The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest

In The Diamond Age, Nell’s relationship to the The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is mostly reactive: she’s meant to spend her childhood and teenaged years opening the book, ready to work on whatever it presents. Almost all the activities are instigated and modulated by the Primer, not by Nell. She begins them because the Primer challenges her to; she pursues them until the Primer decides she’s done (Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals).

In most cases, this relationship is explicit: the Primer tells Nell that she’s on a quest, that she needs to recover keys from certain locations, that she must solve some challenge to get a particular key, etc. In these cases, Nell consciously delegates much of her intellectual agency to the Primer. She doesn’t view it as her job to decide what is interesting or worth investigating; she learns that the Primer has a plan for her and that her role is to follow along. This abdication will stunt the growth of her own curiosity and interests: Internally-modulated learning is self-actualizing; externally-modulated learning is self-abnegating.

This is one important sense in which The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment. Nell spends most of her life pursuing the goals set for her by the Primer. When its explicit learning quests end, a real-life Nell would likely be left with underdeveloped intellectual instincts and a weak sense of agency.

By contrast: Enacted experiences of intellectual discovery could foster Nell’s curiosity and interest (dubious).


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

Last updated 2023-07-13.