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The Next Old Thing

Steampunk’s devotion to the mechanical used to seem eccentric; today, it could be the key to customizing your smartphone

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Carl Wiens


While it’s hard  not to be awed by what today’s consumer technology lets us do, the fact remains that very little of it is exciting to look at. Sure, your new smartphone is curved and ultra-slim, but then so is a pizza. More to the point, so is pretty much every other digital device out there. It’s safe to assume that for most of the early adopters descending on Las Vegas this month for the Consumer Electronics Show—the world’s largest such event—individuality isn’t that big a deal.

The same cannot be said for those in the steampunk movement, the fashion-oriented subculture that mashes up Victoriana, sci-fi and punk to take a playful swipe at society’s obsession with consumerism and the Next Big (Digital) Thing—and is itself threatening to achieve Thingdom of its own. Citing an IBM report, the Independent recently revealed that “online
discussion about steampunk increased 11-fold between 2009 and 2012,” and retailers are increasingly becoming “steampunk savvy.”

With steampunk’s growing popularity, there is a sense that the movement’s quirky aesthetic tinkering could serve as a corrective for the austere design of our digital devices. Already, countless smartphones, laptops and tablets have been given a retro-futuristic makeover, turning them into a discombobulating whirl of gleaming brass, glowing dials and springy bits.

So we have a bunch of brainier-than-thou types meddling with their iPhones—big deal, right? What’s interesting here, though,  is that such customization could move from the fringes to the mainstream. Jake von Slatt, an author, hacker and IT specialist for an aerospace firm near Boston who is considered to be one of steampunk’s leading lights, says the movement represents “the path toward infinite customization.” It will achieve this role, he adds, by harnessing the power of the 3-D printer. “Instead of people making lampshades from complex mathematical formulae, we’ll be able to make shapes we couldn’t make before. This will mean less regurgitation. Even among tech firms, there is starting to be a big movement toward customization.”

While this trend hasn’t gone mainstream yet, it’s certainly getting more ambitious. Chris Fenton, a New York–based electrical engineer who designs supercomputers for a living, built a contraption he calls the “Turbo Entabulator,” a 3-D-printed mechanical computer. The machine operates on the same principle as your PC—a set of registers that can be incremented and decremented—yet this one uses nuts and bolts, springs and rubber bands. The whole caboodle is driven by a central crankshaft with a handle attached.

The point, of course, is not so much what this device does as what it says. Through such creations, steampunk is positioning itself at the forefront of a debate that touches on fundamental questions about our relationship with technology. Increasingly, the tech-geek aversion to cookie-cutter design, cynical upgrades and built-in obsolescence is leeching into the broader market.

As with many movements aimed at challenging the status quo, there’s an absurdist element to steampunk. It seems highly unlikely that there will ever be mass-market appeal in von Slatt’s modified keyboard, with its black felt faceplate and burnished brass frame. The same goes for his adapted Victorian telegraph sounder, which connects to your keyboard and clacks out an RSS feed in Morse code. This last, surely, is little more than a silly conceit, but it might lead to demand for more creative thinking in the area of mainstream tech design.

Over the years, von Slatt has produced hundreds of items like those mentioned above. One of his favorites, he says, is a reproduction of a Victorian electrostatic generator, which has no apparent use other than recreating scenes from a Mary Shelley novel. Von Slatt insists, though, that even this apparently frivolous “party piece” serves a purpose.

“People around the world built their own machines from the plans I published,” he says. “One eighth-grade girl in India built a version for a science class project. Think what she may go on to create one day.”

BOYD FARROW, a London- and Berlin-based business writer, recently customized his TV remote control, which now resembles a very small submarine.

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