Kids need to get answers from humans who love them
July 5, 2024 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Exorcising us of the Primer "If you want to make an educational technologist’s eyes sparkle, just mention “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. It’s a futuristic interactive schoolbook, described in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where it lifts a young girl out of poverty and into sovereign power. It’s my field’s most canonical vision of a wildly powerful learning environment. If you ask a technologist interested in learning what they dream of achieving, most will answer: “building the Primer.”...

...Fifteen years ago, I’d have given the same answer. With my weak skills and understanding, the Primer was far enough away that I couldn’t see its details properly, but it was still enchanting enough to drive me emotionally. As my practice grew, and as I earnestly considered what it would mean to build the Primer, I started to notice the vision’s serious flaws. Gradually, I came to see it as fundamentally unworkable, even while it still deeply compelled me. Now I feel haunted by the Primer. I know it’s not what I want to build, but some part of my mind won’t let go of that vision until it has something else it can grab onto.

In fact, I think my whole field is haunted by the Primer. That’s not Stephenson’s fault: it’s ours. Our shared canonical vision remains a plot device from a science fiction novel because we haven’t managed to articulate something better ourselves."

(Post title comes from Stephenson's response in an AMA to "My ultimate goal in life is to make the Primer real. Anything you want to make sure I get right?")
posted by gwint (32 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I thought the whole point of that book was that the one kid’s successful learning came because there was a consistent human presence behind her copy of the Primer. Did nobody notice that before setting out to build the thing?
posted by Lawn Beaver at 2:39 PM on July 5 [57 favorites]

most will answer: “building the Primer.”

I kinda doubt this.

Plus, the metaphor misses a lot of the point of the novel. Nell's Primer is a high cost, custom education. The mass market version used to recruit and re-educate mainland Chinese is non-interactive, and leaves them subservient to Nell.
posted by pwnguin at 2:40 PM on July 5 [13 favorites]

My big idea: The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer but it's also the Torment Nexus.
posted by signal at 2:41 PM on July 5 [35 favorites]

There were three versions of the Primer:

One with a single constant human presence, that the creator meant for his daughter but ended up with the protagonist, letting her become the leader of the new movement

One with a rotating cast of actors, which ended up in the hands of the person who commissioned it and whose daughter I believe just burnt out?

And third more sinister one, which had no human factor and trained the foot soldiers for the protagonists army.

Which is pretty much how I think most technocrats want their kids education to be human and touch grass (like how most Apple execs don’t want their kids using iPads), but they also want a well trained labor force.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:48 PM on July 5 [27 favorites]

As someone who works in educational IT, and was a fan of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age when I was younger...this hits pretty hard. I've been thinking about TDA a lot over the last couple years (ESPECIALLY when Covid hit), and I think it's a massively flawed idea that is wrapped up in just enough of "the future" to make it desirable to both hopeful educators and greedy VC's.
posted by Rudy_Wiser at 3:27 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

Oh wow.

It's been a long time since I read The Diamond Age, but I have never stopped fantasizing about having a Primer.

I also fell in love with Owl in A Closed and Common Orbit.

I think Matuschak gets things exactly right in the linked essay (at least based on my quick skim) - the things he loved about the Primer are the things I loved, and I totally agree with the four things he things we SHOULD imitate from the Primer. I also agree with his thoughts on things NOT to imitate, including both "Gamification" and "Discovery learning is all you need".

I would love to have a human who loves me shepherd all my learning experiences, but even as a North American with a tech income, I can't afford that, and there isn't, realistically, anyone who knows and deeply understands all the things I want to learn about.

I've been having ChatGPT be my language coach and partner for a few months, and there are a lot of problems and shortcomings, but it's really really nice to have a program that never tires of giving me verb drills or German declension examples and never seems to tire of being encouraging and supportive.

I guess my fantasy Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism world would include lots of well-trained educator types happy to do human-based coaching and teaching, along with some really good, smart software that incorporates the good stuff from the Primer.

I enjoyed reading the author's thoughts.

