What is good and important about steampunk

Nick Harkaway's essay "The Steampunk Movement is Good and Important" does a good job of answering charges that steampunk is cover for racism or colonialism, and does an even better job of explaining the attraction of steampunk technological visions to a modern artist:

Just as it would be tragic to ignore the advantages and consolations of the cognitive - and those who denigrate it in favour of a romanticised understanding of the instinctual or the mystical slander themselves - so equally it is idle and spurious to contend that we are cognitive entities riding around in bony control centres in our skulls, peeping out through windows in the face. We are not just brains with mobile life support. The emerging understanding of embodied cognition is the last nail in the coffin of that idea. We are bodies which think, and we’re at home with Steampunk because it is an ethos of design and creativity which acknowledges the humanly physical, that which we can understand with our fingers. It values our bounded selves, whose world is the middle earth between the flea and the horizon line in which objects obey Newton and relativity is barely more than an academic interest. It is a cognitively limited and incomplete sort of place. In terms of our senses, though, it’s all there is, and Steampunk is about being able to have the wonders of technology while still valuing, acknowledging and respecting that restricted view.

From that one central aspect of its identity, Steampunk mounts a challenge to grey-black plastic industrial design, to the faux-sanitised world of consumer technology and to techno-/neo-colonialism. It insistently re-makes technology as something friendly and even quasi-biological by producing things that owe more to Rube Goldberg than to the Filippo Marinetti-style “faster, harder” culture of Sony and Microsoft or the endless iterations of Apple and Samsung. The ethos admits of failure: Steampunk devices almost are not working properly if they don’t have leaks, if they don’t require maintenance and the occasional thump. That’s where they get character and animation, identities of their own which reflect their owners, while every iPhone can be seen as Apple’s endlessly replicated identity given passage into your every waking moment, a tiny and instantly replaceable cloned shopfront: what role is conferred or imposed by such a device on the person carrying it? It’s not that Jonathan Ive’s designs are poor, it’s that they are profoundly truthful: an iPhone is a vector, not an object, valued by its creator for its purpose and interchangeability, not individuality. Steampunk, on the other hand, repurposes, scavenges, remakes and embellishes in an arena where embellishment is seen as decadence, never mind the inherent decadence of creating the sheer amount of computing power our society now possesses in order that most of it should sit idle or be used for email and occasional games of Plants vs Zombies. Steampunk appeals to the idea of uniqueness, to the one-off item, while every mainstream consumer technology of recent years is about putting human beings into ever more granular, packageable and mass-produced identities so that they can be sold or sold to, perfectly mapped and understood.

The Steampunk Movement is Good and Important (via Kadrey!)


  1. I dare say that all of my idle computing power is potentially far more useful than some ghastly looking steam punk fetishist head gear.

    I can see the good, certainly.  The importance, not so much.  If you dig it, awesome.  Just don’t stand on my back to create a loftier position for yourself in the process.    

  2. No one has ever been able to tell me – how is “steampunk” in any way “punk?” It just seems like a bunch of rich people playing dress up.

      1. Fair enough. But at least in my mind, punk/punks usually aspire to be a little more than that. There’s usually an ideological dimension to punk – and it’s often ignored or presented hypocritically – but it’s at least sorta there. What ideological arguments is steam punk presenting? If, as the article is claiming, it’s a rejection of modern technology, why the fascination with PC casemods?

        I’m not trying to be a dick – I’m just really curious about steampunk, and most of what I know about it comes the posts about it on this site, which have never really made the name make sense to me.

        1. Much like other subcultural movements, it’s a mishmash of concepts and styles, each of which has its own separate identity, but which have all been grouped together under a general title because they seem to fit together aesthetically and philosophically, and often because they each draw inspiration from each other.

          So yes, there is an ideological dimension to steampunk (generally anti-establishment/anarchist), but it is just as easily overlooked or de-emphasized in favor of other elements, like fashion or design.

          Because our era is characterized by fetishization of consumer products and disinterest in political theory, it’s no surprise that the movement is understood by most (including many “adherents”) as primarily about things like PC casemods and fancy outfits.

          Steampunk Magazine has a good claim to being a formative influence, check it out to get a broader feel for what this steampunk thing is all about.

