Monthly Archives: July 2011

Digital Divide(s) in “The Diamond Age” (Part 3)

In The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Girl’s Illustrated Primer, not all young girls or all Primers are considered or created equal.

Hackworth’s punishment for making his own illegal copy of the Primer is to engineer a new version of the Primer that can be mass produced for hundreds of thousands of four-year-old orphaned Chinese girls under Judge Fang’s supervision.  Seeing as Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona’s copies of the Primer require adult ractors on the backend, the labor force and capital needed to sustain a quarter-million illicit copies could not go undiscovered by Lord Finkle-McGraw.

So Fang orders Hackworth “to make alterations in the Primer so that it is suitable for our requirements – we can make do without those parts of the book that depend heavily on outside ractors, and supply our own ractors in some cases” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 179).  The family components of the Primers, the caregiver ractor/child relationships, are the very parts that the orphans are made to do without.

Within these stripped down Primers, Hackworth devises “a trick” – vaguely making “changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 179-180).  Such is the perilous nature of outsiders alone defining those “unique cultural requirements:”

[He/Judge Fang] squatted so that he could look [her/the Han orphan girl] in the eye and handed her the book.  She was much more interested in the book than in Judge Fang, but she had been taught the proper formalities and bowed and thanked him.  Then she opened it up.  Her eyes got wide.  The book began to talk to her.  To Judge Fang the voice sounded a bit dull, the rhythm of the speech not exactly right.  But the girl didn’t care.  The girl was hooked. (Stephenson, 1995, p. 244)

Though hundreds of orphaned Chinese girls in TDA are granted equal access to Primers – just as New Atlantis/Shanghai girls Nell, Fiona, and Elizabeth are given Primers by seemingly benevolent paternal figures – these adapted, mass-produced interactive books are in crucial ways different from the Primers given to the New Atlantan girls.  Though the Primers that Hackworth engineers for the orphans attempts to address some aspects of one type of “digital divide” – that of one basic degree of access – they exacerbate other key inequalities, such as the lack of personalized scaffolded learning, and they simulate pseudo-emancipation for the nameless young women.

Digital divides and ICTs in transhistorical and multicultural perspective

One can slice the digital “divide” into any number of components (Hargittai, 2010; Hassani, 2006; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007; Selwyn, 2004, 2009; Warschauer, 2002).  The term “digital divide” can address a myriad of disparities and populations depending on who uses it to advance which argument/agenda.  Instead of an access/no-access binary, some have considered access as degrees on a spectrum (Clark, Demont-Heinrich, & Webber, 2005; Clement & Shade, 2000).  The gaps in children’s home and/or school access to digital technology cannot be isolated from the content of that digital material (e.g. online community “walled gardens”); variations in immediate environmental context surrounding that access (e.g. shared usage on slow dial-up in public libraries versus a personal bedroom laptop with a high-speed connection); and social variables such as age, income, gender, race, ethnicity, education, and geography (Buckingham, 2007; Ito et al., 2009).

The incorporation of media and ICTs within institutional education has the potential for both facilitating and undermining participatory culture.  Digital inequalities must be examined within their ecological context and understood with regards to the social dynamics of self and collective efficacy (Hampton, Livio, & Sessions, 2010).  The content of digital material, such as the lack of diverse online avatar options for children, can be a barrier to access in and of itself (Kafai & Peppler, 2011).  Even with hardware and software access being equal, not all children have developed the skills and knowledge to fully participate in civic engagement, can comprehend the opaque influence of media, nor work through the ethical complications that in many ways define the modern Internet (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, & Robison, 2006).

A “scaffolding gap” may create another chasm among young children (often low-income and ethnic-minority) who are less likely to have adult guidance and dialogic support when using the Internet at home (Gutnick, Robb, Takeuchi, & Kotler, 2011; Neuman & Celano, 2006).  Children with special needs are often left out of the discussion of digital inequalities entirely, as the digital playground is in many ways inaccessible for children with disabilities to develop multi-modal literacy skills (Baird & Henninger, 2011).

There is a danger in naturalizing or fetishizing the phrases “digital natives” or “digital immigrants” (Prensky, 2001), which frames immigrant status in a pejorative manner and may downplay the role that experienced adults may have in supporting youth’s early media experiences.  Not all children “grow up” with technology or perceive it as a “natural” part of life – at least not technology in the Western industrialized sense.  Children have rich developmental potential for recognizing invention and becoming innovators on a daily basis, for moving seamlessly between playing in the sand to manipulating digital bits.  Even making the transition from the thick crayon to the thin crayon, and using that technological advancement to create a more fine edged drawing is itself part of children’s process of internalizing and mastering invention and innovation.

Advancing from thick crayons to thin crayons as technological innovation. Courtesy of

It is not enough to focus on the present state of ICTs in education on local, national, and global levels.  We must challenge ourselves to think about what the digital divide(s) looked like before there was a “digital,” (Cassell & Cramer, 2008; Seiter, 2007).  In turn, Stephenson’s book is helpful in provoking discussion of what these ever-evolving inequalities might look like when technology has moved beyond digital into nanotechnology.  Historicizing the relationship between youth and technology when “old technologies were new” (Marvin, 1988) is essential for imagining and preparing for when today’s new technologies will inevitably be old, as in TDA.