Thanks for sharing this, gwint!
posted by kristi at 3:31 PM on July 5 [5 favorites]

Certainly you can indict your favorite executives for trying to build a stratified education system they can automate. But they're not the ones who made this meme ubiquitous.

The fantasy of the book is that of nerds everywhere who imagine given access to structured, responsible, human-optional educational instruments of effectively infinite depth and patience they (and their imagined progeny) can succeed regardless of social position, intro or extroversion, and any non-academic factors.

I've grown immense respect for the skills and capabilities required and executed for pedagogy. It's an immensely human skill, massively undervalued, and thus inadequately ubiquitous and funded to make a dent in the education gap that denies opportunities to so many kids.

The nerds want everyone to have that opportunity because they hope more educated people means fewer ignorant people, and fewer ignorant people means more opportunity to employ reason and grow opportunities. And less violence, hate, and bias.

TFA is very concerned with manipulation because they imagine they would not like to be manipulated or manipulate others. I submit they're applying an adult concept to pre-adult minds - you achieve very little education without manipulation of rewards, challenges, incentives. In fact, in an adult world you generally are also still regularly manipulated - often consensually - to grow in your career, overcome your limits, and learn new skills in new domains.

The plot of the book requires some world-scale hand waving which I can't imagine any educator actually wants to emulate. But the idea that manipulation, especially of pre-adults in order to achieve some basic education direction is an original sin that undermines the concept doesn't hold water for me.

Not a Stephenson absolutist or fanperson - but a parent and educator who really believes an automated teacher, doctor, psychiatrist, and idealized tutor and parent for every child freely available as an infinitely downloadable AI is a billion times better than the best we can achieve with the human workforce and failings we have today.

The idea that idealizing an AI instead of funding human parents and educators is somehow pro techbro fantasy is ridiculous. Humans don't scale.
posted by Lenie Clarke at 3:57 PM on July 5 [9 favorites]

Last summer I read The Friendly Orange Glow, about the sadly-defunct PLATO educational computer system developed by the University of Illinois. In certain ways, it paralleled the idea of the Primer (and for all I know Stephenson was familiar with PLATO). One of the early motivations behind PLATO was the idea that a computer could be a personalized tutor for every student in the classroom, given the infeasibility of providing a dedicated human tutor for every student.

Interestingly, PLATO was almost always (IIRC) associated with an actual human classroom that had other students in it. One might spend a lot of time using PLATO terminals to learn, but you also had a human teacher and fellow students to bounce ideas off of. Which seems like a reasonable balance to me: providing human interactions for direction and collaboration, while letting the computer do the time-consuming bits of personalized instruction and Q&A.
posted by learning from frequent failure at 4:15 PM on July 5 [9 favorites]

'If you ask a technologist interested in learning what they dream of achieving, most will answer: “building the Primer.”...'


Did these people... not actually read The Diamond Age? Because I've read the book, several times. And I find this reaction utterly baffling.

(This has been covered pretty well by the rest of ya'll discussing the real live human behind Nell's Primer, and the mass market version creating the homogenized and subservient Mouse Army, etc. But I am sufficiently aghast here that I had to comment something even if I'm just n'thing everyone else.)
posted by cnidaria at 5:32 PM on July 5 [6 favorites]

I thought... I thought the Diamond Age was supposed to be bleak dystopia, and the Primer was one of the main bleak dystopic elements?
posted by surlyben at 5:57 PM on July 5 [7 favorites]

In some ways the issues are similar to generative-AI “art”: If you see the point of the exercise as “optimizing and maximizing picture/education unit production,” then a system that can endlessly extrude good-enough units is clearly the solution. And Stevenson’s book describes a system that makes really cool-sounding units! But as Stevenson’s book also suggests (if read with an atttitude other than “wow, check out the impressive, magic-like technology!”), and as his answer even more explicitly and succinctly puts it, humanity does not thrive on units alone.
posted by No-sword at 6:02 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

I have a lot to say on this topic but it'll have to wait until I get on a keyboard. Let me just say that IT IS REQUIRED READING to grab a copy of The Charisma Machine by Morgan Ames. It goes through the utter failure and massive hubris of the One Laptop Per Child project. I was also on a podcast interview with the author here. Ames had, unlike the project leaders, actually spent time in a country where OLPC was deployed and the failings of OLPC are so obvious if you only took the time to engage with the people meant to use the thing.