          1. Fetishization of consumer products is nothing new. The Victorian era with its mass media and rising living standards created a broad middle class full of collectors and decorators. The big change was from 1870 to 1920 when manufacturing became a thousand times more efficient and broadened the consumer class to include almost everyone. Soaring agricultural productivity led to mass urbanization along with changing societal and sexual mores.

            I like the playful aspect of steam punk, so I mainly focus on it as an artistic thing. Let’s face it, our machines are so much better it isn’t funny, but those old fashioned knobs and gears and levers look really cool. You can actually see how the machine works.

            Given some of the horrible political reactions to modernity, including the current situation in Europe and the gridlock in Congress, I think steam punk politics is a bit of a side show. Still it’s nice to know that the esthetic can be associated with a broad political field. After all, the first steam punk I ever saw was the Wild, Wild West which featured two government agents working for President Grant. The anarchists were the bad guys.

        2. It is just a reference to cyber punk (which had some rather coincidental connections to the punk subculture).

          Steampunk got rid of the cyber and the punk elements while retaining some of the attitude.

        3. I’d say that aside from the dimension of it that hankers for a time when stuff was beautifully made from brass and wood, it’s mostly harking back to a period of history when significant technological advances could be made by some guy in his shed.

          Before transistors came along, it wasn’t necessary to have the resources of a huge company churning out black boxes from vast and complex factories to push the technological envelope; as this video proves, a sufficiently skilled lone tinkerer could have been at the cutting edge back in the day.

          That’s a pretty damn cool notion. In fact, I gave my mate’s girlfriend a total nerdgasm with it a few months back : )

        1. I first heard about Steampunk from my goth friends over a decade ago. Though many of those are LARPers too, so maybe there was a significant amount of crossover. 

        2. You’re correct.  In recent years, Steampunk has become that. 

          What originally began as sci fi lit morphed into gadgets and an entire maker/artist genre.

          The once thoroughly unique has recently given way to cosplay, LARP, dress up cons.

          The art will continue to be explored but the the cons, IMHO are completely ruining it.

    1. dear god, whilst i enjoy the edwardian gaslight fantasy as much as the next geek, the term “steampunk” makes me cringe every time i read it for exactly that reason: it is not punk.
      punk is important. st… stea… edwardiangaslightfantasy has its own merits. the intersection of the two could be interesting (much like the intersection between sf and punk which produced cyberpunk which arguably was some kind of intersection of both), but the term ‘steampunk’ feels like so much vacuous attention-getting branding.

    2.  “Steampunk” was a tongue-in-cheek dig at the popular SF genre cyberpunk by one of the writers of Victorian fantasy (K.W. Jeter) in the 1990s as a joke marketing term. Sadly the name stuck. There was no punk originally and it’s been shoe-horned in by clueless people who don’t understand the joke.

      1. “Steampunk” was a tongue-in-cheek dig […] in the 1990s as a joke marketing term

        1987, apparently. It’s intriguing that it languished for 20 years as a minor corner of genre fiction before becoming a folksy fashion movement.

        And just like 1970s punk, the movement has appropriated the term and made it its own. Whether or not it ‘understands the joke’ is irrelevant now.

  3. “[Steampunk] insistently re-makes technology as something friendly”.

    Does it?  This implies to me, that whatever is shown, is inherently still useful. But the image above the article shows the embodiment of most steampunk:  Weapons that look like made from scraps, but which are usually non-functional and not practical at all. It may not be faux leather, but it’s certainly faux design. 

    Yes, lots of consumer goods are mass-produced and literally of one and the same mold.  But stuff doesn’t derive their meaning – and ultimately their individuality – not from the their uniqueness of their production, but from the uniqueness of their use. The 100 hundred smartphones carried by 100 cyberpunk cosplayers ultimately carry more individual quirks than their pseudo-victorian or wilheminian non-gadegts.


  4. I’m comfortable just ignoring steampunk, but one thing that does bother me about it — and about Making in general — is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we need all hands to the pumps. Making useless stuff instead of working the problem, which may involve dealing with actual people and politics/policy, isn’t my personal choice of how to engage.

    1. There’s a balance to be had between doing things that are worthwhile and taking time off to have fun. It’s not an either or situation.

      1. Puhleese. Granted, I grew up on and operate a farm, so I’m a maker, like my father before me and his father before him. I’ve even a Maker, having recently built a unit to micromap wind using an Arduino, a GPS logger shield, and an anemometer. I had to build the frequency to voltage converter myself.

