While The Diamond Age can be viewed primarily as a coming-of-age or Bildungsroman central plot centered on a female character, analysis reveals several interconnected themes.
Personal and societal connections
The Diamond Age includes several themes that encompass connections between individuals and between individuals and social groups. All the girls who receive Primers are taught, but Nell is taught primarily by a single individual, Miranda, who forms a strong bond with her student. It is this bond that makes the Primer a transformative agent in Nell's life.
The society depicted in the book is one that values cultural association over "racial" affiliation; some characters (especially Lord Finkle-McGraw) hold the belief that certain cultural systems are naturally superior to others. Cultural affiliation is sufficiently important as to have rendered the nation-state obsolete. Education, the means by which culture is transmitted, assumes primacy over biological ancestry. The Diamond Age also demonstrates the importance of experiencing genuine adversity as part of life experience, without which education cannot achieve its fullest influence in the life of a young person.
The two cultural groups (called "phyles") explored in most detail are the two that flourish in New Atlantis and among certain citizens of the fragmented lands that once constituted mainland China. Both groups turn to the past to seek guidance for the present and future. The New Atlantans, including the Hackworths and the Finkle-McGraws, have adopted the manners and beliefs of Victorian Britain; certain residents of erstwhile China, notably Dr. X and Judge Fang, follow the precepts of Confucius. There are important similarities between the two groups. Both groups are producers and users of the Diamond Age's nanotechnology, and yet both groups revere tradition as it is expressed through comportment, clothing and other relics of the past. For example, New Atlantan John Hackworth wears a custom-made top hat as an emblem of his rank, and Confucian Judge Fang wears a traditional cap embroidered with a unicorn as an emblem of his acuity. Both groups value education, and both groups value an orderly, hierarchical society in which intricate rules of manners and courtesies bind all parties. However, it is the contrast between Victorian and Confucian world views that drives the plot: Victorians are elitist and proprietary while Confucians see the peasant as the most important member of society. This basic difference can also be seen in the way they view the dangers and opportunities of molecular assemblers and artificial intelligence (as applied to child-raising); but also by the way they handle crime and punishment. Confucianism is portrayed in some depth (if somewhat inaccurately), including a quasi-historical re-telling of the Boxer Rebellion. The novel also shows the emergence of new sub-cultures such as the elusive, high-tech CryptNet and the "Drummers," who achieve a state of group mind through drumming, nanotechnology, and group sex. It is sometimes possible for individuals to change their phyle and, as Lord Finkle-McGraw himself notes, taking the oath to become a New Atlantan is often a decision reached by an older, more settled person who has tasted life in some of the wilder, more radical and more chaotic phyles.
Science fiction themes
The Diamond Age depicts many imagined social consequences of nanotechnology, including the construction of artificial islands, nanotechnological warfare, personal defence and the use of versatile matter compilers to freely synthesize food and other basic provisions. The concept of a hive consciousness made of human brains interconnected through nanotechnological messengers is also explored. The novel furthermore introduces encryption and the theory of computation, even though the Church–Turing thesis which is central to the theory of computation is dismissed without even stating it. These topics are conveyed in the form of a fairy-story within the primer, which the reader encounters with the heroine as the novel unfolds. This storyline involves the contemplation of the limits of Turing machines and the nature of artificial intelligence.
Sociology and cultural relativism
The Diamond Age deals extensively with the notion of moral relativism and seems to postulate its failure. The neo-Victorians are clearly represented as technologically, culturally and economically superior to other "phyles" (see Micronation), with the Confucians as close rivals. Although membership to the phyles in most cases is voluntary and not determined by an individual's ancestry or race, the cultural and class hierarchies established in the novel create a clear distinction between the "haves" and the "have-nots." The novel is also notable for a number of incidental descriptions of other cults or groups, such as the Reformed Distributed Republic, which in contrast to the more elaborate "phyles" impose a minimal social protocol. In some cases this protocol only tests the willingness of members to risk their lives, and come to each other's aid by following instructions, with little or no capacity to understand the importance of tasks they undertake in doing so, but a full understanding of the risks.
These cultural differences manifest themselves in the very different effect the copies of the primer have on the girls who use them. The original copies of the primer, created for a young girl of the Victorian phyle, provide for human interaction, even if it is mediated through the "ractive" technology. The Victorian girls who are raised with these copies become fully realized and independent individuals, while an army of Han Chinese girls raised with modified, fully automated clones of the primer with no "parental" human contact become efficient, devoted, but incomplete followers. An allusion early in the book suggests that the cloned primers were intentionally disabled by the Victorian engineer who designed them, perhaps to foster a propensity for the Chinese children who use the clones to follow the leadership of the Victorian girls who use the original copies. When asked to make copies of the Primer,
John Percival Hackworth, almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the theatre, who were better at noticing tricks than most other people in the world. 'While I'm at it, if it pleases the court, I can also' Hackworth said, most obsequiously, 'make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership. But it will take some time.'
However, this difference can also be interpreted as a desirable feature from the point of view of the Confucians, who emphasize duty, honesty and obedience in their training of women. The limits of the authority of officers, more than the degree of visible tactical control, is an emphasis of Confucianism. The text is ambivalent about whether the "Mouse Army" of girls is merely efficient and devoted or also usefully creative. The "Mouse Army" of girls do show a unified creative response in dealing with certain obstacles: attacking the Fist soldiers using repetitive group tactics, and using their bodies to form "rafts" to safely cross the river to New Chusan. Both feats required creative thought transmitted throughout the group, but was only feasible through group action. The Confucian solution of the Primer was communal, while the Victorian was highly individualistic.
