The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson
Utah State University
Logan, Utah, USA
Perhaps it’s a bit odd that a book review for the World Association for Online Education would address a work of fiction, but Neal Stephenson’s unique look at the future compels me to do so. The subtitle is “or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer“. This is significant because the book follows a young girl as she engages herself with an interactive book with that title. The book is designed to be a school and teacher and friend and encyclopedia all in one. It was created to grow and interact with the user in self-directed, inquiry-based ways. As the user asks about tertiary topics, encyclopedic entries automatically come to the surface. The book often uses stories and fairy tales in ways that are symbolic to the user’s life situations, though accessible to the user as a practical and theoretical help-mate. It is posited as a wholly remarkable book, intended for the wealthy because of its high cost.
Stephenson posits a bleak future for many, but I enjoyed the ideas the book puts forth about the power of education and its abilities to empower and free people. Nell, the impoverished heroine of the book, accidentally receives the Primer through various serendipitous circumstances, and it changes her life. Living in the home of her mother and whatever abusive boyfriend her mother invites to live with them for that week or month, the girl has no chance of moving forward in the world. She is quite literally doomed to live the life of a veritable nonperson in the lowest caste of society. However, just as soon as her brother gives her this book, it changes her life by teaching her about herself and the world around her in inquiry-based ways. As Nell learns and grows by reading about herself as a princess with symbolic friends making up the people around her, we come to understand some fascinating concepts about Stephenson’s ideas of ideal education and its power to give knowledge, confidence and change lives.
Intended for an aristocrat’s child, the Primer is narrated by a living actress, who becomes attached to Nell as she coaches forward through her adventures, many of them dangerous. The actress is given lines to read, but she is able to perform them with some latitude for interpretation. The live-person aspect of education seems important to Stephenson, as it does to those of us involved in online education as well. Ultimately, the Primer is discovered by others who have the power to distribute it in a democratic way to a host of other children. It is inferred by the book that the Primer’s existence and continuance will radically change the rigidly tiered society that Stephenson examines.
The book takes place in a backdrop of nanotechnology in which tiny robots are controlled into creating everything from medical devices to building materials, including windows, which is why diamond is suddenly less expensive than glass: nanites can create it by simply manipulating carbon atoms into rows, creating a diamond window. This nanotechnology is interesting in and of itself, but it is vital to the book’s themes, too. Nanites represent, in my view, an ultimate democratic form of organization. The end of the book is rather shocking, but we come to understand that through both the means of learning via the Primer and the nano devices used to spread this knowledge outward to all (nanites), education truly can be a source of freedom.
Publisher: Spectra; Reprint edition (May 2, 2000)