The Chinese girls’ use of the limited version Primer in TDA is in stark contrast with the rich origins of moveable type in China, though popular history textbooks attribute the lion’s share of credit to Guttenberg.  Literary scholar Greta Aiyu Niu (2008, p. 78) writes in her commentary on what she terms “techno-Orientalism” in Stephenson’s book, “The fantasy of The Diamond Age erases China’s history of technological innovations.”  Niu defines techno-Orientalism in terms of these complicated and often contradictory dynamics between capitalism and consumption. Techno-Orientalism essentializes the notion of a singular digital divide, removing gradations of the social, ethical, and political (Nakamura, 2004).  In TDA, the Han tribe of Chinese peoples is dependent on reproducing and copying Western ingenuity, and the Chinese girls who receive the Primers are symbiotically-dependent on Nell’s version of the text.

Cover of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. 1995 Viking edition. Highlighting the "mouse army" allegory.

Princess Nell’s conflicted solidarity and sisterhood with her “Mouse Army”

Though the Chinese orphans (or Princess Nell’s “Mouse Army” within the fantasy narrative of the Primer) have access to their own nanotech Primers, the makeup of those Primers and their ultimate purpose exacerbates other political and social inequalities.  This representation of Chinese females and femininity in TDA is enmeshed in discourses of agency, gender, and ethnicity.  China’s “one child” policy of family planning is alluded to as the cause of the girls’ abandonment, possibly perpetuating stereotypes of Chinese girls as unwanted.

Nell, a Caucasian girl, is held up as the ideal user of the Primer, but her progeny do not have similar opportunities to practice and participate.  Like the orphans, she too is an abandoned, impoverished girl.  Primers, rather than biological families, raise Nell and the Chinese girls. However, Nell benefits from Miranda’s personalized instruction while the orphans are treated uniformly.  Writes Niu of the orphans, “In The Diamond Age, though they, too, learn nanotechnology from their primers, not one of the 333,000 prepubescent Chinese girls who empower Nell as their leader is ever named or even tasked with anything other than physical labor” (Niu, 2008, p. 89).  Nell can also “pass” as New Atlantan bourgeois when presented with the opportunity to escape, while the orphans have no options or opportunities.

Nell is their liberator from an enchanted spell, their long sought-after queen who can turn them from allegorical mice into real girls; trapped in limited, meek bodies.  This fable potentially mythologizes Nell as the colonizer within a discourse of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British imperialism.  Niu writes of the Chinese orphans:

Although the unnamed girls study ‘tutorials’ (Stephenson, 1995, p. 461) about nanotechnology in their primers, they are never given the opportunity to engineer anything; indeed their efforts are all for the sake of, or at the behest of, their sovereign leader.  These girls are unindividuated cyborgs whose value lies primarily in their immense numbers, their reverence for authority, and their fanatical devotion to their primers (suggesting a cheeky reference to Mao’s Little Red Book) (Niu, 2008, p. 80).

The reader is supposed to consider Nell the heroine, but what of the individual voices or stories of the girls who ultimately come to her rescue?  I believe that there is room for alternate readings of TDA.  While Niu finds that Stephenson is promoting techno-Orientalism, his presentation also opens a space for oppositional readings (Hall, 1973, 1980) and contradictions that bring rise to debate.

The trouble with “subversion”

One such contradiction that merits further analysis is the way in which TDA handles the topic of “subversion,” both as a plot device and character trait.

The Primer supports “subversion” in the New Atlantan girls, but not in the same way with the orphans.  Lord Finkle-McGraw contracts Hackworth to engineer the original Primer to fill the gaps he perceives in his granddaughter Elizabeth’s education – gaps in exercising social, cultural, and political subversion.  In doing so, he too subverts the educational choices of Elizabeth’s own parents with a heavy handed paternalism: “Finkle-McGraw couldn’t prevent his granddaughter Elizabeth’s parents from sending her to the very schools for which he had lost all respect; he had no right to interfere.  It was his role as grandparent to indulge and give gifts.  But why not give her a gift that would supply her the ingredient missing in those schools” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 81).

Later it becomes clear that the ultimate goal of this planned subversion is actually the recipient of the Primer’s subordinance.  The Primer encourages New Atlantis children to leave the neo-Victorian tribe only to return once they realize “it is, in the end, the best possible tribe” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 365).  While perched from a place of privilege, the subversive pendulum is designed to inevitably swing back.

Digital humanist David Leech Anderson writes on TDA: “It may be something of a dramatic flourish to call this sought after property, ‘subversiveness.’  If we aren’t careful, it could easily be reduced to something no more substantive than a bumper sticker that reads ‘Question authority!’” (Anderson, 2008, p. 15).  Finkle-McGraw defines subversive thinking as the ability to grapple with subtlety and ambiguity.  Stephenson, in presenting this leitmotif in rather contradictory ways, challenges readers to think subversively about “subversion” in TDA itself.

The myriads of proposed solutions for bridging the digital divide(s) often contradict or cancel each other out.  When the economic foundation of the high-tech market is planned obsolescence, each new Primer or piece of digital technology can only temporarily simulate pseudo-emancipation.  “Critical thinking” and “subversion” mean different things to different populations of children – not independent of cultural, racial, and socio-economic background.  The problem with sustaining a univocal definition of subversion is also a commentary on the trouble with conceiving of technological access as an essentially democratizing force.  The experience of the “Mouse Army” is reminiscent of Alan Kay’s early blueprints for the Dynabook and the One Laptop Per Child program.  In terms of sustainability and cultural change, what kind of education does the Primer introduce, and what other forms of indigenous education might it displace?


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Parenting in “The Diamond” (or, the digital) “Age” (Part 2)

Parenting in The Diamond (or the Digital) Age

While TDA may appear to be a book primarily about technology, there’s a compelling argument to be made that it hinges entirely on sociology and family dynamics.  Nearly any discussion of children and media in the book is deeply tied to the social interactions that parents have with their children around or through the technology that stays put or passes through their homes.