The nanotechnology that generates wealth for the Victorian, Nipponese and Hindustani phyles provides software-generated goods fed through a strictly proprietary "feed" line that runs from their central generators into the homes of customers. The three great phyles are engaged in a competition to have their feeds grab the biggest market share in Coastal China. While several basic goods from the feed are provided free of charge, the real wealth to be made from this software remains per-unit software purchases. The principles of intellectual property being sacrosanct in the Victorian phyle, whose wealth derives from it, the violation of intellectual property law gets Hackworth severely condemned and forced into military service to earn back his reputation.
On the Chinese side, the character of Dr. X represents the open-source model of technology and software, and as such he seeks to develop the seed technology that would end the reliance of China on the Western feed lines. The seed would allow Chinese peasants to grow consumer products right out of the ground, which would put an end to the increasing material hardship (one character reports that the interior water table has emptied out, forcing the mass abandonment of Han girls that later form the Mouse Army) that cripples Chinese society. In general, the entire world seems to rely on much scarcer resources to get by – characters travel by foot, roller skates, bicycle or airship on trips that in 20th century terms could be done much faster by automobile and airplane. The availability of "real", non-replicated goods is reserved to only the richest upper class, produced in small communities of skilled craftsmen.
The rest of the population seems economically involved in either household service or as artists and entertainers. As Nell's first employer points out, there exist only the business of things and the business of entertainment, and the business of things is not very interesting when nanotechnology can produce anything.
Failure of artificial intelligence
Many have recognized that a major theme of The Diamond Age involves a distinction between Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human intelligence, with AI being depicted in the novel as having failed in its goal of creating software capable of passing the Turing Test. This contrasts with the predictions of the "Singularity" movement, popularized by Ray Kurzweil, which believes that nanotechnology will lead to AI that surpasses human intelligence.
In the novel, "Artificial Intelligence" has been renamed "pseudo-intelligence" (Hackworth declares the older term to have been "cheeky", meaning presumptuous). That this "pseudo-intelligence" is lacking compared to human intelligence is demonstrated by the fact that humans are able to earn a living as "ractors", interacting with customers in virtual reality entertainments. Since ractors are more expensive than AI, the only reason to use them would be that the customers could tell the difference, implying that in the world of the novel, the marketplace of virtual reality entertainment has become one ongoing Turing Test, and software is continuously failing it.
This theme is woven throughout the story of Nell and her primer. Nell's situation is that a single ractor, Miranda, devotes herself full-time to performing the various roles of Nell's primer. Nell somehow senses that there is a real person behind the virtual reality, and desires to meet that person. This longing drives Nell to conduct a Turing Test on a central character in her primer's story, who conveniently is named the Duke of Turing. The test involves indirect clues hidden in a poem which the Duke does not catch, showing him to be a non-human automaton. After this adventure, the stories in the Primer involve the exploration of castles with more complex situations which all prove, in the end, to also be Turing machines. The exception is the final castle, that of the King Coyote. One paragraph sums up the novel's viewpoint on AI (emphasis added):
Her study of the Cipherers' Market, and particularly of the rule-books used by the cipherers to respond to messages, had taught her that for all its complexity, it too was nothing more than another Turing machine. She had come here to the Castle of King Coyote to see whether the King answered his messages according to Turing-like rules. For if he did, then the entire system — the entire kingdom — the entire Land Beyond — was nothing more than a vast Turing machine. And as she had established when she'd been locked up in the dungeon at Castle Turing, communicating with the mysterious Duke by sending messages on a chain, a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.
When Nell finally meets King Coyote and defeats him by crashing his systems with malicious coding, he reveals to her that the primer is not entirely a Turing machine, but that there are some real people behind it, such as himself. In fact, King Coyote reveals himself to be none other than John Hackworth. And when Nell asks whether there has always been another real person with her from the beginning of her days with the primer, the foster mother she has never met but senses is there, her emotions with regard to the question are evident:
- "And is there..."
Nell stopped reading the Primer for a moment. Her eyes had filled with tears.
"Is there what?" said John's voice from the book.
"Is there another? Another who has been with me during my quest?"
"Yes, there is," John said quietly, after a short pause. "At least I have always sensed that she is here."
The same theme is reinforced by the reactions to the primer of the other girls, Fiona, Elizabeth, and the Chinese orphans:
- Fiona, like Nell, develops a strong emotional bond with her primer's main ractor, which in her case is her father, Hackworth. Despite her beliefs being discouraged by her mother, she never doubts that the entity she communicates with via the primer is her real father, not merely a software facsimile.
- Elizabeth's case is different. It is explicitly stated in a conversation between Carl Hollywood and Elizabeth's grandfather that multiple ractors were used in Elizabeth's case. Elizabeth is unique in that she does not establish a deep relationship with her primer; she is indifferent to it.
- The primers used by the Chinese orphans have no human ractors supplementing them. Instead, since all of the primers are networked in some way, the Chinese girls are able to interact, forming the "mouse army". They also manage to become aware of the existence of "Princess Nell", who becomes the object of their devotion, their Queen. Whether this happens because they sense that Princess Nell is a real person, or whether this is solely due to the machinations of Hackworth, is left unclear.
Stephenson has expressed sympathy for the idea that human consciousness involves quantum effects, as suggested by Roger Penrose. In his later novel Anathem, Stephenson more explicitly depicts this idea.