Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer

Educational environments usually don’t involve original thought, and the The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is no exception. The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life, carefully designed by Hackworth. Nell feels as though she’s cunningly solving puzzles throughout, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a rote worksheet, but her actions and thoughts are still anticipated by the system.

The Primer is meant to make Nell subversive, and it includes activities which push her to do that—but all in ways which its designer expects. She doesn’t always perceive that control, so it may not be sapping her sense of agency, but is it really possible to prepare someone to think subversively through a series of subversiveness-training activities with known outcomes? Often the control is quite explicit, and in these cases The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest.

Nell does begin behaving originally and subversively outside the Primer, e.g. when speaking to an artisan who prides herself in earning money by making real things:

But you make money from your paper only because the Atlantans make money from working hard,“ Nell said. Rita’s face turned red and she said nothing for a little while. Then, in a tight voice, she said, “Nell, you should ask your book the meaning of the word discretion. (p. 261)

Shortly after:

Nell wasn’t really listening because she was trying to figure out why it was that, all of a sudden, she was capable of scaring grown-ups like Rita. (p.263)

So perhaps the theory is that Primer “primes” her to behave in this way, but that if she’s going to learn in the context of original thoughts, that needs to happen outside the Primer. Indeed, speaking to Nell after she finishes the “main quest,” Hackworth himself seems to suggest that her independent life begins after the book ends:

You have conquered this world today, and now that you have conquered it, you’ll find it a rather boring place. Now it’s your responsibility to make new worlds for other people to explore and conquer.“ (p. 445)

This seems like an unnecessary limitation. Must authored environments be all-or-nothing like this? It strikes me as possible to create scaffolded environments for subversion—i.e. ones which make it easier to think subversive thoughts or perform subversive actions—but without dictating what those thoughts will be. Arguably, that’s 4chan, for better or for worse.


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

Last updated 2023-07-13.