Seriously, it's a lesson the tech industry and politicians refuse to learn as they insist on spending millions on these clueless tech solutions again and again.
posted by AlSweigart at 6:20 PM on July 5 [20 favorites]

Humans don't scale.

Really? I see them all over the place.
posted by srboisvert at 7:00 PM on July 5 [11 favorites]

I feel mixed on this article. I love Neal Stephenson and all, but trying to extract any real-world lessons about education and pedagogy (positive or negative) from the contrived fictional world The Diamond Age is like trying to gain an understanding of economics from Atlas Shrugged.

Everyone thinks they know how to provide an education just because they received one in their childhood: parents, politicians, pundits, and (especially) technologists and Silicon Valley lottery startup winners. "Schools should teach kids how to balance a checkbook or change a car's oil" seems really silly in an age of online banking and EVs.

I got a story to tell.

Alex Peake is a guy I knew personally in the early 2010s in the San Francisco bay area. He's exactly what Steve Jobs would have been if he hadn't lucked out into billions: tall, able to talk about his "big ideas" endlessly and mesmerize an audience with his reality distortion field (despite, like Steve Jobs, his greasy hair and questionable hygiene), and had a knack for getting other people to do work for him (which he would then take credit for.) He was behind one of Kickstarter's first projects that got six-figures in funding: $170k. If you want to be charitable you can say the project failed because he was inept and overly ambitious, but you could be charitable to Elizabeth Holmes in that exact way too. Anybody with any actual expertise knew the damn thing would never work as advertised.

The project was Code Hero, a video game that would teach kids to code because kids love playing video games. (Don't bother finding a copy and installing it; it's not even dumb in an interesting way.) Peake had a love for Carl Sagan and Neal Stephenson that reminds you that "fan" is short for fanatic. He named his company Primer Labs and very much wanted to create an app that gamified teaching everything just like The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Like, literally, he'd say it would teach everything. (Eventually it would, that is. He was always fuzzy on the details.)

I'd say he'd much rather be a tech influencer than someone who, you know, actually does the work to design software and write code.

It'd take hours for me to go into what a scumbag (and yet, utterly banal and standard for the bay area tech industry) Alex Peake was and presumably still is. Long story short, the money dried up, he never publicly accounted for where it went (it certainly wasn't going to pay the employees who he hired that I personally talked to), and I haven't been able to find anything about Alex Peake online since then. He didn't even manage to send out the damn thank you t-shirts to the kickstarters.

(Previously he had another scam of designing goth fashion "tactical corsets" made with kevlar. I believe he only ever shipped one, which I heard he got a girlfriend to make (unpaid, naturally), and didn't issue refunds for any other orders. They were something like $400 each.)

So whenever I see people who think they can solve some huge problem by *checks clipboard* inventing an app, my eyebrow raises. Because the common thing I saw with all of them (and with Alex Peake) is that they never seem to bother gaining expertise or an understanding of what the people in the field are currently doing.

I guess that's unnecessary when you're a "visionary."
posted by AlSweigart at 7:12 PM on July 5 [23 favorites]

I have spent the last 6 years fully immersed in the world of education technology. There are and always have been a lot of silly, faddish things. But most of the folks who have been in it for the long haul -- including both those coming from the educator side and those coming from the tech side -- have become a little more clear-eyed and pragmatic than described in this article.

Also we're all old now and the young 'uns have not all read Stephenson, for better or worse.
posted by feckless at 7:39 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

Reading up a bit:

- I am boggled that the CodeHero guy is also (one of) the folks behind tactical corsets. That's just beautiful.
- Absolute hard agree that Morgan Ames's book is essential reading.
posted by feckless at 7:42 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]

I'm in my late 50s now so was a 70s kid.

