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"A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"
Simulated by GPT-4

October 2023

Illustrations generated by DALL·E 3, modified by Andrea Y

"The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" is a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson that takes place in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized society. The narrative follows the life of Nell, a young girl who comes into possession of A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive book designed to teach her everything she needs to know, adapting to her individual needs and growing with her. Its creator, John Percival Hackworth, made the Primer with the intention to subvert his daughter, Fiona:

“It was too late for Hackworth to change his personality, but it wasn't too late for Fiona...


How could he inculcate her with the nobleman's emotional stance - the pluck to take risks with her life, to found a company, perhaps found several of them even after the first efforts had failed?"


In other words, the Primer is an enabler, one that emboldens its user to focus on intellectual pursuits, build and create for society, and champion an unconventional life path. Today the concept of the Primer inspires technologists and entrepreneurs to consider how such technology can foster social mobility, personalize learning, and advance human development. In this post, I run a short simulation of the Primer using ChatGPT.


A highly intelligent and complex technology, the Primer is more sophisticated than anything humans have built to date, including GPT-4. Here are the differences between these two technologies, as explained by ChatGPT:

Personalized Learning

  • PRIMER: designed to be adaptive to its user's needs. It personalized the lessons and adapted the storyline based on Nell's environment, interactions, and decisions.

  • ChatGPT: provides answers tailored to the questions posed to it, but it doesn't have the same level of long-term adaptive learning or storyline continuity.


  • PRIMER: highly interactive, with characters that communicate with the reader, almost like virtual mentors or guardians.

  • ChatGPT: interactive and responds to user inputs, however, it doesn't have virtual characters with independent personalities or storylines.


  • PRIMER: primarily focuses on education and personal growth, presenting information in a narrative format.

  • ChatGPT: has a broad knowledge base across various domains and can provide information in a more direct, Q&A format.

Emotion & Empathy

  • PRIMER: seems to show a level of empathy and emotional understanding.

  • ChatGPT: can recognize and respond to emotional cues in the text, but it doesn't "feel" emotions in the way humans do. Its responses are based on patterns in the data it was trained on.

Independence & Autonomy

  • PRIMER: AI operates with a high degree of autonomy, making decisions to guide and educate Nell without human intervention.

  • ChatGPT: responds based on the data and algorithms but doesn't have its own agenda or the same level of decision-making autonomy.

Long-Term Engagement

  • PRIMER: the relationship with Nell spans years, with the Primer playing a critical role in her upbringing and personal development.

  • ChatGPT: doesn't have the same persistent memory or long-term developmental relationship with a user.

While today's technology is not advanced enough to achieve the Primer, GPT-4 and DALL·E 3 do a great job of simulating the types of stories and imagery that it evokes. As a fan of The Diamond Age, I created the following fictional person and scenario, and asked ChatGPT to engage with me in the style of the Primer. For this exercise, I've also asked ChatGPT to teach the user something new through its story.



Context: Twelve-year-old Lin lives in Taipei, Taiwan with her Uncle. This morning, she wakes up in bed with crimson stained sheets. She just got her first period. Lin feels squeamish and embarrassed. Clutching her favorite stuffed bear, she sits at the corner of her bed and opens up the Primer.


In the bustling heart of Taipei, where towering skyscrapers touched the heavens and lanterns painted the streets in hues of red and gold, a young girl named Lin found herself standing at the brink of a new chapter.


On this particular day, as she wandered the streets of her neighborhood, Lin's thoughts were clouded by the unexpected sight of blood, a sign of her body beginning its ancient dance. Feeling uncertain, she decided to visit the city's old temple, seeking solace and wisdom from its ancient walls.


As Lin approached the temple, she noticed an elderly woman painting a beautiful depiction of the Formosan bear. Lin had always been fascinated by the tales of the bear, known not only for its beauty but its strength and resilience.


With hesitation, Lin approached and said, "Grandmother, today I discovered something new about myself, something that makes me feel uncomfortable and out of place."

The elderly painter paused and looked deeply into Lin's eyes. "Ah, young Lin," she began softly, "Much like the Formosan bear, every individual goes through stages of growth and change. These moments might seem unfamiliar and daunting, but they're a testament to your strength and the mysteries of life."


Lin looked curiously at the painting. "But why does it feel so... strange?"

The painter dipped her brush into the crimson paint. "Every change brings with it a sense of unfamiliarity. The first time I held a brush, it felt foreign, but with time, it became an extension of me. Your body is starting a new rhythm, a dance that has been celebrated for generations. And just like this bear," she gestured to her painting, "you too have the strength to embrace this change and emerge even more magnificent." She then added, "You are on a journey of discovery. Every experience, every change is a step towards understanding the marvel that is you."


Feeling inspired by the painter's words and the strength of the Formosan bear, Lin left the temple with a renewed sense of purpose. She realized that this was just another facet of her journey, and with time and understanding, she would grow to appreciate and embrace the power within her.

Nestled amidst winding streets and bustling markets, there existed a serene and mystical store called "Whispers of the Moon." This establishment, often missed by the hurried eyes of passersby, was known to those in the know as a place of wisdom and learning, especially for matters of the heart and body.

One day, young Lin, with the recent knowledge of her blossoming womanhood, entered the store, drawn by its subtle allure. Inside, amidst a myriad of gentle fragrances, she met Madam Yue, the keeper of the store. With her silvery hair and ageless eyes, Madam Yue was said to have answers to questions many dared not voice.

"Madam Yue," Lin began, her voice quivering slightly, "I've begun the dance of the moon, but I'm unsure how to move gracefully through it."

Understanding Lin's metaphor, Madam Yue gently smiled and said, "Ah, the dance of the moon. A timeless rhythm, indeed." She then gestured towards a delicate box, adorned with intricate patterns of the lunar phases. "This," she explained, "contains moon whispers, or as they are commonly known, menstrual pads."


Seeing Lin's curiosity, Madam Yue continued, "To dance gracefully, you must ensure comfort and care. The moon whisper is a trusted companion in this dance."

She opened the box, revealing a soft, rectangular pad. "First," she began, "ensure your hands are clean. Then, take the whisper and remove the protective backing to unveil its sticky side."

Pointing towards a chair resembling a throne, she continued, "Now, position yourself as if you were about to sit, but only hover slightly above the chair. Place the whisper in your underwear, ensuring the sticky side adheres to it. The wider end goes at the back."

Lin listened intently, absorbing the guidance. Madam Yue added, "Remember, young dancer, to change your moon whisper when it feels full or after a few hours, and always dispose of it with respect to our Earth."

With gratitude in her eyes, Lin nodded, feeling more prepared for the dance ahead.

Note: The image of the Primer (top of page) was created using illustrations generated by DALL·E 3 that I mashed up, modified, and edited. All images used in Lin's story were generated by DALL·E 3 and were not modified.

Tags: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, Menstruation, GPT, Chat, GPT-4, DALL E, AI

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