What’s Wrong With Steampunk?

Illustration for article titled What’s Wrong With Steampunk?

It seems that, for every person who drools lustily over the latest clockwork laptop casemod or gas mask-inspired headgear, there are plenty more eager to voice their disdain for all things neo-Victorian. Steampunk backlash may stem from the movement's tendency of late to overrun every corner of the Internet, but is there something deeper that inspires some folks to shudder at the very sight of clockwork and brass? Designer Randy Nakamura takes aim at steampunk design, claiming that the movement is not only undeservedly trendy, but actually misses its own point.In a guest post for Design Observer, Nakamura examines the influences of steampunk, especially the Industrial Revolution, Jules Verne, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The promise of steampunk is that it could build on these influences, imagining how modern inventions could have been cobbled together from the technology of a previous era, or referencing the industrial Victorian aesthetic as a means of questioning man's relationship with machines. While authors such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have explored this territory, Nakamura feels that current fashion steampunk's obsession with the look and feel of objects hinders its growth into deeper cultural waters:

Steampunking, with its commerce driven, faddish re-skinning of their own history, is closer to Disney than punk or sci-fi. A laptop styled like a Eastlake sideboard is merely a threat of bad taste, not a threatening reaction to massive social and economic disenfranchisement. In its essence Steampunk seems suburban in its attitude: nostalgic for an imagined, non-existent past, politically quietist, and culturally insular hidden behind cul-de-sacs of carefully styled anachronisms that let in no chaos or ferment. The larger, more impossible questions are missing. How would the Victorian imagination conceive and execute a functioning computer? The answer must be more interesting than adding wood veneers to your laptop or turning a mouse into a contraption of gears that looks more like a medieval torture device.

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Nakamura claims not to take issue with individual members of the topcoat-and-goggles crowd (though he regards them as "mediocre hobbyists with great publicists"). But he does believe that steampunk has thrust itself into the public consciousness prematurely, declaring itself "the next big thing" before it has had a chance to evolve into a bona fide social movement:

I haven't figured out whether cracking open your computer, attaching it to an Underwood typewriter, then inserting it into a combination Victorian mantel clock/desk and calling it "The Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine" is some sort of daft wit or evidence of a pedantry bordering on the pathological. Steampunkers may have dubious taste, but one cannot accuse them of lacking a sense of humor. However, the jig is up: as a design aesthetic, Steampunk is still nascent, a set of interesting ideas that have been given the spotlight far too soon.

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Randy Nakamura: Steampunk'd, Or Humbug by Design [Design Observer via Reddit]

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DISCUSSION

How would the Victorian imagination conceive and execute a functioning computer? The answer must be more interesting than adding wood veneers to your laptop or turning a mouse into a contraption of gears that looks more like a medieval torture device.

Well, except that the Victorians did conceive and execute a functioning computer, and it does look like a medieval torture device. He's never seen Babbage's difference engine? (Oh, I guess not, because he mentions it later in the article but seems to think that it ran on steam.)

I mean it's great that this guy knows that everything steampunks are doing is wrong, but I don't see any of his own designs or ideas put forth, here. Von Slatt's computer, like it or not, took a considerable amount of effort, not just to build, but to capture a Victorian aesthetic that's been out of vogue for two centuries or more. I'm impressed by that.

Dissatisfied with their out of the box Dells or Apples, Steampunkers have declared war on mass production. Their solution? Nineteenth-century Victorian England. A strange choice to say the least.

Not really, since that era was the only other time period that had computers. I mean, is this guy not aware that the world's first computer hacker was a Victorian woman? I mean, if you set out to make a Tudor computer, you'd wind up with a guy dressed in doublet and hose with a roll of parchment and a squib pen.

Recalling an era that is the ground zero of mass production, the cultural inflection point from the artisan to the manufactured is an odd way to escape the evils of silicon chips, instant obsolescence and homogeneous design, devoid of the human hand.

I don't see what's odd about it. If you view modern technology as the nadir of human hand craftsmanship, why wouldn't you turn to the zenith for an alternative?