I remember watching TV then for a bit but from the mid-70s to the mid-80s our house didn't have TV at all. I mention this a lot here but what we – or I, since the books were in my room – had was a mostly complete set of National Geographics ~1928 to ~1972, the 1965 World Book set w/ annual Yearbooks up to 1973, the People's Almanac, then #2 & #3 as they came out every 3 years or so.

having no TV to watch, and not altogether committed to doing any homework assignments until the last possible moment, I read all that cover to cover as recreational reading, and I can say it was a 100X improvement on the middling public school K12 education I got.

If I were dropped back into the 1970s I could only hope to get access to that much knowledge as I did, even if it came at the cost of not being able to watch any Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Battlestar Galactica, etc. etc.

Wikipedia is a decent simulacrum now, but the interactive nature of ChatGPT is wikipedia33
posted by torokunai at 8:05 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]

I thought the Diamond Age was supposed to be bleak dystopia, and the Primer was one of the main bleak dystopic elements?

One of the toughest things about getting older is learning that a lot of the things you thought were satirical jokes in Stephenson’s stories (e.g. sword fighting in the metaverse) were plot elements he intended to play straight (i.e. sword fighting in the Metaverse)
posted by thecaddy at 8:56 PM on July 5 [13 favorites]

Mod note: [btw, this post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:33 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]

The fantasy of the book is that of nerds everywhere who imagine given access to structured, responsible, human-optional educational instruments of effectively infinite depth and patience they (and their imagined progeny) can succeed regardless of social position, intro or extroversion, and any non-academic factors.

So… public libraries, minus the serendipitous random finds that you never would have known or thought to actually look for, or any incidental human interaction? Is this Silicon Valley attempting to re-invent the public library? Coupled, in this fantasy version, with a system that somehow rewards academic merit accurately and fairly despite still having all of the same old social and economic hierarchical stratification, without having grappled in any way with the implicit colonialism and other -isms in how we currently define or attribute “merit”?
posted by eviemath at 7:15 AM on July 6 [3 favorites]

> Is this Silicon Valley attempting to re-invent the public library? Coupled, in this fantasy version, with a system that somehow rewards academic merit accurately and fairly despite still having all of the same old social and economic hierarchical stratification, without having grappled in any way with the implicit colonialism and other -isms in how we currently define or attribute “merit”?

This is Neal Stephenson imagining that mechanism and clearly imbuing the values of the already out-there neo-victorians whose relationship with public libraries seems unclear. He isn't silicon valley and I'm not convinced (like some readers) that he was even being arch or offering commentary on this idea as dystopian.

The techbros and nerds are taking different things away from that idea.

Nerds want that public library (for knowledge) paired with an infinitely patient and inventive tutor (for actual pedagogy) and imagine that an adequately advanced AI can perform a better job than tiktok, or television, or the other catastrophically not values-neutral sources of information in competition. They aren't saying "screw your libraries and teachers" but rather "make it so those with no libraries and teachers can still learn from less terrible sources than the unfiltered maelstrom."

You'd be right to say "why not just get them libraries and teachers", but the reality is we don't and clearly have no plans to fund anything like that. Nerds are pretty good at looking at where we actually invest our money rather than worrying about how we need systemic roots-up changes to solve big problems. This is a fair criticism, but it doesn't mean every invention that tries to close the gap in front of you is at philosophical odds with the much harder systemic solutions (which may or may not be effective, if they're ever actually executed, which is... so far never).

The techbros look at this idea and think "we could disrupt teaching! Knowledge and pedagogy can be a service we charge for! You nerds just need to make it appear to basically kind of work." These people suck and the nerds who work for them know it and try to do the right thing anyway - using the investment and energy to try to deliver that idealized tutor.

TFA is totally correct that no education happens without values, and manipulation isn't always welcome or effective. Throwing out the idea of free universal education because it might carry along values seems really short sighted.

Obviously, centralized control of curriculum and education creates what may appear a perfect propaganda and mass manipulation machine - exactly as it does for Nell's army in the book. If it happens to be propaganda the reader generally agrees with it feels inspiring, if not if feels manipulative and dangerous.

