Diamond Age

Are Teachers Outdated? Or, A Review Of “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”

Originally Posted Monday, November 12th, 2012 on RightWingNerd.com

I know we’re all reeling over the election still, so I want to change the subject a bit and delve into some issues.
And by “delve into some issues”, I mean “review an awesome book that I recently read, link an article about said book and the impact it’s had on technology, AND dump on the antiquated way we go about “teaching” our kids.” -JD

Two weeks ago, I had the fortune/misfortune combo to have had my power (and internet) knocked out by Mega-Super-Colossal-But-Still-Not-Quite-A-Hurricane-So-Suck-It-Home-Owners-Insurance-Holders Storm Sandy.  As I sat there and shivered, more from withdrawal than cold, I remembered that I wasn’t beholden to technology, that “Books” exist and that they don’t die in the middle of the last chapter. (Thanks Nook Color.) (Bastard.)

That knowledge regained, I set out to find a book. And what a book it was!

“The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” by Neal Stephenson of “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon” fame, is a post-cyberpunk study on culture, education, law, and the impact of nanotechnology on society.

The book begins with the death of an archetypical “Cyberpunk Punk”, sending the message that we aren’t going to retread that territory, while also introducing the main character, a very young lady named Nell.  Nell is a “Thete”, a person with no association to any of the many “Phyles”, cultural groupings of people whose barriers for entry vary, from the prestigious, prolific & powerful New Atlantean Neo Victorians who are very picky about who becomes a member; to the small, failed and squalorous Commie Maoist Senderos who’ll let anyone in, provided they swear allegiance to their “little red book”.  Thetes don’t have much of a shot for upward mobility, they live in a welfare state in an age where food and water as well as many durable goods are free due to the advent of nanotechnological “compilers” and “sources”; the former assembles goods on a molecular level, the latter ferrets out individual atoms and puts them in separate containers like an OCD Lego aficionado.  This “post scarcity” environment means that traditional education is far less important to the Thetes while at the same time increasing their participation in the consumer service industries of thievery and prostitution, neither of which are particularly shunned in this uncultured culture of dependence.  That type of life seems inevitable for young Nell- however, things change when her big brother Harv brings home a very smart, counterfeit book, “The Primer”; obtained when the gang Harv belongs to mugs a Neo Victorian engineer named John Hackworth.  Hackworth himself obtained this “plagiarized” copy of  The Primer through nefarious means.  Hackworth had been contracted to create a single Primer for the granddaughter of a high ranking member of the Neo Victorians, Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, the most interesting man in the world.  Finkle-McGraw, one of the developers on the forefront of the nanotech boom, feels that that “some cultures are inherently better than others”, something he noticed early in his life during his time as a boyscout in Iowa.  This was bolstered by his witnessing the “failure of moral relativism” as he became a young man.  Dude is cool.  Sadly, his diverse & somewhat subversive background is not shared by his clique educated and pretty damn boring children.  He sees this not only as a failure of the educational system, but also as a personal failure, one he does not intend to duplicate with his granddaughter.

Thus, The Primer.

The Primer is a hardbound smartbook with a proprietary type of P.I. (Pseudo-Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence is laughed off as being a “cheeky” term) which, after “bonding” with a little girl, “learns” about the girl’s environment, crafts a personalized narrative starring a caricature of the girl that reflects the real life goings on around the girl and educates her through story participation.  The book is designed to teach not only math, science and reading, but also programing and self defense skills tailored to what the book detects is needed for the situation the girl finds herself in.  The Primer even obtains the services of “ractors”, interactive programming actors, to read the book and portray characters therein to make itself that much more accessible and attractive to the girl.

Pretty useful, right?

Hackworth, who has a young daughter himself, secrets away a copy of the data for the book and crafts his own using the services of the none too trustworthy Blackmarketeer and Celestial Kingdom Mandarin, Dr. X, who subsequently arranges for Hackworth to be mugged.  Yeah.  Turns out Dr.X has his OWN reasons for wanting a primer designed to educate young ladies and he’s not thinking on a small scale. In the end (well, actually more of the beginning) there winds up being three copies of the “Real” Primer: One that has fallen into Nell’s unsuspecting hands; one that Hackworth receives (and subsequently gives to his daughter Fiona) as payment for mass producing a new type of primer for Dr.X; and the original primer which has remained with Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.  The impact of each Primer on its respective recipient is different, though all of the girls certainly are changed by the presence of their individual tomes.

I greatly enjoyed this book, Neal Stephenson is a master author and this book is a masterwork.  I highly encourage everyone reading this article to pick The Diamond Age up at a library or Amazon or whatever, it was initially published in 1995 so it shouldn’t be hard to find.  That concludes my review.  No, really, I’m not talking about the plot of the book anymore.  Well, mostly not.  See, I kind of misled you.  When I picked up The Diamond Age, it wasn’t really because I had no power, though it did help.  I had owned The Diamond Age for a while and hadn’t really read it, what with Massively Multiplayer Online games, politics, and my extravagant personal life taking up time.

What inspired me to dig it out and read it for the first time was this article from [Now Defunct] DVICE.

Read the whole thing.  It’s worth it.  I’ll wait.

Pretty crazy, right?

You know what’s crazier?  The fact that WE AREN’T USING THIS TECHNOLOGY HERE.  Here, we have barely educated teachers stifling kid’s desire to learn how to LEARN. We have repetitive and boring classes teaching to tests, pounding soon forgotten facts into a kid so that the teachers can keep their jobs.  And if pounding facts doesn’t work, supplemental cheating does.  Why is this needed?  Why do we pay for this glorified babysitting? There is now a better way out there, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for the 100,000 new teachers Obama wants to subsidize.

More than just that though, I think we need to jump on this new methodology now, or face having another hundred years of education fall into the clutches of socialists.