This week’s selection is “The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, by Neal Stephenson.
This 1995 book from American writer Stephenson foreshadowed many of the technologies of today world, or one that may shortly emerge, including, of course, 3D printing.
The novel involves a complex story of a young girl who develops within a world seemingly evolved from ours in the near future based on the exploitation of several key technological developments, including global digital communications, nanotechnology, and 3D printing.
The 3D printing concept in The Diamond Age is different from what we know today. Instead of a device depositing mono-materials in a crude and coarse fashion, Stephenson’s “Matter Compilers” do so on a molecular level. We’ve discussed this concept recently, but if it were possible to do so, you could, with the appropriate 3D design, 3D print almost any conceivable object, including functional items.
That is, if you have the right materials – molecules in the case of The Diamond Age – on hand.
In the book, the Matter Compilers obtain their molecules from a public “Feed”, which, similar to today’s utilities, provides a stream of both energy and molecules that can be used by the countless Matter Compilers to produce any object that’s desired.
These MCs are widely distributed in Stephenson’s vision; people seem to use them as a kind of “basic human needs” service to produce not only clothing and tools but also food.
The book, I believe, might have been triggered in Stephenson’s mind by the earlier release of Eric Drexler’s “Engines of Creation”, which described the potential of nanotechnology. That’s the science of manipulating matter on the atomic level.
The ideas proposed in The Diamond Age are not real, but the vision is so strong that it may motivate researchers of today to consider ways to make them become real. Just as Star Trek inspired many of today’s gadgets and concepts, perhaps The Diamond Age will lead to a manufacturing and making revolution in the future.