The Primer’s activities are only intrinsically meaningful to Nell because her life is impoverished

In The Diamond Age, Nell finds the activities in The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer totally transfixing. For much of her youth, she spends almost every hour of every day with the book. But that’s only true because Nell’s life is otherwise so impoverished, contra The Primer doesn’t appear to coerce its students.

The book’s puzzles and stories are the most meaningful and important activities available to Nell. If she had a great community, interesting projects, or even other well-made games available, it’s hard to imagine that she’d feel so connected to the Primer’s challenges.

Sometimes the Primer frames its purpose aesthetically: it’s a grand adventure, full of mystery, fun, and wonder! If aesthetic experience is the intrinsically meaningful purpose it enables, the Primer places itself in competition against all other sources of great aesthetic experience. It might be the best source of aesthetic experience for Nell, but that’s only because her life is otherwise empty. Other games can outcompete the Primer for fun because they can focus on “Find the fun” without the extra constraint of needing to teach arithmetic. See also Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments.

Sometimes the Primer frames its purpose educationally: its challenges are there to help Nell grow and learn. But learning itself is rarely an intrinsically meaningful purpose; it’s usually something that happens in service of something else of intrinsic value (e.g. becoming more connected to a community, advancing a project, responding to aesthetic instincts). See Educational objectives often subvert themselves. A child with access to other sources of meaning would likely not find such activities compelling.

This is one reason why The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment: Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose.


Stephenson, N. (2003). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Reprint edition). Spectra.

Last updated 2023-07-13.