Most of the parents and ‘parental figures’ (surrogate parents or sometimes children themselves acting as caregivers) in the book are emotionally and/or physically absent from their children’s lives.  Their media choices and uses reflect this closeness/distance continuum.  These fictional future projections of parenting in the late 21st century invoke reflection upon where we are in the early 21st century and the way families have negotiated their identities in relation to media and technology within and outside the home for hundreds of years.

quality family time, then & now, baby playing with cigarette carton. "RITA & COTY IN 1977 & 2010, Bueno" by Irina Werning (

In the scope of humankind, “leisure time” is a relatively recent construct.  As mortality rates have decreased, due largely in part to technological advances in modern medicine and improved hygiene habits, more people spend time actually being children and parents.  We’ve come a shockingly long way from nomadic parents not expecting their children to live past age ten, to parents of young children concerned about which toys/television/movies/DVDs/books/apps to purchase for their toddler’s use at home.  “Family time” has been continuously redefined, that time consisting of laboring, relaxing, and/or playing together; the “quality” assigned to family time in a secular or religious sense; and taking place not only at home, but any place families go (e.g., within modes of transportation, at the large family picnics that pepper Los Angeles’ public parks on weekends, and in air-conditioned shopping malls globally).

There are many spheres of influence that shape the patterns of media and technology use inside/outside the home, as well as how that relates to textured relationships among families.  This ecological view of child development posits that these spheres are interdependent (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Ecologies of learning with media and technology (Barron, 2004; Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009) also move across time/space and between the communities (e.g., home, school, peers) with which children interact.

Within a convergence culture, in what ways are all kinds of families contributing to how children navigate consuming, creating, and spreading media across their social environments (including family members, friends, and people whom they may never have met in person)?  There are many types of media and differing family configurations within TDA with which to explore this question.  Such permutations of “child/caregiver” units to compare within the text include:

Nell/her biological parents

Nell’s stuffed animals/Nell

Nell/her “surrogate mother-friend-tutor” Miranda

Elizabeth/her biological parents/her biological grandfather Lord Finkle-McGraw

Fiona/her biological father Hackworth

The parentless Chinese orphan girls/Judge Fong and Hackworth

The “Mouse Army” of Chinese orphan girls/Nell

Three topics related to children, parenting, and media/technology nested within the book have external relevance for researchers, educators, policymakers, and families themselves.  These areas are: 1) technologically enabled child rearing, 2) children’s restricted and unrestricted media use, and 3) surrogacy and alternative family media patterns.

Technologically enabled child rearing

We learn early on that Nell is a conceived due to a technological malfunction.  Her working class mother’s secondhand “Freedom Machine” (a euphemism for nanotech birth control) is defective.  The complicated relationship that parents and their future children have with technology begins even before conception (Balsamo, 1996; Davis-Floyd & Dumit, 1998; Taylor, 2008).  Much of the material in TDA and the content of the Primer therein are complex, violent, and dark; full of what one character calls “unreconstructed Grimm Brothers” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 219).  For example, the Primer instructs Nell on how to kill her biological mother Tequila’s abusive boyfriend with a screwdriver and how to defend herself against child molesters.

The Primer is a way for Nell to assert her own identity and agency against the harm and neglect done onto her by her domestic conditions – a way to acknowledge her victimization but denounce a sole status as victim.  For example, the book begins to “bond” with Nell after an incident in which she is verbally and physically abused by her mother’s latest boyfriend/father figure – calling her the C— word and throwing the Primer at her head – to which the book reacts instantaneously:

The book fell to the floor at her feet, open to an illustrated page.  The picture was of a big dark man and a little girl in a cluttered room, the man angrily flinging a book at the little girl’s head.  “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named C—,” the book said.  “My name is Nell,” Nell said.  A tiny disturbance propagated through the grid of letters on the facing page (Stephenson, p. 94).

Nell is not the only child in TDA to be the recipient of emotionally and physically detached parenting.  Adults in the book parent within emotional and physical boundaries, but their parenting also creates and reinforces these boundaries.  For example, Hackworth morally justifies stealing the blueprint of the Primer on behalf of his daughter Fiona: “He was just trying to secure a better place in the world for his descendents, which was every father’s responsibility” (Stephenson, p. 79).  But this paternalism results in Hackworth’s exile, paradoxically worsening Fiona’s emotional stability.  He in turn becomes the ractor in Fiona’s copy of the Primer, though her mother is not privy to this bond:

“Oh, but to Fiona, he has never been gone,” Mrs. Hackworth said. “It is the book, you see, that ractive book.  When John gave it to her, just before he departed, he said that it was magic, and that he would talk to her through it.  I know it’s nonsense, of course, but she really believes that whenever she opens that book, her father reads her a story and even plays with her in an imaginary world, so that she hasn’t really missed him at all.  I haven’t the heart to tell her that it’s nothing more than a computerized media programme” (Stephenson, p. 291).

Sesame Workshop and Nokia Research Center's "Family Story Play" Project (

This father and daughter’s virtual story time comes at a great emotional price.  While families have been able to use communication devices to connect with one another from a distance (not just video chat and the telephone, but handwritten letters as a sort of technology too), objects such as books and toys may soon be conduits for remote interaction as well.  Sesame Workshop and Nokia have been researching and prototyping Skype-like interfaces for children and grandparents to read interactive books together from a physical distance/close virtual proximity, using Elmo as an optional guide (Ballagas et al., 2010).  Physical dollhouses have even become tangible user interfaces for virtual communication (Freed, 2010).  Though the Primer replaces Hackworth and Fiona’s face-to-face interaction, these new technologies are designed to support communication and activities (e.g. far away grandparents supporting young children’s emerging literacy) that might not otherwise take place.

