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?


Anderson, D. L. (2008). Humans using machines, humans as machines: Implications for teaching and learning. Humanities and Technology Review, 27, 1-23.

Baird, C., & Henninger, M. (2011). Serious play, serious problems: Issues with eBook applications. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal, 3(2).

Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond technology: Children’s learning in the age of digital culture. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Cassell, J., & Cramer, M. (2008). High tech or high risk: Moral panics about girls online. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 53-76). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clark, L. S., Demont-Heinrich, C., & Webber, S. (2005). Parents, ICTs, and children’s prospects for success: Interviews along the Digital “Access Rainbow.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(5), 409–426.

Clement, A., & Shade, L. (2000). The access rainbow: Conceptualizing universal access to the information/communication infrastructure. In M. Gurstein (Ed.), Community informatics (pp. 32-51). Hershey, PA: Idea Publishing.

Gutnick, A. L., Robb, M. B., Takeuchi, L., & Kotler, J. (2011). Always connected: The new digital media habits of young children. New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and decoding in the television discourse. Birmingham, UK: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (Eds.), Culture, media, language. London: Hutchinson.

Hampton, K. N., Livio, O., & Sessions, L. F. (2010). The social life of wireless urban spaces: Internet use, social networks, and the public realm. Journal of Communication, 60(4), 701-722. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2010.01510.x

Hargittai, E. (2010). Digital na(t)ives? Variation in Internet skills and uses among members of the “‘Net Generation’.” Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), 92-113.

Hassani, S. N. (2006). Locating digital divides at home, work, and everywhere else. Poetics, 34, 250–272.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd,  d, Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., et al. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. J. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Kafai, Y. B., & Peppler, K. A. (2011). Youth, technology, and DIY: Developing participatory competencies in creative media production. In V. L. Gadsden, S. Wortham, & R. Lukose (Eds.), Youth cultures, language and literacy. Review of research in education (Vol. 34).

Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. (2007). Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 9(4), 671-696.

Marvin, C. (1988). When new technologies were old: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nakamura, L. (2004). Interrogating the digital divide: The political economy of race and commerce in new media. In P. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online: The internet in context (pp. 71-83). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2006). The knowledge gap: Implications of leveling the playing field for low-income and middle-income children. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(2), 176-201.

Niu, G. A. (2008). Techno-Orientalism, nanotechnology, posthumans, and post-posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s science fiction. MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 33(4), 73-96.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.

Seiter, E. (2007). Practicing at home: Computers, pianos, and cultural capital. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 27-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Selwyn, N. (2004). Reconsidering political and popular understandings of the Digital Divide. New Media & Society, 6, 341-362.

Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native–myth and reality. Perspectives, 61(4), 364–379.

Stephenson, N. (1995). The diamond age: Or, a young lady’s illustrated primer. New York: Bantam.

Warschauer, M. (2002). Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide. First Monday, 7(7).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s