, and intellectual discipline. Confucian and Victorian mores are of this cloth, their unchanging nature making them conventions attempting to describe the way things truly are.

But another way to think of knowledge is as that which generates change. To this end, knowledge uses us as a machine: our most passionate desires only find completion in it because it seeks and finds more than we ever will. The book uses the metaphor of an orgy to bring this out, but what is notable about the orgy is how mechanical the process itself is, not to mention how it is part of a larger mechanism even. Similarly, the old mores are also machines – not only do they produce like-minded tribe members, but since each tribe uses different nanotech in profusion, the air one breathes is one’s culture.

Between the two great machines of ‘knowledge as being’ and ‘knowledge as becoming’ lies the authentically free human, authentic both in the desire to reach beyond oneself to celestial mechanics, and also in finding and loving those caught in the same predicament.

That’s the core of the book – obviously we can raise questions about many of its contentions, especially specific claims about the consequences of ‘knowledge as becoming.’ I want to turn instead to the issues the end of the book raises (*spoilers ahead*). Those issues can be summarized by one theme: “authorship.”

Nell, the most careful and diligent of the Primer’s readers, exhausts the fairy tales it tells and is encouraged by Hackworth within the book to write her own tale. Thing is, the interactive technology of the book is so powerful that when it has numerous copies linked up to other readers, as well as an author within the book who is joined to a human supercomputer, it literally begins to generate a new tale with Nell as authoress and protagonist in the actual world.

Nell’s heroic authorship makes perfect sense – Hackworth wanted the reader to be free, and consistently emphasized the priority of the human over the mechanical. Thus, the Primer’s purposeful self-dissolution via Turing machine, and the subsequent interaction and rule over other readers when completed.

What is more curious is Hackworth himself. He is brilliant yet is depicted as a bumbling clod who can’t properly interact with other people. “The Diamond Age” approaches the philosophic through him, despite its frequent humiliations of him. He can’t get laid yet is too slow to realize his pants are down half the time (readers of the book know I’m not joking).

Hackworth has two strikes against him from the outset: as a staunch Victorian and brilliant engineer, he may be the embodiment of the two inhuman machines simultaneously. But Finkle-McGraw, despite his wisdom (he sees almost exactly what happened to the three girls), is only a backer. He says he just wants to fund subversives in the discussion with Hollywood. He knows of Hackworth’s background in English literature and skill with artificial intelligence. It is Hackworth who takes the radical step of designing a book that unravels itself in order for users to communicate with each other, and then use that knowledge in a continuing adventure tale to overthrow the world’s tyrannies. It is proper to say Hackworth comprehends fully a world that is mechanical, and that in speaking through his book, the readers who understand him arrive at that comprehension. He, despite all appearances to the contrary, steps beyond his readers into the depth of his vision.

The most pressing argument against the above is his seeming inability to guide his own daughter properly, even though he speaks to her by reading his own book aloud for years. Finkle-McGraw’s observation alone absolves him: the three girls he observed directly turned out just as girls normally do. The Primer liberates through education at the least, thus allowing one to be normal. The state of people within tyranny is otherwise debased; even the best are subject to terrible ironies.

However, Hackworth’s daughter’s coming-of-age is directly precipitated by him. He’s the one who brings her to the interactive theater Dramatis Personae. Judging by his discomfort there, and the fact he knew what his daughter likes/dislikes through the Primer, he went there so she would find her calling. There were no clues about the Alchemist to be had there; Hackworth’s theater experience is self-realization. I realize an argument can be made about the detective work Hackworth is doing before, that the safe reading involves taking the gaps in his immediate recall post-Drummers seriously, but I think Hackworth’s vast amount of knowledge prior trumps it, as well as the fact a father can never be completely honest with a child.

How is someone so firmly in control so bumbling? He can barely handle Dr. X’s plotting and stumbles blindly into every trap put his way by anyone. I think the lack of cunning stems from his concern with a still-greater narrative: he’s not really interacting with the world like the others in the book. He falls into traps because his bumbling allows him to figure out the trap more exactly than avoiding it. Dramatis Personae is where he awakens because that is a world of images. I imagine Hackworth is creating the Seed at the end because he knows at that point the proper users for it – his readers – do exist.

So why isn’t Hackworth Socrates? Socrates seems bumbling and incompetent but is always in command of his words. Hackworth does grow as the novel progresses. If Socrates had written something, would he have grown too? I think the difference here is that Hackworth is a poet, not a philosopher. He loves stories, especially adventures, and has gleaned wisdom from them. He sees people as free inasmuch as they participate in narrative. Technical knowledge – knowing the possibilities of narrative, “poetics” – is Hackworth’s expertise. A philosopher is akin to this, inasmuch as concern with logos defines him. But that is a story for another day.

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