Children’s restricted and unrestricted media use

The norms for what is considered a “proper” amount or type of media use must be considered within specific cultural contexts, as is what is considered “restricted” or “unrestricted” media use, or somewhere in between.  Nell and Harv’s temporary father figure banishes them from the living room while he plays video games, and their mother falls asleep to the TV after returning from nightly overtime shifts as a housekeeper.  The upper-middle class Atlantans in the book exercise more “restrained” usage of media.  TDA illustrates this bias during Hackworth’s handover of Elizabeth’s copy of the Primer to her grandfather Lord Finkle-McGraw and his wrapping of the present with animated nanotech paper:

There was a lull while Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw watched the little scenes; one of the hazards of living in a world filled with mediatrons was that conversations were always being interrupted in this way, and that explained why Atlantans tried to keep mediatronic commodities to a minimum.  Go into a thete’s house, and every object had moving pictures on it, everyone sat around slackjawed, eyes jumping from the bawdy figures cavorting on the mediatronic toilet paper to the big-eyed elves playing tag in the bathroom mirror to… (Stephenson, p. 107-108).

There are class distinctions in being able to ‘opt-out’ of technological overload and distractions.  The mediatronic commodities are cheap, and the simple handmade goods are beyond the means of Nell and Harv’s biological mother.

Though Nell blossoms because she is largely left alone with the Primer, TDA also illustrates some ethical complications of children’s wholly unrestricted media use.  Early in the book, four-year-old Nell experiments with the screen of her home’s M.C. or matter compiler. After Nell grows too big for her crib mattress, she watches her brother Harv summon a larger one through the M.C.  First, she emulates her Mother’s usage of the M.C., and tries to talk to it.  The machine responds: “‘Please secure the permission of an adult,’ […] over and over again.  Now [Nell] knew why Harv always poked at things rather than talking to them.  She poked at the M.C. for a long time until she finally came to the mediaglyphics that Harv had used to choose her mattress” (Stephenson, p. 45).

Just because Nell can observe the interface, operate it, and work around the security setting meant to protect her/the machine/her Mother’s wallet, doesn’t mean that she has the ability to understand the impact of her actions.  After Nell makes individual mattresses for all of her stuffed animal “children,” “much of the room was covered with mattresses, and she thought how fun it would be to have the whole room just be one big mattress, so she made a couple of the very largest size.  Then she made a new mattress for Tequila and another new one for her boyfriend Rog” (Stephenson, p. 46).  Her brother Harv panics upon returning home to the scene and destroys all evidence before their mother arrives home.

This fictional example echoes recent concerns about the ease of young children’s accidental or purposeful in-app purchases while using Apple iPhone or iPad apps that are enabled to automatically make monetary transactions at the push of a button, without the assistance of a parent or guardian (Kang, 2011; Svensson, 2010).  The dexterity with which many children can navigate and workaround parental permissions point to the growing need for formal and informal media literacy education, especially while companies figure out self-regulation and the FCC considers policy reform.  While not the same as, for example, children calling 1-800 numbers from landlines and racking up the bills with a credit card taken covertly from a parent’s wallet, the potential for these automatic purchases combined with the freedoms parents cannot necessarily police necessitates conversations within families about the ethics and consequences of children’s media use (James et al., 2009).

Parental concerns about media effects have a storied history, ranging from media such as early films, comic books, television, digital media (Wartella & Jennings, 2000), and in TDA, nanotech Primers.  Many contemporary parents worry about displacement effects of media (using media instead of face-to-face interaction), replacing the time children spend in conversation with their parents or the time children spend being physically active.  Interestingly, while the majority of parents of children ages 3-10 believe displacement effects are real, only 18% reportedly indicate that their own children spend too much time with digital technology (Takeuchi, 2011).

Of course, “mediated communication” and “face-to-face communication” or “physical activity” are not mutually exclusive.  This is complicated both by physically interactive media such as the Kinect or Wii Fit, but also by media that technically facilitates face-to-face social interaction (e.g. Skype).  Another consideration is the time parents make available to their children for shared media time, and the safety of the environments surrounding children in which to be physically active and/or their ease and ability to access these outlets.

Much of the research on children, parenting, and media has to do with parental mediation of school-age children’s TV use, though less so on other types of media and with younger children.  There are different parental mediation strategies which caregivers employ: co-viewing/joint media engagement (parents watching/reading/playing with their children), instructive mediation (caregivers explaining media content/production for their child’s comprehension) and restrictive mediation (rule setting about duration/frequency/content of media and exercising these rules as reward or punishment) (Valkenburg, Krcmar, Peeters, & Marseille, 1999).  Elizabeth’s parents use restrictive mediation in punishing her for being rude to the servants by taking away her Primer.  Her father explains to Elizabeth’s grandfather, “We can’t let her spend her life between the covers of your magical book, Father.  It is like a little interactive empire, with Elizabeth the empress, issuing all sorts of perfectly bloodcurdling decrees to her obedient subjects.  It’s important to bring her back to reality from time to time, so that she can get some perspective” (Stephenson, p. 293).  Fiona’s mother, watching the exchange between Elizabeth’s father and grandfather unfold, comes to the conclusion that “these girls weren’t any stranger than any other girls, and to blame their behavior on the Primers was to miss the point entirely” (Stephenson, p. 294).  Does the Primer cause altered behaviors, or is the Primer a conduit for the girls’ inherent behavioral tendencies?  The “media effects” debate is presented within TDA but without a definitive answer, as each girl’s experience with the Primer is shaped by her individual learning ecology.

Stephenson presents multiple perspectives on technological and human boundaries around children’s media use, parenting based on generalized perceived media effects on children, and parenting (as well as many other environmental factors) impacting children’s processing of media.

