Summer Reading: “The Diamond Age”

I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” on a recommendation by one of my journalism buddies.

There’s a lot of interesting material in the book, ranging from predictions of what the nanotech-enabled world would look like to sociological deconstruction. But the one thing that really pricked my mind was a discussion of what made successful business people: a taste for the subversive.

In the story, a nanotech engineer looks at his upper-middle class existence and wants something better for his daughter. He wants her to be an “equity lord,” or someone who has an ownership stake in one of the big companies that dominate the economy. The only way for her to do this, from the engineer’s analysis, is to get enough pluck to start her own company that might one day be bought out.

The schools of the future, in Stephenson’s imaginary world, are ill-equipped to educate their students on how to be bold, innovative or revolutionary. But the complaint might justifiably be leveled at schools in our very real present day.

Our educational system has both lionized creativity while simultaneously undercutting its foundations. The basics of sentence construction are abandoned in favor of creative writing, giving students an opportunity to imagine but robbing them of the tools to coherently convey their thoughts.

Periodically “reformers” force the pendulum in the opposite direction, advocating a back-to-basics form of fundamentalism. Those basics are offered as an end unto themselves rather than a means of greater flights of fancy.

Even when these two opposing forces are balanced, there are rewards for conformity and punishment for subversive thinking (imagine telling a high school teacher that he or she is wrong about something!).

It’s a wonder any entrepreneurs escape our educational system at all.

I’m hoping that Stephenson’s novel will cover more of his thoughts on what the proper education of would be “equity lords” (entrepreneurs) might be.

Perhaps he will continue in the vein of his Confucian thought. An apt line from Analects might be: “The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up.”