Diamond Age: Romance of the Mediated Education

2009 April 14
by Zachary McCune

Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer suffers from a certain media romanticism. Fetishizing both the book as a site of knowledge, and technology as a means to perfecting education, Stephenson’s novel focuses on the implications of a certain media technology on the development of young girls. The media technology in question is “the primer” which is depicted as a hyper-book (as the primer acts as both book and interactive multimedia device), and exists within an entire ecology of mediation (comprised of “feeds,” “ractives,” and “nanosites”). In fact, Stephenson seems to embed the primer within a world of such mediation and technology precisely to seperate the primer from the technology it is born from, begging the reader (already engaged in book-codex technology) to validate the narrative of written word as the ultimate space for knowledge production. In essence, Stephenson Diamond Age presents the reader with the book as didactic microcosm.

Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it bears considerable resemblance to the aelph of William Gibson’s Count Zero (discussed in this earlier post) which likewise posits technology as a personalized cosmos. In point of fact, this idea of the personalization of the cosmic seems to be a recurrent theme in cyberpunk, expressed in everything from Snow Crash positing cyberspace as “consensual hallucination” to video game escapism fantasies of Tron and eXistenZ. One might ask what is it about cyberpunk that so drives individuals to seek personal techological cosmos, but that answer  seems to exist in the very formation of the individuals who seek it. In Count Zero, Bobby Newmark is a child of the ‘burbs aspiring to realize the reality of the hacker so romanticized by the media/images of the hacker in his social context. In Diamond Age, we first find Nell situated within the world of technology she cannot control because she cannot read/understand it. She is assisted by her brother and the Matter Compiler, we she cannot operate without understanding “mediaglyphics.” Ironically, Nell’s brother Harv tells her “Someday you’ll learn how to read” (p. 44)  thus creating the imperative towards literacy in Nell that will (in Stephenson’s suggestion) liberate her.

So the germ of the personalization of a cosmic order seems to be a prescription for the society’s of cyberpunk narratives rather than an innate characteristic of the individual protagonist.  This is a fascinating possiblity. If it is so, it seems to fulfil qualities of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as the spectacular culture of the cyberpunk’s this project has thus covered aspire towards the ultimate consumption (personal ownership) of the images they commodify. Thus Bobby Newmark aspires to be a hacker like the hackers he sees in media, and Nell is impelled by her belief that literacy is power presented by the technologies that surround her. This realizations strangely problematize the “liberations” of the protagonists that we find in cyberpunk as the protagonists actually seem to go further into the alienation of the society they live in (an alienation always connected with technology) than they escape it. If nothing else, Diamond Age is about the ability of technology to produce (educated) children, albeit with certain human oversights. Thus, Nell is not so much the product of an ideology of the Neo Victorians embedded in her book, or the wisdom of her ractor Miranda, but the child of the primer itself. Her entire self, is curiously bound to that object, which makes her ability to throw it away at the end of the narrative all the more suspect. Can the child of technology really discard it so easily? Perhaps this is the ultimate mechanization of the self? If Nell can discard the primer, than she truely is the child of technology, who of couse would identify as the product of technology not something intimate, and human like a child.

John Hackworth is a figure in this novel worthy of extensive consideration. Through the twists of the novel, he comes to be both a major architect of the educative potential primer, a gifted hacker, and eventually, a mystical figure who undoes all that he knows how to do. As a character, he embodies a fascinating dichotomy of contemporary computer science: on one hand, John Hackworth, gifted Artifex (engineer) and on the other an emerging mystical figure (the Alchemist). Like Neo, Hackworth has both a professional origin in corporate culture, and a mystical future where his commodified abilities become innate semi-spiritual powers. The contemporary version of this tension is seemingly the open source movement, where professional computer scientists become folk heroes through their commitment to bringing technology outside of itself (a corporate-capitalist identity). Like the OLPC movement, John Hackworth begins to realize his mystical potential (his becoming folk hero) by producing educative materials for beyond the scope of those who can afford them. And where does he end up? Seattle. Currently the center of corporate computer culture (Microsoft) but a new intellectual terrain that Stephenson has satirically made into a communal space of the drummers.

As a final reflection of the mediation of education that Nell experiences/is produced by in this novel, I would like to offer the first couple lines of a poem by Frank O’Hara called “Ave Maria”

Mothers of America
              let your kids go to the movies
get them out of the house so they won't
   know what you're up to
it's true that fresh air is good for the body
             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by
   silvery images
One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 April 15
    Smith permalink

    “Thus, Nell is not so much the product of an ideology of the Neo Victorians embedded in her book, or the wisdom of her ractor Miranda, but the child of the primer itself.”

    Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. All of the other girls were products of the Primer as well, but only Nell and Fiona got anything out of it because they had a family member doing the racting. I kind of thought the implication of all that was that technology is helpful, but ultimately, the best way to raise a child is just with a strong family upbringing.

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