Hugh Reviews Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Or, more precisely: Hugh Reviews the Critique of Institutionalised Education in Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

a-young-ladies-illustrated-primer-copyI’ve recently been listening to this podcast on politics and science fiction by Courtney Brown (featuring various of his students).* In the class on Diamond Age, one important point seems to be constantly on the edge of the discussion, never quite breaking through. The discussion centres, understandably enough, on the Primer, the value systems and institutions of the various phyles, and the personalities of Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona. Much is made of the differences in the education received by the three girls and the Mouse Army, but what seems to be to be one the central ideas of the novel is always tantalisingly beyond reach.

Very early in the novel Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw have a conversation in which Finkle-McGraw asserts that the Neo Victorian phyle’s brightest citizens have come exclusively from outside it, having been raised in other, less disciplined phyles and taken the oath as adults.** He decries the educational institutions of his phyle as being incapable of raising children to reach their full potential. He speaks, euphemistically, of life being ‘interesting’. ‘Full of adversity’ is what he means. This is why the Primer is created in the first place; it’s an attempt to create a mechanism whereby a child can be raised simultaneously within a culture and outside of it. And, of course, it doesn’t work.

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

The only girl (leaving aside the Mouse Army for the moment) who truly exemplifies the desired outcomes of the Primer is Nell, who lives the first few years of her life outside of the Neo Victorian phyle, in a position of extreme adversity. Even when she is adopted by the Vickies, her life is far from average; she remains an introverted outsider, cultivating only a few close relationships, all of them with individuals who’s worldviews (and lives in general) Finkle-MGraw would no-doubt describe as ‘interesting’. In short, she isn’t raised within the institutions that the Primer was intended to side step. Elizabeth and Fiona both have experiences more benign than Nell’s. Fiona, certainly experiences her share of adversity, albeit packaged in the repressed bubble-wrap of the Neo Victorians, and her father ensures that she develops a worldview a little more complex than the average Vicky teenager, but the Primer is not quite as central in her life as it is in Nell’s, and this tells in the end. Of course the personality differences play their part, as does the variability of the ractors backing the Primer, but this is all dealt with pretty clearly in the novel itself.

The lack of ractors behind the Primers of the Mouse Army is also a point made clear in the novel, and it is, in itself, an analogy for the cultural institutions with which the work is largely concerned. Courtney Brown’s discussion group deals well with the individualist/collectivist differences between Western and Eastern culture, so I won’t go into that except to say that both Nell and the Mouse Army attain, in a culturally dependent way, the ultimate benefit of the Primer; Nell leads an interesting life to become a strong and capable individual and the Mouse Army experience a rigorously homogenised upbringing to become a perfectly integrated collective. It takes both successes to form their breakaway new phyle. What is note-worthy throughout is that in all cases the primer serves an amplifying function by facilitating a more efficient transmission of the institutional memes of each phyle. It is dependent upon, not independent of, the wider upbringing each girl receives. This is diametrically opposed to Finkle-McGraw’s original intent.

What Stephenson seems to be saying is that learning happens inside memetic institutions and that it can’t be removed from those institutions without the learner actually being removed (physically, socially, philosophically) from those institutions, in which case the learning occurs inside a whole other set of institutions. In this way, the strength of Nell’s position is due to (beside any personality- and intellect-based advantages) the experience of living within multiple social institutions, each imposing their own shadow on the learning she receives both from the Primer and from the larger world around her.

* I recommend it, by the way, to anyone particularly interested in either field.

** This idea is revisited later in the story when Carl Hollywood joins the phyle.

Concept-map image source: Dr Beat A Schwendimann