I recently had the opportunity to enjoy the steampunk movement documentary, Vintage Tomorrows. The 64-minute Byrd McDonald film, much of it filmed around a table in Seattle’s own Dahlia Lounge, debuted at the San Diego Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival back in July, and is making the rounds on screens at various upcoming conventions like PDXFF and Dragon Con.
On the surface, Vintage Tomorrows is about Steampunk, a cultural movement that includes fiction, clothing, objects and experiences that celebrates a reimagined Victorian science. People who fully embrace Steampunk often wear Victorian-era garb enhanced with various technology trappings that suggest how many of our modern silicon and digital marvels might have looked had they been crafted at the dawn of the industrial age when fire transformed steam into power. A time when emerging sciences suggested all things were possible.
Central to the film, however, is a question: is Steampunk a Western, middle-class, white subculture or is it an attempt to rearticulate technology and, in some ways, reclaim the sterile, often foreign manufactured consumer goods that spill out of the minds of Silicon Valley designers, and arrive in homes around the world via China’s manufacturing facilities?
The answer to the first question is mostly yes, though diversity seems to be lacking based on self-selection rather than any doctrine of exclusion. That said, the affinity with the Victorian area can make people uncomfortable, especially decedents of those victimized by imperialism, colonialism, Western occupations, oppression, child labor and sexism. Steampunk seems self-aware of Victorian failures. Rather than embark in pure anachronism, those in the Steampunk movement seek to redefine the Victorian era through the lens of modernity and offer up a science fiction for a future that never happened—one that borrows Victorian style while retaining the hard-fought, if imperfect, social gains of more recent years.
Steampunk adherents can be identified from their anachronistic clothing: vests and top hats, corsets and spats, leather gloves and all manner of jewelry teeming with nuts and bolts, rivets, chains and gears. Unlike cosplayers at science fiction and fantasy conventions, many members of the Steampunk movement wear their clothing daily. This is an important distinction. Steampunk is much more a subculture, and its emergence has things to teach the geeks and their inclination toward industrial design.
Steampunk isn’t an off-the-shelf movement, but one that creates its own artifacts. Anthony Hicks, of Tinplate Studios, describes the Steampunk penchant for upcycling this way: “There’s something a little revolutionary about it. Because you are not just going out and buying something, a pre-made something or other. You’re creating your own reality out of these bits and bobs. Out of our consumer culture.”
Steampunk offers a different lens on design. It clearly looks backward in its overall sensibility, but the yearning for more human-based design suggests that something is missing in the iPad’s sleek edges. Some of the most expensive computer keyboards come not from Microsoft or Logitech, but from Steampunk inspired, handcrafted devices recycled from old typewriters. Steampunk designs are whimsical, but visceral. They have weight derived from their materials and their sense of place and time. The best of Steampunk isn’t about gears or analog watches stuck onto things as mimicked in T-Pain and Justin Bieber Steampunk-inspired riffs, but design that implies function. Perhaps the way to invent tomorrow requires a closer examination of yesterday.
Reinventing Tomorrow Through Yesterday
Silicon Valley, Seattle and other technology centers can learn not just from the designs that offer more industrial-age elements, but from the Steampunk mantra of making, of hardware that can be hacked. Designers can learn as much from Shannon O’Hare’s Victorian home on wheels, the Neverwas Haul, as they can from Jon Ive’s latest ode to flatness.
Vintage Tomorrows offers several important lessons that today’s consumer designers should consider taking to heart in order to bring more beauty, improved innovation, better resilience and a sense of ownership to our technology.
Take risks. Steampunk believes that modern science fiction has lost much of the aspiration and wonderment that initially inspired Silicon Valley. The enthusiasm for the future has been replaced by dystopia and fear. Even as Elon Musk seeks to create reusable rockets and popularize electric automobiles, he also offers up fear of artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons. The Victorian “damn the torpedoes” attitude has been lost amid risk mitigation strategies and the rapid desire for monetization of start-ups. As the film often states, the Victorians believed that technology would save them. Perhaps in some ways, the information age population no longer believes that — not because of technology’s failures, but because we no longer possess the bravery to risk the present by making mistakes that improve the future.
Relinquish control. Most designers want control. When Apple is chastised, it is most often for their near-omnipotent control of their platform and experience. Much of modern technology comes pre-packed and automatically configured. As we seek to inspire children to adopt science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), we provide them tools and toys that increasingly distance them from understanding how those disciplines influence the creation of the things they use. Of course Apple applies science to create an iPad, but the average child has no idea how that happens. Smartphones, Xboxes and PlayStations have few, if any, user-serviceable parts. Our distance from underlying technology has made our technology appear fragile. In contrast, Steampunk encourages direct engagement with making. In the film, Jordan Stratford of Victoria Steam Expo says people should “engage with it, make it your own, break it, risk it, reinterpret it, save the broken bits for later.” Writer Corey Doctorow suggests that Steampunk allows us to recognize what’s miraculous in all of our current technology, but that we need to remember what will survive is the “tinkerable.”
