Esther’s Space- journey through my life

March 17, 2008

Umm, yeah, so the ending

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 8:38 am

The ending of The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was both surprising and appropriate. Stephenson didn’t present any new plot twists that were unbelievable based on the background that he gave us (all 350 pages of it), but wasn’t what I was expecting, either.

There was serious re-affirmation of the importance and usefulness of human interaction and nurturing above any level of education. Stephenson, excuse me, the narrator does not even attempt subtlety in his/her emphatic suggestion of such. Nell goes into the Drummers’ lair to save her mother, and the mouse army is an obvious illustration of the failure of a computer (or basic Turing machine, or a television, for that matter) to raise a child.

Is there anything positive about technology or the future in this novel?

This question has been plaguing me throughout the novel.  While there is a great deal of technology in Stephenson’s depiction of the future, it all comes with it’s own, very real, failings and drawbacks.

It seems that we end the novel on the image of the triumph of human emotion.  Nell has battled her way across a number of obstacles and outsmarted every computer she has come across.  But her final, and most difficult task, is saving the person that she loves most in the world, her ‘mother.’  In saving Miranda, Nell is overcoming the power of the information network that the Drummers create through sharing nanobytes through copulation.  It seems that much of this could have been avoided if the nanobytes never existed, but, if the Drummers and their information network didn’t exist, I don’t know that Nell would really have had the primer, or at least been able to find Miranda.  So, Stephenson doesn’t seem to be passing judgment on the goodness or badness of technology in relation to other ways of living.  So what is he commenting on?  There is much to be said about ethnic relations and humanity.  But both of those seem odd as the main focus of a futuristic novel.  Perhaps this is representative of the fact that the future will be so different, that we cannot even comprehend it yet.

I’m sorry this post doesn’t seem to have much of a point.  I simply don’t know what to do with the end of the novel.  What does it all mean?  It all gets very fanciful and science-fiction-esque as the novel wraps up, but in the end affirms the power of humanity over any sort of technology.  But it doesn’t perform this affirmation subtlety or ‘by accident,’ it is  a very calculated and didactic theme.   Argh, this is so frustrating.

I guess that I can comment on the Turing Machine.  I enjoyed Eva’s interactions with one so much that I was inspired to seek out my own Turing Machine.  The conversation got old very quickly, however, especially after I told the machine that it ‘wasn’t making very much sense’ and it responded by saying, “I’m not supposed to, I’m a woman.”  It is clear to me that Turing Machines, as they were developed are a failure.  They never reach the level of consciousness that Helen does in Galatea 2.2.   According to this website, Turing Machines were first described in 1937.  And, if my understanding holds, they have pretty much been proven handy-dandy for things like computing numbers, but not as conversation partners.  So, this makes me wonder why, why, why, why does Stephenson use them so heavily in his novel?  He pairs them, basic computing functions, with innovative and fore-thinking advances in technology.  Perhaps their relative antiquity is meant to reduce all of technology to a basic Turing Machine, making it conquerable?  It hurts my brain.

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1 Comment »

  1. Hi Esther–

    I’m not sure I quite understand Stephenson’s use of Turing Machines either. But, to me, it seems that Princess Nell’s time at Castle Turing coincides with Nell’s trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing in her life (it is right before she goes to Madame Ping’s and before she encounters the Fists).

    Stephenson writes, “…with steadfast patience, Princess Nell resolved these bugs and made the mechanical Duke into her devoted servant” (350). That reminds me of the Primer. I think it may mark Nell moving from being a user of the Primer into manipulating it for her own cause.

    By the way, the person who invented the Eliza Turing Machine passed away recently. Apparently, in later years, he began to criticize the artificial intelligence community. Here’s the article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/world/europe/13weizenbaum.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Joseph+Weizenbaum&st=nyt&oref=slogin.

    -Eva

    Comment by Eva — March 17, 2008 @ 5:22 pm


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