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December 19th, 2012:

Does Steampunk Really Humanize Our Gadgets?

Bill Cherepy (and a couple of others since) sent me an interesting link to a piece on Boing Boing arguing (I think) that steampunk makes our gadgets more human. It’s a headscratcher, since I don’t think the article text supports the author’s contention. However, it’s an idea worth some thought. I actually agree, if for different reasons:

  • Steampunk gadgets are comprehensible. Most of the tech in our modern phones and computers is black art, even to guys like me with considerable background in electronics. Electric, mechanical, and chemical tech circa 1900 was accessible to anyone with an ounce of brains and some willingness to study.
  • Steampunk gadgets are reproduceable. At home. In your basement. Sure, it would take a little research and pratice, but with nothing more exotic than a lathe and basic chemistry gear you could build most of what we connect with steampunking. Dare you to do that with an iPad.
  • Steampunk gadgets are personal. This is going to earn me some heat, but I think it’s true: Steampunk thingies are in-your-face, not on-your-friends-ist. One of the charms of the steampunk idea is that people interact face-to-face. This keeps trolling to a minimum and fosters at least superficial courtesy, which certainly beats the slobbering hatred that now dominates Facebook.

All that said, I admit that the majority of what I see under the heading “Steampunk” is a species of fantasy, be it of the supernatural (vampires and zombies) or just wildly off-the-edge assumptions of what 1900 technology could accomplish.

The big turn-off I found in cyberpunk was its coldness. Granted this was cultural and not really necessary, but when I played at the edges of cyberpunk years ago it stopped me in my tracks. Cyberpunk was cynicism writ large, and steampunk is optimism gone nuts. Given that cynicism is cowardice (it is, in fact, the fear and loathing of all things human) you can guess where I’m much more likely to tell my tales.