Surrogacy and alternative family media patterns

Thus far, I’ve primarily discussed the biological parents in the TDA, and would like to turn to surrogates and alternative family formations in the novel, and their relationships through shared mediated experiences.  What really makes someone or something a parent, child, or family member?  Nell self-identifies as a “mother” to her stuffed animals, comforting her transitional objects during periods of high fear and anxiety, as she would like to be comforted (Stephenson, p. 125).  Like her biological mother, Nell is an accidental mother (to her toys) due to a technological malfunction as well.  Her mother’s boyfriend at the time going on a rampage, stuffing all of Nell’s toys into the M.C. garbage disposal.  But because the disposal rejects things made by hand, the handmade dolls (also stolen on Nell’s behalf by her brother Harv) survive (Stephenson, p. 69).

Miranda, though she is attracted to outlets for her maternal instincts, is a surrogate mother quite accidentally as well.  Before she becomes a ractor, Miranda is a governess.  [A bit of a non sequitur, but seeing as the steampunk genre is a sort of Victorian revival, imagine that Miranda is a sort of warped Mary Poppins.  As Miranda serves in a corps of ractors dedicated to serving children’s intellectual and personal edification, what if Mary too derived from some skyward corps of nannies?  Mary Poppins comes from unknown origins – what if there were a sisterhood of Mary Poppins’-like governesses, up in the clouds from which Mary descends, in the way that Miranda is dispatched to be a ractive in Nell’s Primer (or I supposed that other Julie Andrews nanny character Maria is in The Sound of Music.)]  Miranda, who leaves the world of Victorian bourgeois governesses, literally takes her carpetbag in another direction, towards a career in racting (after she gets a sort of nanotech ‘plastic surgery’ over one Christmas vacation).

As her life becomes increasingly entwined with Nell’s, Miranda finds it difficult to be detached when interacting with Nell through the primer.  Though her real voice is masked, Miranda stumbles in sentences and her voice gets thick and hoarse when Nell adds the layers of her and her brothers’ domestic abuse to a fable Miranda is narrating.  With the Primer serving as Nell’s confessional, Miranda becomes her intimate, faceless, voiceless confidant.

“What it comes down to,” says Miranda as she starts to realize the precariousness of Nell’s home life, “is that I’m raising someone’s kid for them” (Stephenson, p. 219).  Miranda’s protective instincts collide with the narrative and the real-life action.  As Nell matures, she begins to realize that what she has experienced with the Primer is much more than “media effects,” of media doing onto her, for “she had always felt that there was some essence in the book, something that understood her and even loved her, something that forgave her when she did wrong and appreciated what she did right.” (Stephenson, p. 403).  Nell is comforted by the notion that her Primer isn’t special because of magic or special computer programming, but that it takes the human mind to understand the human mind:

Could it be that the Primer was just a conduit, a technological system that mediated between Nell and some human being who really loved her?  In the end, she knew, this was basically how all ractives worked.  The idea was too alarming to consider it at first, and so she circled around it cautiously, poking at it from different directions, like a cavewoman discovering fire for the first time.  But as she settled in closer, she found that it warmed her and satisfied her, and by the time her mind wandered into sleep, she had become dependent upon it and would not consider going back into the cold and dark place where she had been traveling for so many years (Stephenson, p. 403-404).

Stephenson here likens Nell to “a cavewoman discovering fire for the first time,” drawing a parallel regarding technological wonder and the fulfillment of basic human needs of warmth and love.  He links the maternal with the technological, placing the true innovation not within the device, but within the human heart.


In the my last post on TDA, regarding the various “digital divides” within the book, I’ll spend more time discussing the population of orphaned Chinese girls in the book, recipients of their own Primers and of a highly problematic sort of parental/patriarchal “benevolence” as well.


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Valkenburg, P. M., Krcmar, M., Peeters, A. L., & Marseille, N. M. (1999). Developing a scale to assess three styles of television mediation: “instructive mediation,” “restrictive mediation,” and “social coviewing.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(1), 52–66.

Wartella, E. A., & Jennings, N. (2000). Children and computers: New technology. old concerns. The Future of Children, 10(2), 31–43.

Learning in “The Diamond” (or, the digital) “Age” (Part 1)

The Diamond Age (or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) by Neal Stephenson

It is not written for a child audience, nor is it actually illustrated, and it certainly is not a textbook.  Yet, Neal Stephenson’s 1995 postcyberpunk/steampunk novel The Diamond Age (or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) is an epic envisioning of children, media, and education in an imagined, not-too-distant-future of the late 21st century.


In its most simple terms, TDA is a novel about a book.  Well… about multiple copies of two different versions of a book.  And… calling those various editions “books” doesn’t really do them justice, sort of like how calling the iPad a “computer” feels inadequate.

The “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” as mentioned in the alternate title, is a sort of multimedia handbook for girls ages four and older, with each copy uniquely* tailored to meet the evolving intellectual, emotional, and social needs and interests of the young girl who possesses it (*caveat to come a couple of paragraphs down.)  Stephenson imagines a world in which books are enhanced not merely by digital technology, but rather, molecular nanotechnology.  The Primers straddle the spaces between human and artificial intelligence.  While the Primer is a sort of super computer, on the backend of each book is a human “ractor” (a sort of “interactive actor”) who narrates the stories in the Primer and forges anytime/anywhere “bonds” with the reader:

“As we discussed, [the Primer] sees and hears everything in its vicinity,” Hackworth said.  “At the moment, it’s looking for a small female.  As soon as a little girl picks it up and opens the front cover for the first time, it will imprint that child’s face and voice into its memory […] And thenceforth it will see all events and persons in relation to that girl, using her as a datum from which to chart a psychological terrain, as it were.  Maintenance of that terrain is one of the book’s primary processes.  Whenever the child uses the book, then, it will perform a sort of dynamic mapping from the database onto her particular terrain” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 106).

