Primer-Prime: Re-Reading the Diamond Age

Dan Steward is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department.


The Diamond Age by Neal StephensonRe-Reading Matters. I relish each new book I open, but I cherish all of the old books that I never close. These days, a particularly cherished book is Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. When first I read this book, in the closing years of the 20th century, readers still browsed through shelves in book stores. (The commercial behemoth we know as amazon.com only went online the year that Stephenson published his book.) I spent happy hours browsing, drawn often to new books of genre fiction. Strongly attracted to science fiction and fantasy, I remember my delight to find new work from the author of Snow Crash. Stephenson, who spent some of his childhood here in Champaign-Urbana, was clearly a cyberpunk/steampunk visionary like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. The dot-com boom was just bubbling, the *nets re-weaving into a shimmering and GUI web, but authors like these were already looking past the cyberspaces (a term coined by Gibson) of the dawning digital age…

The Diamond Age glimmers as a not-too-distant future in which our Earthly cultures have been transformed by nanotechnology. (Drexler’s Engines of Creation was about a decade old when Stephenson’s book appeared, but the idea of a human-built world compiled from building blocks at the atomic or molecular scale has been kicking around since Richard Feynman joked about “plenty of room at the bottom” some decades before.) It is a world of marvelous gadgets, from vast airships with diamond skins strong enough to support a vacuum (no need of hydrogen or helium to be lighter than air), to tiny air-born nanobots swarming around and surveilling the world (the mite-y drones of the toner wars), to “chevalines” (robotic horses that fold into lightweight suitcase-sized packages), to “smart paper” comprising “a network of infinitesimal computers sandwiched between mediatrons” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 64). (A mediatron itself being a thin, pixelated film looking and working much like the screens of our iPads.) And beyond the meso-scale gadgetry, this is a world of fine-grained terra-forming on a macro-scale. With a jumbo source (for the flow of building blocks) and a start matter compiler (to assemble the pieces), “geotects could make sure that every new piece of land possessed the charms of Frisco, the strategic location of Manhattan, the feng-shui of Hong Kong, [and] the dreary but obligatory Lebensraum of L.A.” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 19).

The book (almost) opens with the emergence of a new island—a birthday present fit for (and given to) a princess—off the coast of Shanghai, and much of the action unfolds in the environs of Atlantis/Shanghai. In this world, both physical and political geography are somewhat fluid. The Shanghai of the Chinese Coastal Republic is situated between the New Atlantis of the sea and the ancient Celestial Kingdom of the interior. It sits within the tensions of many cultures, but especially those of the neo-Victorian power to the East and the Confucian power to the West. Our nation-state system is in decline in this world—territory, after all, is no longer quite the scarce resource it once was—but cultural aspects of various nations remain strong.

And it was this, more than the gadgetry, that most rewarded my early reading of the book. For it presages a world in which the forces of production are yielding an enormous social/economic surplus: The last instance kicked very far down the road indeed. But the relations of production still take on recognizable forms. When we are making our own history, it seems, our past is one of those circumstances not quite of our own choosing. What else can we do? Both the American and French revolutionaries drew heavily upon the stories and histories of the Roman Republic. Some in the Coastal Republic draw upon Confucian traditions as old as any traditions of Rome, and the New Atlantans draw heavily upon far more recent memes of Victorian England. Many societies (or “tribes,” “phyles,” or “claves”) of this (hypothetical) era are more-or-less continuous with those of our own (historical) eras. A neo-Victorian walking through the Coastal Republic might see “Ashantis, Kurds, Armenians, Navajos, Tibetans, Senderos, Mormons, Jesuits, Lapps, Pathans, Tutsis, the First Distributed Republic and its innumerable offshoots, Heartlanders, Irish, and one or two local CryptNet cells” (Stephenson [1995] 2008: 490). This list is just a sampler of the global gallimaufry of peoples in the Diamond Age. Some of these communities are coenobitic, others are utterly secular. Some of these are synthetic phyles that embrace their own social construction, others are recognizable projections from ancient histories. But the rituals, practices, artifacts, and institutions that hold communities together, the forms of social solidarity, are so many memes circulating among humanity. Sometimes cultures are coherent, sometimes not. The software khans of North America crafted a very buggy First Distributed Republic, a network of splitters, and we see signs of desperate experimentation among the nodes of the Reformed Distributed Republic. (This is not a future in which to find a dominating U.S.A.) But even the most successful of synthetic phyles, the New Atlantans, can use some tweaking. And this gives rise to new narratives, new stories, new histories…

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson Word CloudOn a brand new island in the East China Sea, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw converses with John Percival Hackworth. Their talk meanders from Wordsworth to schooling to pseudo-intelligence (what we call artificial intelligence) to career paths, for this is also an interview: The equity lord is testing his suspicion that this artifex is right for a special project. Hackworth passes the test, and soon is crafting the primer, a “propaedeutic enchiridion” (Stephenson [1995] 2008:184) for a young lady of New Atlantis. A book like no other, but a digital object that might be endlessly reproduced (recompiled in this case), this pseudo-intelligent artifact is also a prototype for a new model of education. Imprinting itself upon one young girl, the primer grows with her, reading (itself) to her, educating her, guarding her (and itself), changing literary styles as she grows, bringing appropriate characters and adventures into the foreground as (and when) appropriate, and patiently enduring (indeed, rewarding) endless questioning and re-reading of text and world. The Diamond Age is a book of many stories, but primarily of Nell and her primer, and the cascade of strange happenings that flow to-and-from their meeting. For Nell was not born a Vicky, but instead a “thete” girl (with no tribe) from the ghetto of Enchantment in the Leased Territories, and it is the primer that entangles her in the epochal struggles unfolding around Shanghai.

Coming of age, growing from girl to woman, Nell has adventures within and without the primer. Her tuition demands cleverness and rewards imagination, and she cultivates a scientific (but humane) habitus as she works her way through realms of faerie in her interactive and gamified primer. Coding and crypting, questing and questioning, Nell puzzles her way through test after test—including more than a few Turing tests. And in time she comes to understand that the primer is not merely an artifact, but a bridge to other very real intelligences and personalities in the world. Her precocious blend of curiosity, creativity, and courtesy serve Nell well as she navigates the strange social world of the neo-Victorians. Their traditional schools offer Nell (and us) an interesting contrast with the primer. We are invited to think about the purposes of education, the relations between learning and teaching, and the prospect of a radicalized liberal arts curriculum outside of elite institutions. (If still very much inside books.) It is this feature of A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer that now rewards my re-reading.

And not mine alone, for I have been reading and discussing this book with students, and it proves a provocative text. For all of the technological transformations of the Diamond Age, this alternative Earth echoes many of the social problems we know all too well today. (“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.“) Domestic violence, drug abuse, pollution, poverty, racism, sexism, violent crimes, and warfare: They’re all there. Technological change does not bring eutopia. But neither is this a technological dystopia. Features and bugs abound. The world will always need tweaking, so we tinker away, hacking as best we can, and making do with kludges when we must. And students are invited to re-read their world, thinking especially about how different technologies represent dangerous opportunities. Including opportunities for lifelong learning, perhaps with a tablet being compiled just up the road…


Stephenson, Neal. [1995] 2008. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York, NY: Bantam Spectra (Random House). 499 pp. ISBN 9780553380965.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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