        But I do appreciate the acknowledgment here that Making is not necessarily Doing Something that is Worthwhile, which we need vastly more of.

    2. I agree with what you say, though some modern day problem solving may involve old ideas.  Example being using balloons/sailing/windmill technology and concepts to harness wind energy.  This many decades into the nuclear age, it’s neat that we’re revisiting the topics.  But I agreee, Steampunk as fashion accesories because it’s keen is not as helpful as making something useful. 

    3. I’m comfortable ignoring you trying to concern troll what everyone does with their own lives.

      (Maybe things would be different if there was the least bit of consensus about what “all hands to the pumps” means but there isn’t.)

    4.  Except makers can choose what to make and how to learn those skills. How do they choose to contribute to your lofty enterprise? Is there a well understood and consumable path for doing so or do you expect everyone to quit their jobs and join an NGO somewhere?

  5. The thing that really irks me about this essay is the underlying idea that modern technology, ie. electronics, is incomprehensible to normal people. Every day Boing Boing showcases normal people (many of them self-taught) making amazing projects with electronics. I’d argue that figuring out clever ways to use Arduino is a lot closer to the spirit of John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement than gluing some brass gears to a bowler hat is.

    Steampunk is no more of a “movement” than D&D fantasy larping is, and it’s no more “good and important” than slathering yourself in blue makeup and pretending to be a dark elf wizard.

  6. A “brain in a mobile life support” would make an awesome steampunk project. Especially if you held it together with nails from a coffin.   

    1. Maybe the victorian tie-in could be a “brain inside a tank of juices w/ brass gears and handmade wood and leather stuff glued onto it of dorian grey” thing

      1.  That is exactly how i was picturing it, yes. Walking around on spider legs made out of an old umbrella, and bits of typewriter.

  7. He writes that steampunk “values our bounded selves” and “insistently re-makes technology as something friendly” under a (self?) portrait of a man wearing technology that augments his human sight and strength and carrying a very large handgun. The technology he makes up for his costume is focussed entirely on projecting strength and wielding power. It is not friendly, nor does it value the bounded human condition. It is quite the opposite.

    I have no problem with steampunk or with people dressing up as robot warriors, but this essay just gets it wrong.

  8. This article is inane.

    Good and important re-makes technology as something friendly
    vs  Sony and Microsoft Apple Samsung, etc

    So he is championing:
    reality (actual useful technology) 
    vs imagination (non-functional gadgets from a fictional past)

    mass produced vs unique
    Is he just trolling Eli Whitney here?

    I like a lot of steampunk, a lot (more?) is just annoying, but that’s my preference.  You like it? great enjoy it.  But I don’t get how this is any more “important” than any other hobby/ creative endeavor/artform etc.
    or, perhaps I do, also good n useful:

    car mod (hot rod, pimped hondas, lowriders, etc)

    found object sculpture

    people making all kinds of food (or new ones) with bacon (also annoying)


    street art/graffiti

    making miniature statues of abraham lincoln out of earwax (go ahead laugh, there are thousands of us)

  9. Racism? I never heard racism and steampunk mentioned in the same breath before. To me, steampunk is goth by way of HG Wells. I don’t think there’s any politics or race to it.

  10. Steampunk is sort of off the rails, to me. I remember one time a ‘Steampunk terrarium’  was posted here and I thought, “you can’t have a Steampunk terrarium. They already HAD terrariums in the late 1800s. You don’t have to go through the mental exercise, “what would terrariums have been like if only they had been invented earlier?”

    To me Steampunk comes from a respect for the engineering of the past. It’s not about giving them things they never could have had, it’s about drawing out things they were oh-so-close to having all on their own.

  11. Actual steam-powered equipment is fascinating to watch in action, loud, and a bit dangerous. It’s accessible through understanding of basic mechanics, which makes it fun for a variety of people to collaborate on. There’s an authenticity about it that to me is almost the opposite of the morbidly self-conscious application of brass, leather and silk decoration to modern objects.

  12. I figured when I saw steampunk butterfly stickers, stencils, rubber stamps, and the like at Joann (fabric and home crafty store), the steam had jumped the punk. But having my own “why that?” hobbies, I guess I really shouldn’t be judgmental towards those who want to make something, useful or not, kitschy or not. It’s just not for me.

