What is the value of steampunk?

November 12, 2008 in Notes from the Field

Lately, we’ve all been privy to the reemergence of steampunk from the ashes of dormant retro-asethetics. Even The New York Times recently cited steampunk as a hot new trend. Before we rush to embrace a new wave of emerging art and culture though, we need to ask ourselves: what is the value of steampunk beyond another marketing tool?

Steampunk recalls and romanticizes a historical period where human culture existed at the cusp of the great—and completely imagined—Industrial Revolution. Technology had seemingly magical qualities and humans harnessed and demystified this technology by physically exposing all of its mechanical intricacies. Arguably, steampunk is a reflection of our curiosity to understand how the world works.

Today, in the Apple Era of mass-produced techno-boxes that magically do everything for you, steampunk is a reaction against such products. Steampunk enthusiasts seek individuality, DIY makership, and a certain roguish explorative quality through hand-created items. In a sense, these craftspeople reflect the larger societal fear that today we accept objects that “just work,” without knowing or bothering to understand why or how. The technology is increasingly buried beneath burnished metal facades, eliciting an unsettlingly complacent attitude toward the world around us.

Unfortunately, the steampunk movement’s push-back against “it just works” is too often lost in the hands of poor design and ever poorer understanding. More and more, this raw message about the ferocity of the human spirit is being lost to a simplistic caricature of gears and bellows. Instead of being a new champion of human innovation and creativity in manipulating our world, marketers have a new buzz-concept that they can leech from, mass-producing “irony products” like electric guitars with gears stuck nonsensically upon them.

But while the world of steampunk has never actually existed in the human timeline, what it stands for can survive on beyond their 15 minutes of marketer fame.

Beyond the visual aesthetics of steampunk, its inherent spirit is rich in content. How can we, as designers, assist people’s curiosity to understand the world around them, to build and make for themselves, and to develop individuality? Beyond simply gluing gears on another guitar, perhaps there’s another answer.

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