Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals

In The Diamond Age, The Primer’s goal is to produce creative, subversive youth. It pursues that goal using the techniques described in The Primer is an enormous enacted experience. Along the way, the activities in The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer develop Nell’s skills in various domains serving its purposes: martial arts, computer science, social manipulation, etc. But Nell’s in the dark about all these machinations. She spends time with the Primer because she enjoys its puzzles and stories—not because she’s collaborating with its authors in achieving the same aims.

This design approach has enormous consequences.

Because Nell doesn’t share the Primer’s goals, she can’t be given much control over the choice of its activities. She has to rely on the Primer to provide direction, which leads to the limitations described in The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest.

Because Nell doesn’t share the Primer’s goals, it’s forced to manufacture meaning for its activities via fun, storytelling, etc. Nell learns computer science to solve puzzles, not because she’s trying to tinker or invent. This approach is awfully limited: The Primer’s activities are only intrinsically meaningful to Nell because her life is impoverished.

An Orwellian Primer might be content to manipulate Nell for her whole life, but this Primer wants Nell to someday lead an interesting life of her own. That can’t happen as long as the Primer’s manipulating her—yet manipulation is at the core of the Primer’s design approach. This tension necessitates the sharp transition described in The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life


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