  13. I like Foglio and Foglio’s “Girl Genius”, though they describe it as gaslamp fantasy more than steampunk.  One of the things I really like about it, is the heroes are inventors and scientists, and brilliant thought and tinkering is the driving force of society. As for people doing cosplay of it or other stories being important, no.

    It’s just a fantasy setting, there’s nothing about it that makes it good or holy.

    The suggestion that you can only truly appreciate or understand a technology if you can see it on a macroscopic level is goofy.  The organic “machinery” that our brains consists of, the ways that our eyes work reading this post is “a world of weird, tiny particles and rare earths, a world whose precise composition is so far from what we can perceive”.  That complexity if much greater than our cellphones.  Ok, so rare earth metals aren’t common in biology, but we still can’t perceive large segements of what C H and O do in their metabolic mambo.  There is a vast hidden world in all of existance. Yes, steampunk can be pretty, and it’s neat to see how simple machine work.  Imagining you’ve a total grasp of the concepts involved is hubris.   There is always, always a deeper understanding, wether it be a steam engine a cell phone, or watching paint dry.   

  14. does a good job of answering charges that steampunk is cover for racism and colonialism

    Beginning one’s response to steampunk’s complicity to racism and colonialism by saying that racism and colonialism is ubiquitous is about as good as saying that since dirt and filth is ubiquitous and no one can truly be free of it, therefore it is okay to not bathe.

      1. “I juuuuust want to liiiiike stuuuuuuufffff! I don’t waaaaaant this poliiiiticssss! Waaaaaahhhh!”

        And this is before people are asked to do anything, you see. Yeah, just stuck at getting people to say “this stuff is problematic in some ways”, without qualifications like, “but -isms permeates society anyway, so why single out uuuuuuus?”

        I mean, really — I admire Jhameia, Ay-leen, Moniquill and everyone in groups like Steampunk POC for putting up with this shit, but if I have to hear another white cisgender person do the equivalent of jamming their fingers into their ears and going “LA LA LA THERE’S NOTHING WRONG HERE LA LA LA”, I’ll… well, I guess I don’t want to engage. I got better things to do.

  15. To me, the most fascinating thing about steampunk is that it is primarily a craft-and-arts movement set in fictional SFnal worlds (with a literature component). It’s similar to build-your-own fanfic with a few shared worldbuilding principles.

    Making steampunk more significant than that is turning the molehill into Mount Everest.

  16. Agreed! I always see Steampunk as mostly cosplay, with a small group within it that likes to build functional stuff that suits the technology of the fetishized period.
    Love the idea of anybody wanting to learn to build useful things (and that includes art projects as well as tools and crafty bits), but steampunk at it’s Victorian/Edwardian heart is just dress-up. 
    The guys at Survival Research Labs are as concerned with the basic technologies from that era, just with a different esthetic.

  17. I guess the value I see in Steampunk is remembering that presentation is important. As someone who does all her work on a computer via Citrix, I find myself longing for the feel of a pencil on paper (I’ll do arithmetic longhand, or write out some of my notes, because I want to *feel* it.) Steampunk, with leather and brass and glass and knobs and things, appeals to the sensory side of me. Yes, the iPhone is beautiful in its simplicity, but sometimes I want something with heft and texture and little curlicues to engage my senses.

    1.  Just the feeling of ‘Not Citrix, but something that wohohohohooooorkssss! Puleeeeeaaaaazzzze!!!’ would probably help ;)

  18. I find steampunk to be nostalgic escapism that romanticizes a notion of technology as containable, understandable, and clearer in its application and impact than digital technology.

  19. This post was totally defensive. Even Cory knows that steampunk is lame enough to require justification.

  20. my problem with the steampunk objects shown on here is that they are aethetic but non functioning: some simple device with a ton of cool looking dials that don’t do anything and rivets as if it’s under extreme pressure (ie steam-powered) but everything comes off just looking Disneyfied instead. 

  21. Just so y’all know. When grungers started getting referred to as ‘punk’ we OG punks were all like “what up with that?” but then my dad said the same thing to me, so . . .

    1. Of course, when punks start using OG and “what up with that,” all is right with the world.

Comments are closed.