The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 18 May 2010




Abeles, T.P. (2010), "The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer", On the Horizon, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 153-155.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The future reprised

Neal Stephenson's novel, The Diamond Age, first appeared in 1995. A complete review and a listing of other reviews appear on the web site, complete‐ (www. complete‐ stephenn/diamond.htm (accessed February 13, 2010)). While set in the near future, the novel appears to be more of a morality play dressed up as a Dickensian story set in the future. This review focuses on the center piece, the “Primer”, what, today, might exist as a “netbook” or a tablet struggling to emerge from its conception within the mind of Alan Kay and the researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center back in the 1960s and its “hoped for” applications in today's world of preK‐12 education.

The hardware and software have evolved. As the capabilities grow, they present to the developers new and more sophisticated applications in the structured world of education, K‐16, and in the lives of individuals, globally. With the appearance of the data cloud and social networking the ability to access information or an individual who may “know” changes the very nature of how one can learn and apply knowledge at all levels and any age (Prensky, 2008).

If Stephenson were to write The Diamond Age today, would the “Primer” be different? Probably! But, the tale, itself, in its core, remains timeless. Insights for the reader may, like reading Mark Twain's novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, change as we see the tale through new eyes. Will the books we read today, the movies we watch, or the virtual worlds in which we “play” be experienced similarly? Those writings which are focused on the technology often fade as modern science makes such tools obsolete often before the first edition is sold. Others, where the focus is on humanity, often seem allegorical and the technology, a vehicle for the tale, can be almost inconsequential. Even alien encounters seem more like moral tales dressed in futuristic garb.

Stephenson's The Diamond Age is a speculative piece, one that seems concerned less with the future in which it is set than how we might survive in spite of the social/cultural differences that separate individuals by many dimensions. Set in the future but structured in a Dickensian past, the volume creates a technology driven society where chance access to such technologies allows classes to be bridged by access to knowledge tuned to the time and space of one young child, Nell, and the “illustrated Primer”.

From our vantage point almost a half century since the technology was conceived and almost two decades after the novel was written, the “Primer” still seems to be the old Xerox “Dynabook”, the forerunner of a number of attempts to deliver a market‐acceptable “tablet” which Apple, as of this writing in spring of 2010, hopes will be their latest entrant, the iPad. Stephenson's “Primer” is interactive, part technology and part connectivity with a human “guide” or advisor. The Primer contains “intelligence” which reminds one of what Wendall Wallach and Collin Allen, in their book Moral Machines, call Autonomous Moral Agents (Wallach and Allen, 2009; Abeles, 2010). This is complemented with a human, a mentor. Both, in combination, provide guidance to the person possessing the Primer.

The plot is based on the fact that the original Primer was destined for two young children from the aristocracy, but a copy, through a series of events, ends up in the hands of a child on the wrong side of town, metaphorically speaking. The story basically follows the three girls as they progress through their life and how the Primer provides the vehicle for the disenfranchised to become enfranchised or to escape a certain fate of an individual in her circumstances.

Stephenson extends the metaphor by introducing a “modified” primer for other children which basically “educates” them to accept a role in this class driven global society as “servants”. To that end, he sees “social engineering” as a function of education similar to the biological engineering of individuals in Huxley's Brave New World. This subtext raises the nature/nurture issue, almost in passing by coming down on the side of nurture by implying that social “engineering” or indoctrination can play a dominant role.

This, of course, is what Fredrick II of Prussia believed when he created a mandatory eight years of education in the sensibility of the “State” to counter the educational influence of the Lutheran Church which operated its own educational programs in Prussia, much like that of the Catholic Church. Today we see some of the concerns as China attempts to educate its population but at the same time develop a culture of “innovation” while in the United States, charter schools and private schools are developing, in many cases, because of a perceived set of biases with regards to cultural issues such as religion or language.

As Stephenson's Primer represents the “hope” that such technology can provide the ability of the disenfranchised to transcend their fate in classed society, so is that same hope manifest in a parallel technology developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, OLPC or One Laptop Per Child. This low cost computer has been promoted as a key to being able to bring education to the global poor, particularly in Africa.

Stephenson's Primer points out that education can be learned on the fly, what Marc Prensky calls “just‐in‐time” knowledge as opposed traditional, “just‐in‐case” knowledge (Drexler, 1987)). This raises the question of not only what we learn in schools but how it is delivered. Most technology developed for education, today, maps bricks into clicks whether it is an asynchronous or synchronous discussion system, text or graphic. And, when one travels into virtual worlds, one sees clones of a typical brick space environment for learning.

The uniqueness of the Primer is that it is a mixture of virtual and human support on a continuous basis, throughout life. Education, today, is modular, stepping students through the system in age‐defined cohorts, until some “end” is achieved with intermittent upgrades. A number of educators sense that not only must there be a continual improvement in the knowledge provided through education, but that the structure of the education system, itself must undergo fundamental change. It is both the content and the process. The question that remains unanswered in today's world and in the fiction of The Diamond Age is whether there can be an education system that is not culturally contained.

In fact, the argument, starting with the concerns of Fredrick II of Prussia, is that societies want education to impose its values on the succeeding generations. As geo/political boundaries become almost permeable, there is a growing concern that the current “State” defined cultures may be overwhelmed leading to thoughts of trying to make such boundaries less porous, for a variety of reasons, economic and social. Even in Stephenson's novel, there are groups who choose to eschew participation in the dominant cultural paradigm. In many ways one might label them cultural and/or technological luddites. Stephenson, through following three young ladies as they become educated through their respective Primers, basically shows that there are factors beyond education which determine paths of humans as they are born and grow up. As in Asimov's “Foundation” series which basically points out that the future cannot be predicted, Stephenson's novel presents us with the dilemma: education provides opportunities and, simultaneously, dangers and that even with the hope of “prediction markets”, the future is uncertain.


Abeles, T.P. (2010), “Fast adders: complexity and computer consequences”, On the Horizon, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 958.

Drexler, E. (1987), Engines of Creation, AnchorNew York, NY.

Prensky, M. (2008), “Backup education?”, Education Technology, Vol. 48 No. 1.

Wallach, W. and Allen, C. (2009), Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, Oxford University PressNew York, NY.

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