Offer Co-Creation. As with technology, we also have little control over the modern wardrobe. Jayme Goh says we need to create “clothing that fits us rather than asking us to fit into the clothing.” The one-style-fits-all consumer juggernaut in clothing makes people feel inferior because they don’t fit well into the clothes that are available. Steampunk urges people to make their own clothing, and, as many reflected in the film, what they wear reflects what they think is important, not some designer’s ideal of style or size. Many cosplayers, often shy when not in the costumes, find that the choice of the character and the hands-on act of creating the clothing imbues them with their best selves when wearing their uniform or costume. Perhaps more technology should come with things that require a screwdriver, a handcrafted add-on or good old glue and bailing wire. If we co-create our technology, we own it and we appreciate it. Perhaps we will cherish our clothes more and our technology, which may be Steampunk’s contribution to a reduced cycle of waste.
Mine past inventions. Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker, says that she explored the patent archives from the Civil War and discovered a wealth of fantastic, and fantastical machines that never happened because the inventors “ran out of war.” This “lost knowledge” can be mined not only by fiction writers, but by designers. That a device was never made, does not imply that design ideas or functions that could not be repurposed to create new value.
Tell better stories. In many ways, Steampunk is a cultural movement not because it derived from Victorian science-fiction stories by the likes of Jules Vern, but because it has created its own stories. I would challenge those who watch the movie — especially those who feel no inclination to go craft their own Victorian ball gown and bulletproof corset —to not identify with the need for a more authentic aesthetic. Steampunk anarchist Margaret “Magpie” Killjoy sees our current tech as “Incredibly alienating and Incredibly destructive…I’m not interested in throwing away technology, I’m not interested in throwing away human knowledge. I am interested in recreating technology from a more human perspective.” What stories, designers must ask themselves, should they tell — and what stories should be told by and about their creations?
Engage in teaching. Attendees actively engaged in the design and crafting of props and clothing share their knowledge at Steampunk gatherings and Maker Faires. One interviewee shares the power of seeing adults teaching adults how to design, how to operate machines and how to sew. And Steampunk, because it derives its core worldview from the mid-1800s, is also a great way to learn actual history, such as that told through the adventures of Boilerplate, the Steampunk robot created by Paul Guinan. Perhaps it is time for more coders to get up, walk around and share their knowledge with kids at the local high school.
Make good goggles. Finally, and a bit fastidiously, tech designers need to pay better homage to goggles, the hallmark of Steampunk attire. The Steampunk salute, after all, as one person puts it in the film is, “Hello, nice goggles.” Often it is goggles that first pop into people’s heads if they have an image of Steampunk. Ironically, is also goggles that pop into people’s heads when they first think of one of the more bleeding edge technologies: virtual reality. It would be useful for VR headset designers to perhaps seek some aesthetic inspiration in Steampunk designs, transforming the mostly black or white plastic, foam and rubber that makes wearers appear like When the Earth Stood Still’s Gort, into something more human.
All Our Yesterdays
History is a great teacher when it is acknowledged. The Steampunk movement’s growing ranks suggest that today’s technologists too often disregard some of the history’s best aspects in their race to create the worlds forecasted by dystopian writers. Many who have worked in Silicon Valley and other technology centers, myself included, would agree that technologists can do a much better job of self-reflection on their inventions as they trundle off toward phenomenon or buy-out, footnote or also-ran.
Beyond the concrete lessons, all of us can learn from Steampunk’s heartfelt enthusiasm. Vintage Tomorrows captures Jayme Goh as she sums up Steampunk by saying “you get the fantasy stuff and you get the science fiction stuff and it’s all made of awesome.”
The human mind can use its imagination to transform technology and history, to reshape elements, to bend, and shape, tweak and curl materials into art and tools. Steampunk offers a unique perspective on how humans apply that imagination and the shape of its inventions—it does so in stark contrast to the mainstream modern aesthetic. Steampunk hasn’t yet inspired its Summer of Love, but those who look will certainly its version of the Beats articulating a philosophy that may prove more influential than its inauspicious origins suggest.
For more information about the film, screening dates and time and DVD/VOD availability visit vintagetomorrows.com. Here’s the official trailer.