But it's already possible and popular to centralize propaganda and disinformation delivery and it's already having catastrophic effects. Even TFA isn't dismissing the entire idea of a Primer, just asking that we consider the values and methods it employs.
posted by Lenie Clarke at 7:50 AM on July 6 [2 favorites]

The internal code names for early Kindle products — some of which never made it past the concept stage — were Fiona, Nell, Hackworth, Tequila, Primer, and, if memory serves, Bud. I remember some highly-placed engineers not knowing the source of the code names and being particularly confused by "Tequila."

Anyway: I think that using The Diamond Age's treatment of the Primer to criticize the idea of the Primer is kind of pointless, because Stephenson's speculations about how it might work and work out are just one dude's (not very reliable) speculations. The basis of the world of The Diamond Age is already falling apart, both technologically and sociologically, in the same way that speculative fiction from the 1950s looks wildly unrealistic now.

(Not that the Diamond Age society was ever based on a sound footing: it's clearly a continuation of Snow Crash's burbclaves and hypercapitalist nationality-as-a-service setting, which works as a parody of William Gibson's universe, but was never realistic.)

I think the better argument is that reality is basically 0% likely to match the Primer, in much the same way that the modern internet only has a passing resemblance to the (Snow Crash) Metaverse. I'm sure we'll have some automated pedagogical tools, and some of them will even be beneficial, and in 200 years we might even put a bunch of them together into some omni-tutor machine, but it's kind of ridiculous to believe that a) we might get that machine any time in the next 50 years or b) that the machine will come out looking anything at all like The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.
posted by reventlov at 8:48 AM on July 6 [3 favorites]

eviemath: Is this Silicon Valley attempting to re-invent the public library?

The kind of serendipitous discovery you're talking about is a relatively new thing - I think it only becomes widespread with the advent of publicly-accessible reading rooms & later public libraries, & it was arguably quite destabilizing (in ways I think we'd agree are good).

When they were first implemented via things like the reading room of the Philadelphia Juntoe, "public" libraries were something new, & their refinement into the modern municipal public library made them ever more radical. The Juntoe's reading room (& other subscription libraries like it) were meant to put the resources of the gentry into the hands of the rising commercial class - people like Franklyn & his friends, who'd worked their way up from apprenticeships. As such they undermined the gentry.

Much later, people like Carnegie or Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (of "Little Blue Books" fame) would leverage the ready availability of information (Carnegie IIRC through correspondence courses, Haldeman-Julius through free pamphlets distributed by socialists) to advance themselves in ways the ruling classes might find advantageous (Carnegie) or not (Haldeman-Julius & his peers).

If I think of it that way, it becomes very clear to me why the modern wannabe-Carnegies would regard public libraries as a great sin against public decency, since they expose common rabble to learn things that are outside the program. It also helps to explain motivations to blunt the suitability of the internet for such things.
posted by lodurr at 9:52 AM on July 6 [4 favorites]

(Total derail, but just to note: calling something that is over a century old “relatively recent” when the main topic is educational software and a book published in 1995 is a bit silly.)
posted by eviemath at 11:54 AM on July 6

Ctrl-f “mother” = not found

Nell’s “Primer” contained a mother — Miranda. The Mouse Army got The Primer. If you want to build The Primer, maybe you are as lost as John Percival Hackworth.
posted by toodleydoodley at 2:11 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]

The further we go along, the more Stephenson (and many of his fellow authors) embody the idea that what they write is a warning, not a blueprint.
posted by lhauser at 3:48 PM on July 6

It's been probably 25 years since I've read Diamond age well past bedtime as a teenager. I totally forgot about Fiona's version, and frankly only half remember the Mouse Army's situation. But it seems pretty clear today that the Primer is a metaphor for pedagogy quality. Nell gets a personal tutor. Fiona gets what sounds like a public high school education (and the Mouse Army gets PBS?). There's a classic education paper out there I've read (and misplaced the citation to) that more or less indicates the optimal class size is 1, but that society has to balance that against cost, and that's what I see laid out in the Primer variations.