The narrative of one such Primer, owned by the main protagonist, an impoverished young girl named Nell, unfolds parallel to the course of TDA.  Calling the Primer merely “interactive” does not fully explain its relationship with its reader. The book both shapes and is shaped by Nell’s life.  She comes from a physically and verbally abusive household, living in the slums of Shanghai, in a world in which cultural tribes have replaced nation-states.  Nell comes to possess a copy of the Primer, the spoils of her brother’s latest street assault/robbery.  Nell’s Primer is itself a counterfeit, an illicit copy created for Fiona, daughter of Hackworth, the engineer assigned to design the Primer.  Nell’s brother Harv steals this copy from Hackworth, whose original assignment was to create the Primer for Elizabeth, granddaughter of the wealthy Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw.

In total, 3 copies of the “regular” Primers “bond” with the three eventual classmates – Nell, Fiona, and Elizabeth.  As well, as part of his punishment for making an illegal copy of the original Primer, Hackworth is blackmailed into creating hundreds of thousands of “modified” Primers designed to “bond” with the boats full of orphaned Chinese girls that line the Shanghai coast.  While the orphans have identical Primers that follow Nell’s story instead of reflecting their own individual experiences, each of the three New Atlantan girls has a different relationship with the ractor(s) on the backend of their Primers.  Elizabeth’s experience is rather impersonal, with hundreds of different ractors performing her narrative.  Fiona’s ractor is her father, Hackworth, estranged from his family and in exile for his crime.  Nell’s relationship with her ractor, a young woman and former governess named Miranda who becomes a friend/tutor/mother-figure, forms the emotional stakes that drive the plot of TDA.  Both Nell and Miranda gradually become aware of one another’s existence and (nearly) sacrifice their lives in search of the other.

Because there are many allegorical strands related to youth and media that one could follow throughout the book (setting broad parameters for “media” – including that which is analog, digital, and nanotechnological), I’d like to break my posts on TDA down into three sections, pertaining to the ways

1) literacy,

2) parenting,

and 3) the “digital divide(s)”

manifest in TDA.  I’m also currently working through the outline for a book chapter on children and “convergence culture” (Jenkins, 2006a), and trying to think about how TDA, in employing science fiction ad hoc as children’s media theory, might provide an interesting framework with which to launch into a discussion of these three areas of research (early childhood literacies, family sociology, critical and cultural studies).  I’m also trying to think about how convergence relates to the idea of technological singularity (Kurzweil, 2005), as well as thinking about what is converging (the forms of engagement?) and what is diverging (the range of devices?).


Social context of literacy in a convergence culture

Nell first encounters the Primer at age four, and it accompanies her throughout her teenage years.  It is durable yet portable, offers endless texts and experiences, and has the potential to evolve with each child’s maturation.  In these respects, the iPhone and the iPad have drawn a number of comparisons to the Primer (Balsamo, 2012).  Judging by the increasing amount of school districts outfitting whole classrooms and sometimes replacing written books with iPads all together, these qualities are highly seductive.

This rapid adoption should merit reflection about the context into which this technology is placed.  Many classrooms and most available apps for education in the iTunes store are not taking full advantage of the very qualities that give the iPad an advantage over the imaginary Primer – that it can be passed around and shared, providing both a physically and virtually communal experience.  Certainly, compared to an iPad, a major drawback of the hypothetical Primer would be its almost symbiotic personalization: it cannot be shared, “bond” with more than one person, or have different “user accounts.”  Carte blanc iPad school adoption is frustrating in that while the Primer adapts to scaffold Nell’s development into womanhood, that evolution cannot be automated in the same way for the iPad.  For the technology to reach its maximum potential, considerations must be made for the social context into which it is received.

Generally, the industrialized societies creating and adapting to these tools are going through growing pains, still comparing what technology offers beyond human potential with what needs a human touch (Turkle, 2011).  Can a computer provide scaffolded learning and individualized zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) in the same flexible nuanced way that a human might?  Both the iPad and Primer have intuitive interfaces – touch, voice, geolocation – but Nell’s Primer needs the tutor/friend/mother’s intuition that Miranda provides.  In TDA, not just any human being will do.  Both Fiona and Elizabeth’s Primers have human ractors on the other end, but they are poor mentors who forge inconsistent relationships.  In order to support children’s literacy development, we must also support technical, digital, and new media literacy training for teachers and parents.

Young children’s literacy development and language learning is socially, culturally, and historically contingent (Dyson, 2003; Wohlwend, 2008a). Children learn to use signs and symbol systems to interpret and represent meanings that make sense within their specific lived experiences and cultural contexts (Wertsch, 1991).  One of the main tropes in TDA is that learning is not just about experiences, but about developing an emotional standpoint based upon reflection on those experiences.  Nell learns she must “be ready to learn from sources other than your magic book… In your Primer, you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 282-283).  In practice, this mediation among outside resources is facilitated by collaboration with peers, parents, and teachers in mentor/novice relationships (Gee, 1996) and guided appropriation (Rogoff, 2003).  Any media text children encounter or create with others offers the potential for “co-viewing” or “joint media engagement” – those texts possibly being but not limited to books, television, or video games (Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009; Gutnick, Robb, Takeuchi, & Kotler, 2011; Wilson & Weiss, 1993).  What it means to be traditionally and technologically literate in a convergence culture is a continuously moving target.

