This may count as my most frivolous Blog entry ever, but I imagine that quite a few of our readers are engineers or at least people with enthusiasm for various kinds of technology. And what I’m about to write may be useful to more than a few of you at some point as I know of at least one company that has advertised with us that sells hand-held gas detection devices that look quite a bit like the gizmos featured in the Star Trek TV series, and I learned in talking to their designers that this was no coincidence and that, in fact, they were serious Trekkies who modelled their equipment on “phaser” guns and so on from that program.
Anyway, there’s a new term floating around called “steampunk” that refers to a new trend in which people take modern electronic devices (laptops, computer monitors, electric guitars) and decorate them — or even rebuild them — to look like weird 19th Century-type inventions (i.e., with brass fittings and decorative hinges and so on) reminiscent of the steam locomotive era; hence the term “steampunk.”
I have pasted some URLs below of some websites that celebrate this interesting trend. Take a peek and you’ll instantly see what I mean. I really like this stuff, especially the first website with the “brass” computer monitor. I also think the ladies’ laptop is amazing.
Steampunk is a take-off on “cyberpunk” — the techno-dystopian genre with cybernetics and so forth epitomized in the Matrix film trilogy. Steampunk is characterized by the Wellsian aesthetic of 19th-century technology deployed in crazy, modern ways. There are novels and so forth written like this, and even a game puckishly called Space: 1889.
If you want to see this concept taken to the ultimate level, go see the excellent new movie, The Golden Compass. The whole film is populated with this kind of retro-futuristic equipment, from the compass itself — called an “alethiometer” to fanciful dirigibles and so on. Even if you don’t see the movie, check out the official website and you’ll get a sense of how it all looks.
I have a very modern condo and yet I also have various 19th-century-style brass instruments like an astrolabe or sextant and so on that I got at the Bombay Company store. Makes me think I should keep them and display after all.
I think steampunk speaks to our contemporary relationship with technology and the desire for a human connection with the machines with which we interact. Just think of how many hours in a day each of us interacts with machines: computers, cars, kitchen appliances, Blackberry or iPod-type devices.
In the 19th century you could physically see and even touch the various gears and components of a machine, or open it up and see its inner workings, even if you didn’t completely understand them. Think of a watch or a steam locomotive.
The gasoline engine made things more complicated but technology was still accessible to ordinary people. From the Model T to a 1980s Camero, a mecahnically inclined person could still work “under the hood” of their car, change the oil, or even rebuild and supercharge the engine. Nowadays you need special instruments to read the computerized monitoring equipment in a car. Topping up or changing fluids is still realtively easy, but most of a car’s inner workings are impenetrable and it’s going to get more complicated as more and more parts of a car become computerized and electronic (including soon-to-be electric motors that will be emissions free and silent).
The next electronic revolution, followed almost right away by the digital computer age, moved technology further and further away from intuitive comprehension. Devices, as everyone knows, have become smaller and thinner, running on microchips whose inner workings are only visible under a microscope. The iPod and the new iPhone best embody the latest developments — thin, wireless and, for all intents and purposes — completely magical in terms of how they work. A DVD or thumb drive mysteriously holds all the contents of an encyclopedia, or all the color and sound and drama of a feature movie.
At the same time as all this nano-wirelessness made new devices “cool” (to the extent that they’re now wearable fashion objects, and even fetish objects of a kind) it was quite predictable that people would feel nostalgia for the days when they could relate to machines and tools — a time when the craftsmanship that went into building a device was evident.
It may be that this is the genesis of steampunk, which could become a major trend. Just as electronic and computerized devices are becoming wrist-watch-sized and credit-card thin, a sizable market could erupt to take these same items — or at least their essential components and flat monitors, etc. — and integrate them inside deliberately large, heavy, ornate and seemingly hand-crafted housings.
My guess is that if someone opened up a storefront on a fashionable street selling hand-crafted, one of a kind computer accessories they’d make a fortune! Another business might be to supply easy-to-install retrofit kits for people to customize their laptops, Blackberries, iPhones, etc.
Watch for it. (And if you work for a company that designs or builds special equipment, mayube it’s time to dump the sleek plastic look of an iPod Nano and replace it with an aesthetic that might find a place in, say, a Jules Verne novel.)
Now here are those URLs: