The Diamond Age: An Edtech Reading

I recently reread Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a work of science fiction that depicts a future infused with nanotechnology, set in Shanghai and the surrounding areas. It offers some great material for a discussion on the role of technology in education and the limits of computers. Its themes are also relevant to edtech, which is pretty impressive for something published in 1995.

As a quick summary, Lord Finkle-McGraw asks engineer John Hackworth to create a computerized book (the Primer) to supplement his granddaughter Elizabeth’s schooling. Hackworth attempts to create a second copy for his own daughter illicitly, but is mugged and the book falls into the hands of the young street urchin Nell. The Primer guides Nell through leaving her abusive domestic situation and educates her using a customized fantasy story. Though the Primer is capable of reacting to voice commands and displaying a wealth of information, its narration is performed by a human actress Miranda whom Nell does not know. Hackworth, charged with intellectual property theft, makes a plea bargain to provide the source code of the Primer so copies may be distributed to tens of thousands of young abandoned Chinese girls. In the process of modifying the Primer to use a computerized voice, Hackworth is finally able to secure a copy for his daughter Fiona, before disappearing to serve his ten-year sentence.

That’s the first act. To do a proper analysis, I’m going to have to drop a few more spoilers from the most memorable parts of the book, so be warned.

Although we only see details about Nell’s Primer, it’s implied that the fundamental story is the same for all girls, just adapted superficially to its users. Nevertheless, Elizabeth, Fiona, and Nell develop quite differently. Lord Finkle-McGraw summarizes,

Elizabeth is rebellious and high-spirited and lost interest in the Primer several years ago. Fiona is bright but depressed, a classic manic-depressive artist. Nell, on the other hand, is a most promising young lady.

To elaborate, all three girls had previously served detention together at a strict Victorian-style school. Elizabeth eventually snapped and began tearing pages from the books they were being forced to copy, shouting, “I don’t care about any of the goddamn books, and I don’t care about the Primer either!”. From Nell’s point of view,

The reason she’d been furious was that copying out of those books was such an unforgivably stupid waste of time. There was no end to what she could have learned reading the Primer for those eight hours. For that matter, the normal curriculum at Miss Matheson’s Academy would have been perfectly fine as well. She was tormented by the irrationality of this place.

How often do children see schools as irrational places? Where the rules are arbitrary, the drills are pointless, and the work unengaging? And that’s before the current generation of babies, who have grown up stabbing tiny fingers at iPads, reach the classroom. Kids today expect interactivity and instant gratification. One approach is to yield, leading to 1-1 iPad programs, educational apps, and interactive whiteboards. The jury is still out on whether these are effective. The other is to hold firm, and insist on discipline, focus, and maturity. Students should be able to predict, anticipate, and imagine rather than see everything at once.

The novel provides no clear answer either way. It’s rough on harsh discipline, but more forgiving of other curricula. However, formal schooling makes a relatively brief appearance. What’s emphasized instead are the experiences the girls have. The well-to-do upbringings of Fiona Hackworth and especially Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw are held against them, while Nell’s impoverished and treacherous early years lends her a “feral alertness” and assertiveness. This gives the girls very different approaches to play and expectations of life, much to their parents’ bemusement.

The most energy is spent on the Primer itself. Its story’s finale begins with Castle Turing and its mechanical inhabitants, where Nell learns about Turing machines while pondering the Turing test. After ascertaining that her correspondent is in fact a machine, she crowns herself Duchess of Turing and learns to program her robotic subjects. She progresses through other castles, each featuring a more complex Turing machine (and making winking references to other computer science concepts). She climbs to the fantastical and heavily-detailed castle of King Coyote, where a machine called the Wizard (as in Oz, it’s implied) interacts with the other Turing machines in the Kingdom. On Nell’s code, Wizard overheats and forces out the man behind the curtain, King Coyote, aka Hackworth, who explains, “You snuck a zero divide past all my defenses.” (That’s unrealistic – it’s easy to detect division by zero. The weakness of Turing machines is that you can’t tell if one will ever stop running without actually running it.) Coyote shows that “when a message comes here from the Ciphers’ Market, I read it myself, and I answer it myself.” So, if Hackworth’s Primer avatar can be taken to be human, the system is actually not a Turing machine after all.

These human relationships are a key theme. Elizabeth’s Primer was narrated by hundreds of separate individuals; Fiona’s is implied to be narrated by machine (but with influence from her absent father), and Nell’s is read by Miranda alone. Taking her thoughts on Turing to their logical conclusion, Nell ponders,

In Castle Turing she had learned that a Turing machine could never really understand a human being. But the Primer was, itself, a Turing machine, or so she suspected; so how could it understand Nell? Could it be that the Primer was just a conduit, a technological system that mediated between Nell and some human being who really loved her?

Yes, the human connection, in this case with Miranda, who Nell finds at the end. The novel implies that for all the wonder of gadgetry, machines are fundamentally limited, and that a person is always superior. Mass quality education is therefore impossible. Referring to the tens of thousands of little girls and their Primers, another character explains

It was mistaken to believe that they could be raised properly. We lacked the resources to raise them individually, and so we raised them with books. But the only proper way to raise a child is within a family.

Sure enough, when we encounter these girls they are not given any characterization beyond their sheer multitude and efficient hierarchy, which is based, computer-like, on powers of 2. (Well, 4.) They are not seen as individuals.

Ultimately though, very little detail is given as to the design work that went in to creating the Primer. It’s implied that Hackworth did all of the AI himself, when he is never stated to have an educator’s background. One theme that the novel supplies, but does not develop, is the control of engineers over education. I personally don’t mind placing computer science at the pinnacle of knowledge, as Hackworth does, but this is a subjective choice that does not fit everyone. Instead, knowledge is personal, and education is as much an art as a science.

The holy grail of edtech, as some see it, is to automate teaching (as the Primers do). But both Stephenson and teachers agree that this is an impossible goal. Rather, careful thought needs to be given as to the proper balance between human and machine contact for our children.

The novel contains a clue to the answer. When Coyote shows Nell his personal involvement with the messages, Nell’s first reaction is to declare that Wizard “does nothing”. Hackworth corrects her, saying “Wizard does a great deal. It helps me keep track of things, does calculations.” Today we call this human-in-the-loop, and used properly you get the benefits of both worlds. That was how Hackworth constructed his most powerful invention (and I don’t mean Wizard). As the Primer notes, “King Coyote did not preserve his power by armed might but by cleverness, and sentinels were the only army he needed, information his only weapon.”

But information alone is useless. I’d like to leave you with a advice offered to Nell by a benevolent gaurdian:

The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward. In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life.

Here’s to a future of edtech that promotes not just education, but intelligence.



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