Traditional, emerging, and new media literacies

The pace of technological changes makes it difficult to study its effect on child development, which is why it might be increasingly important to study the ways in which children themselves continually translate meanings and ideas between mediums: be it analog paper and clay, digital photography and video, or nanotechnological “smart paper” and movie-like “cines” in TDA.  The Primer presents multiple, multimodal ways to define “literacy.”

Print is certainly central in young children’s literacy development, but can also include symbolic, technological, and multimodal ways of meaning making (Bearne, 2003; Burnett, 2010; Kress, 2003; Willett, 2005).  Gunther Kress argues for pedagogy that embraces the “co-presence” of literacies, and critical thinking about the potentials and limitations for all types of “meaning-making” (Kress, 2003).  Nell lacks any positive formal or informal education from teachers or caregivers.  Before she can read letters, she learns from observation to understand the signs, grammar, and syntax of the icon-based “mediaglyphics” she encounters on screens in her apartment.  “What are letters?” Nell asks her brother, Harv.  “Kinda like mediaglyphics except they’re all black, and they’re tiny, they don’t move, they’re old and boring and really hard to read.  But you can use them to make short words for long words” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 46).

The Primer supports Nell’s staggered attempts at reading text by utilizing audio-visual components when necessary.  For example, in the midst of telling a story about a raven, Nell asks the Primer/Miranda to explain this unknown term.  Immediately, the panels on the pages zoom and pan through and across letters and pictures, situated to connect with Nell’s own fears and emotional waves at that moment.  Miranda uses repetition, verbal praise, and patience, all the while putting the narrative about the raven on pause while she tries different multimedia strategies to improve Nell’s reading comprehension.

Nell’s traditional literacy skill development (reading, writing, and spelling) cannot be separated from her social, emotional, and cultural competency development.  Paradoxically, as learning has the potential to become more individual and customized in the early 21st century, it is also becoming more social, networked, and peer-led (Weigel, James, & Gardner, 2009). In our culture at large, personalized media is co-existing with social media in complex ways (Lévy, 1997).  Critical thinking and reflection skills are necessary to actively participate in an increasingly complex digital media environment (Gee, 2010; Hobbs & Jensen, 2009).  Nell learns that there is an art form to asking questions of her environment – be it interacting with other people in the flesh, or in the way she poses inquiries to the Primer.  The New Media Literacies (NMLs), defined as “a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape” (Jenkins, 2006b), do not displace traditional print literacy or mass media literacy; rather, they expand possible interpretations and creations of texts.  Full participation in culture is increasingly contingent upon mastery of such NMLs as transmedia navigation, performance, play, collective intelligence, and distributed cognition – concepts which Nell grasps through her experiences with the Primer.  Instead of being siloed into a separate “media literacy” curriculum, the NMLs might be incorporated throughout formal and informal educational settings.  The “co-presence” of traditional, emerging, and new media literacies might enable and empower young children of various social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds to be successful in preschool, grade school and beyond (Alper, in press).

Children as media consumers, creators, and distributors

That the only formal feature highlighted in the title of TDA is that the Primer is “illustrated” is a bit misleading.  The Primer does not contain static illustrations in a completed state; rather, it constantly generates alluring visual components that change based on the aspects of the story into which Nell wishes to pause and delve deeper.  While the book is primarily a device for young children’s content reception, there are also opportunities for content production and transaction.  In our world, young children’s identities as media consumers, creators, and distributors are increasingly converging.

Upon escaping a living situation teeming with drug abuse and child molestation, Nell finds refuge among a group of Luddites who create handcrafted goods.  Her new caretakers send Nell to an all-girls school with Fiona and Elizabeth, her attendance subsidized by Elizabeth’s grandfather, unbeknownst to Nell.  A class comparative history lesson – “a three-pronged, parallel examination of the British Empire; pre-Vietnam America; and the modern and ongoing history of New Atlantis” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 313) – features e-book content customization, with a dash of the CD-ROM game Oregon Trail:

The girls actually got to sit at their desks and play a few ractives showing what is was like to live during this time: generally not very nice, even if you selected the option that turned off all the diseases.  At this point, Mrs. Disher stepped in to say, if you thought that was scary, look at how poor people lived in the late twentieth century.  Indeed, after ractives told them about the life of an inner-city Washington, D.C. child during the 1990s, most students had to agree they’d take a workhorse in pre-Victorian England over that any day” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 313).

It is problematic that marginalized voices do not speak in this e-textbook; they are spoken for. The Primer generally reflects a nostalgia genre of Victorian-era books created for bourgeois children’s etiquette and edification.  If iPads are used as such in modern-day classrooms, which voices get included in the textbook?  Just because a textbook is digital does not means that it improves upon its analog counterpart in including ethnically, racially, gendered diverse voices.  Considering that sites such as YouTube and Facebook are largely blocked in elementary and secondary schools, that pathway toward customization in content consumption is blocked as well.

What content does Nell create?  Her voice, thoughts, and physical motions turn the illustrations in the Primer into augmented reality puppetry: “[Nell] picked up the rock and the knife and began to whack them together (actually she was just moving her empty hands in space, but in the illustration Princess Nell’s hands did the same thing)” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 137).  She also creates with the Primer using scratch paper when she needs it, such as when she tries to crack a computational code.  Nell employs systems thinking, mightily defeats enemies, and saves kingdoms with her computer science and engineering prowess.