The reason the primer is a tablet isn't because "ractor" technology shifts the curve, making tutors so available everyone can have personal tutors, but because it enables the story to explore trading places. You can't steal private school admission and tuition, but a physical embodiment can be. Stephenson uses that to say things about cultural determinism but I'll be damned if I remember what it was, and somehow I doubt it's worth remembering.

Anyways, this article would probably have been better received if it spent less time deconstructing the Primer and more describing the alternative.
posted by pwnguin at 4:02 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]

There's been an urge among many SF writers to either completely eliminate or at least massively pare back the human interaction in education. Clarke and Asimov both wrote stories that had small sidebars about their protagonists going to school on a computer that tailored all the lessons perfectly to their skill level and the amount of challenge that would best engage them.

As a former teacher, and a person looking at it from the outside both, I can see the appeal.

The thing is, we KNOW the solution to all educational problems. It's not a mystery. More one on one time with a teacher.

And the problem is teachers are expensive, even in places like America where they're paid jack shit. Trying to get enough teachers just to reduce classroom sizes to something more reasonable is difficult, trying to get enough one on one time is just out of the question.

Looking at that it's easy to see how "I've got it, we'll use computers to fill in most/all of that one on one need!" is a solution SF writers would like. It's a concept you can get across in just a couple of paragraphs, it doesn't take up a lot of your plot and worldbuilding time to go into detail about, and the reader can easily see the appeal themselves. As Charles Stross noted, SF is hard and even if you can imagine some cool things about possible future tech getting that across in a few sentences is often impossible.

So "computers do teaching" is an easy button to push. And of course Stephenson managed to make it core to Diamond Age.


I think there's more to it than just that. The fact is, frankly, education does tend to suck. It's hard work, your fellow students are an impediment, the teacher is overworked even when they're genuinely good teachers who want to help, if you're a bad student you struggle to get the attention you need and if you're a good student you often sit around bored off your ass because the system is geared towards students less capable than you are.

So I get the urge, with us since the 1950's, to have computer teachers. I actually think if we could ever make it actually WORK it'd be fantastic. But, of course, we're not there yet. And short of true AGI may never be there. and in the meantime I can easily see a piss poor excuse that incorporates some GPT type chatbot stuff being foisted off on the poor as the wave of the future while the rich hire up private human tutors because they know the system isn't actually all that great.

So yeah. I'm kind of saddened that Stephenson seems to have missed the point of his own book and hopped onto a bandwagon that's not even remotely ready to go yet.
posted by sotonohito at 9:29 AM on July 7 [4 favorites]

Also we're all old now and the young 'uns have not all read Stephenson, for better or worse.

Yep. I teach in a graduate program for learning, design, and technology, and I think one of my students (out of <>70) has read Stephenson - and not Diamond Age.
posted by doctornemo at 5:40 PM on July 7

calling something that is over a century old “relatively recent” when the main topic is educational software and a book published in 1995 is a bit silly

If the main topic is hypothetical educational software & we're not discussing the kind of thing that software is clearly modeled on, then it feels to me like we're proscribing some pretty important parts of the discussion.
posted by lodurr at 5:59 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

“A Thousand Primers, Not Just One,” Adrian Hon, mssv + Have You Played, 06 July 2024
posted by ob1quixote at 8:26 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]

It seems like the Primer is more propely seen as a substitute for a tutor, not for a teacher. Teaching already "scales," since we do it in groups, but one-on-one tutoring really doesn't. As a result, you get well-qualified, highly paid tutors for rich kids, volunteer tutors for some groups of poor kids in some areas, and not much else in between, unless a parent has the time, patience, subject-matter knowledge, and skills.

Regarding gamification of individual learning, I think many entrants into the educational technology field severely underestimate how hard structured pedagogy really is, and they often (counterproductively) prioritize discovery learning while designing apps meant to convey specific content. One of the rare exceptions I've experienced was an ipad app called Dragonbox, which taught both of my kids the rudiments of algebra in an elegantly sequenced and scaffolded progression that was also well-gamified. It may be that algebra is particularly well-suited for this treatment; I don't know. But it's a great example of what can be done well in this space.
posted by mabelstreet at 2:28 PM on July 10

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