Never mind the steampunk

Pub date July 3, 2007


TECHSPLOITATION If someone were to hold a knife to your throat and ask what the aesthetic sensibilities of the computer age are, you’d probably babble something about the iPod and its curvy, candy-colored precursor, the iMac. You’d think of the typical PC laptop, dumb and square and black, and you’d wonder whether this question about aesthetics was actually a trick. Because there are no computer age aesthetics.

Of course I’m exaggerating. There are a million interesting designs for consumer electronics and computers, but most don’t call attention to themselves. Computer aesthetics say "I am functional" — even the iPod Shuffle’s, whose colorful clip-on version kids attach to the gold chains around their necks as techno-bling.

But your Gateway computer, with its stalwart rectangular tower, is not the last word in how technology can look. Think of the crazy dial phones from the 1920s, with their curlicues and shiny brass and polished wood handsets. Or recall early radios, with their curving wooden exteriors meant to look like fancy furniture. And if you really want to see some seriously decorated machines, just check out pictures of devices from the 19th century, when everything from radiators to dynamos was covered in filigree and iron flowers and stamped, embossed shiny crap. For the record, I fucking love embossed shiny crap.

I think the search for an over-the-top tech aesthetic is driving the current craze for steampunk, a design and fashion style that combines Victorian sensibilities with contemporary gizmos. The ideal steampunk device would probably be a coal-powered cyborg, such as the creatures found in the novels of British fantasist China Miéville. In the real world, one of the most popular steampunk tinkerers is Jake von Slatt, who recently rebuilt his desktop computer as a vision in brass, marble, and old typewriter parts. He even offers a step-by-step guide to making your own functioning steampunk computer on his Web site, the Steampunk Workshop. Whenever von Slatt produces a new creation — a telegraph sounder that taps out RSS feeds, for example — pictures of it are always wildly popular on social news site Digg and elsewhere on the Web. Geeks who might not know what the word aesthetic means are instinctively drawn to the way von Slatt has made artifice from functionality. I expect to see cheap, knockoff steampunk computers for sale any day now.

As steampunkish critic John Brownlee has pointed out in several articles on the topic, steampunk designers tend to reverse-engineer ordinary electronics — say, a computer keyboard — and enhance them with parts that look antique. The idea is not just to create machines whose beauty goes beyond functionality. It’s also, Brownlee contends, to recall an era when amateurs could contribute meaningfully to the development of science and technology. We live in a time when no single human being can fully comprehend the Windows operating system. No wonder we’re nostalgic for the days when beachcombers could be naturalists and tinkerers could invent the telephone.

I think the popularity of steampunk also expresses our collective yearning for an era when information technology was in its infancy and could have gone anywhere. In 1880 we hadn’t yet laid the cables for a telephone network, and computer programming was just an idea in Ada Lovelace’s head. Nineteenth-century technology was often operated by factory laborers, and it meant backbreaking work and the ruination of healthy bodies. Information technology, to the 19th-century mind, would be something that set us free from brutal assembly lines.

One hundred years later, I wish it were so. Information technology has its own brutal assembly lines, mind-numbing data work that cripples our fingers with repetitive strain injuries and mangles our backs with the hunched postures required to work at a computer all day long. Seen from this perspective, steampunk is an aesthetic that tells the truth about us. We are no better off than our Victorian ancestors, bumbling into the future with crude technologies whose implications we barely understand. But let’s make our devices pretty, at least. Let’s remember the days when the machines that now cage us promised liberation. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose flat is full of servers and anaglypta.