Does Nell distribute any content through the Primer?  Yes and no.  The Primer is inherently a communication device shared between Nell and Miranda, but the communication is indirect.  The directionality of media sharing among and between cultures is currently undergoing messy and sometimes illogical change in the modern era.  People still talk to each other, and move information through “snail mail,” but sites and services such as Formspring, Twitter, and YouTube introduce new hybrid (both top-down and bottom-up) models of circulation.  Not everyone, especially children, has access to the new tools enabling more informal, instantaneous, and widespread media sharing or “spreading” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, in press, 2012). Nor are young people necessarily prepared to appraise the media they come across on these sites, understand the ethical implications of their ownership and circulation, or negotiate control over the meaning of their media creations.  Nell traffics across global borders, carrying counterfeit cultural goods: in the TDA, this media consumption, creation, and distribution makes her a hero; in another context, this makes her a villain.

The future features of ebooks

Some of the work I have been engaged in alongside Erin Reilly and the Annenberg Innovation Lab concerns prototyping and producing innovative platforms and apps for children’s ebooks.  This work recognizes all of the above: the social nature of literacy development, multiple multimodal literacies, and children using/making/sharing media.  TDA presents design futures for playing with the linearity of reading paths, transmedia storytelling, and augmented reality.

Nell plays with possible linear and non-linear reading paths.  The reading path of a text is “the line along which a text is to be read ‘properly’” (Kress, 2003, p. 50), but those proper norms are subject to design and are not automatic.  Kress (2003, p. 50) writes, “to follow different reading paths is to construct profoundly differing readings, epistemologically speaking.”  Learning how to toggle among, consider, reconsider, and choose possible reading paths is part of Nell’s development of self-regulation and executive function:

[Miranda] found herself reading the same story, except that it was longer and more involved, and it kept backtracking and focusing in on tiny little bits of itself, which then expanded into stories in their own right… [She] could tell that this process of probing and focusing was being directed by the girl.  She had seen this during her governess days.  She knew that on the other end of this connection was a little girl insatiably asking why.  So she put a little gush of enthusiasm into her voice at the beginning of each line, as if she were delighted that the question had been asked (Stephenson, p. 135).

Transitioning between being read to and being a reader, Nell develops a sense of agency: “The Primer didn’t speak to her as often as it used to.  She had found that she could often read the words more quickly than the book spoke them, and so she usually ordered it to be silent” (Stephenson, p. 184).  These gains in literacy are tied to Nell’s intrinsic motivation as well as the adaptation capabilities of the technology.  Nell learns to manage all of her “why” questions.  She comes to know that “if she wanted, she could go back and ask questions about these things later and spend many hours reading about this part of the adventure.  But the important part seemed to be the discussions with Peter [Rabbit] that ended each day’s journey” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 223).  Nell makes active choices in how she multitasks as a reader, figuring out what components deserve her full, split, or deferred attention.

The multimedia features of the Primer open up possibilities for transmedia storytelling and developmentally appropriate authoring tools embedded in stories that scaffold a child’s mastery of literacy. Young children often use performance techniques to practice early literacy (Heath, 1983), “reading to play” while “playing to read” (Wohlwend, 2008b).  Nell’s Primer facilitates transmedia storytelling with fables and folklore, mapping collectively unconscious tropes and Jungian archetypes through artificial intelligence, as described by Hackworth, the Primer’s engineer:

In the old days, writers of children’s books had to map these universals onto concrete symbols familiar to their audience – like Beatrix Potter mapping the Trickster onto Peter Rabbit.  This is a reasonably effective way to do it, especially if the society is homegenous and static, so that all children share similar experiences […]  What my team and I have done here is to abstract that process and develop systems for mapping the universals onto the unique psychological terrain of one child – even as that terrain changes over time (Stephenson, 1995, p. 107).

peter rabbit: carrot thief or computer hacker?

Upon encountering old print books, Nell’s Primer takes on the identity of those texts, and allows Nell to play and perform through the narratives, adapting them to her cultural and emotional interests.  To help students learn resource allocation, designers and educators need to meet students where they are ready to learn, be it with print on a page or assistive technology for supporting wireless Braille reading devices.

TDA also provides a glimpse into the potential for augmented reality features to enhance informal education and science literacy.  Nell’s Primer transforms into an information-rich, high-powered mobile microscope.  In memory of her lost friend Peter Rabbit, Nell decides to plant some carrots, with Primer instructing her on gardening techniques as well as reminding her to dig up a carrot sprout daily to reflect upon the process.  The book simultaneously and cyclically spurs both a need to know and a need to ask in Nell.  The technology is there to support this asking/knowing dynamic – a curiosity that soon grows far beyond her garden:

Nell learned that if she held the Primer above the carrot and stared at a certain page, it would turn into a magic illustration that would grow larger and larger until she could see the tiny little fibers that grew out of the roots, and the one-celled organisms clinging to the fibers, and the mitochondria inside them.  The same trick worked on anything, and she spent many days examining flies’ eyes, bread mold, and blood cells that she got out of her own body by pricking her finger.  She could also go up on hilltops during cold clear nights and use the Primer to see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter (Stephenson, 1995, p. 274-275).


TDA makes it very clear that the Primer is not as magical a tool as it may appear.  For all its nanotechnolgical features and artificial intelligence, social interactions and human communication matter.  Nell, Fiona, and Elizabeth all have very different experiences with the same books.  This allegory for literacy amidst technological upheaval and cultural convergence challenges readers to consider the opportunities and shortcomings of storytelling in any medium: whose stories are being shared with which people and how is this sharing taking place?  Children’s own voices need to be brought to the forefront of this discussion that is being had around them but not always with them concerning the social nature of literacy, different ways to define “literacy,” and the potential for books to invite readers’ authorship.

Next up: Part 2 – the role of parents, caregivers, siblings, and other “companions”; Part 3 – TDA’s complicated relationship with “subversion” and the exacerbation of digital divides.


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