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

  1. What a great article! An fascinating parallel to TDA that shows how sci-fi is not that sci-fi. Thank you.

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