14 November, 2008

Steampunk'd

I’m back to the blog (at least temporarily) to throw out some more ramblings now that Darling Daughter #3 has arrived healthy and beautiful. I’ve missed being able to throw the odd, occasional thoughts into written form and hopefully a few new readers and old friends will stop by and take a look.

I’ll give a tip of my hat to Tim over at Old World Swine for prompting me to briefly explore the Rube Goldberg-esque subculture known as Steampunk. While I was aware of its existence on the fringes of my mind, I also knew that as a genuine subculture it was bound to have leanings toward the absurd end of the human experience. Think of it as the positivist, pseudo-conservative counterpart to the dystopian realm of Cyberpunk. While both are amusing and more than a little frightening in their purest forms as complete lifestyle options, Steampunk has managed to find a soft spot in my heart when it comes to the wide world of design. (All images courtesy of http://www.datamancer.com/)



The aesthetic amalgamation of quality materials with classic forms and motifs applied to thoroughly modern devices inspires (at least for me) a markedly more sober appreciation for the very real power inherent in our array of electronic gadgetry. Take your typical, ubiquitous laptop computer, deployed by scores of over-caffeinated college chaps and lasses at the local bookstore. As a piece of industrial design, I personally feel that most models embody the definition of mediocre. Even the Apples of the laptop world, with their strict minimalism, are noteworthy more for their projection of the tabula rasa rather than the Portal to All Knowledge. When you think of exactly what it is that the machine allows you to accomplish, you realize its enormous worth as one of the most powerful leveraging devices in acquiring the vast wealth of accumulated human knowledge, experience, and history. In the not-so-distant past the laptop computer would certainly have portrayed this power in an entirely different way, ornamented and carefully crafted to announce to the world its place as The Key to the wonders of the ancients, the galleries of the Louvre, or the arcane mastery of Galileo or Einstein.

It is that rare sense of awe that I find exhibited in the fancies of Steampunk design. While often terribly overwrought, the best examples still show that spark of realization that there is eternal value inherent in the most disposable of techie widgets. In another post at Tim’s blog he shows a Steampunk inspired thumb drive – Why shouldn’t this disposable piece of junk acknowledge in its physicality the very real and awesome ability to contain more information than the Library of Alexandria? The humble laptop should proudly reflect its position as the modern Oracle, minus the arduous journey and temple virgins of course…

10 comments:

Tim J. said...

Hey! Glad to have you back!

But more importantly, "Congratulations!".

God's blessings on your(recently expanded) family... and special blessings on Mom.

Well done post, BTW. If I could write that well... umm... I would!

Matt said...

Thanks Tim, it's good to be back. We have three of the best girls you could ever hope for and we're having a blast with them. Mom is doing great too.

Thanks for your post that inspired me to put something back on the blog. I know I haven't been commenting over at your place but I've still been reading and you're doing a great job! Plus you have the added virtue of consistency which I sorely lack in this venture.

clarky pooh said...

Just so we can all know I love the same argument as always
http://laptop.org/en/laptop/index.shtml
Played with one of these @ Autodesk university in Vegas; Bono and Edge recorded the start-up music…not kidding
Instead of gilding tools, I enjoy how relatively cheap these devices have become; allowing them with-in the reach of more people.
I view these things like Niles and Frasier’s gold special multi-tool, and my self like Martin sitting in my comfy chair rolling my eyes.

alright more blog, more blog i say

Matt said...

Obviously, as I stated in the post, we're talking about a subculture that is certainly going to be excessive in its expression. These objects are no exception, I only show them as examples of what creative ingenuity can do to breathe a little character into what has become, for me, a characterless segment of the consumer market.

I didn't much think about the cost issue, as these are objects largely created with a lot of man-hours and not so much money by people for their own enjoyment. I just wish I saw more of the same spirit in the marketplace. It just seems that so much of our stuff is severely lacking in the character department. Were I in a position to buy a $1500 electronic device of some sort I might be willing to spend an extra 2 or 3 hundred to get a device that I got some sort of sensory pleasure out of using.

Let's just say I would rather have the french press pot or the Italian hand pulled espresso press than the coffee-matic shapeless machine that I put a foil sealed wafer of coffee in and press the dumb button. There's something of the pleasure of life and a connection with history in the former that is completely sanitized in the latter.

clarky pooh said...

I’ve gotten to take part in an Ethiopian Coffee service; akin to Japanese tea ceremony without bowl turning and bowing. It takes hours. The lady of the house crushed starts with green beans; roasts over and open flame, grind in a mortar and brew and steeps over an open flame. It makes one awesome cup. But the experience is the thing not the things being the thing. The mortar, boiler, and roasting pan are utilitarian and work great.

At home I have the choice to grind by hand or with an electric grinder. If the son is around we grind together because he thinks its fun. And I only use a press or stove top espresso maker. Again these are all utilitarian devices. They must work, not be pretty. I still think one of the best design pieces ever made is the Zippo lighter. Clean, heavy, and with proper maintenance can work for 50 years. I see no need to make computer look like Nemo’s sonar station.

I just don’t get it.

Matt said...

Let me take another tack and come at it from a different way. The best devices always seem to look like what they do. The thing itself embodies its purpose aesthetically. A coffee press is a good example - its function is apparent from its aesthetics.

Take the computer, it also does this to the extent that a decent laptop computer looks like a machine that utilizes electronics, silicon, and every high-tech material man can make to push electrons around to produce results. It screams "electronic". There is nothing wrong with this and it is clearly utilitarian and it works for just about anybody.

Where I get curious is when I see people at least thinking about what the computer does for us on the larger scale of metaphysics. We all know that it is a bunch of techie stuff that happens under the hood (and we're getting good at expressing that with current designs), but there aren't any companies designing a machine that looks like it could be the ultimate encyclopedia, the best library in the world, a way to communicate with people world-wide in real time. There is a level of significance to the device that is completely beyond the aesthetic of the mechanism. The function actually surpasses the mechanism and I think the design has remained at the level of the mechanism.

Think of books. On the one hand you have the latest John Grisham novel that just came out in paperback. It has a cover and the pages are glued into a rather crappy, yet functional, spine. The aesthetic is the mechanism of the book. Now take an illuminated family Bible that may have been passed down for a few generations. There is a cover and a spine, but there is probably a level of sophistication to the functional aesthetic that elevates it above the common paperback novel. The design says that there is something important about this particular book as it sits on a shelf with all of the others. My simple point is that I think there is room for electronic devices to move beyond that functional aesthetic and express a little more of the incredible functions they perform. I won't offer specifics other than I think it needs to be more humanistic and respond to the person rather than the electrons flowing around inside.

Once again I certainly don't advocate the specific images I posted, they were just kooky examples of an idea that I find interesting.

clarky pooh said...

The Porsche vs. The Corvette

The Porsche had racing features, like the 3 spoke wheel lock. This three prong meant you could jack the car up hit the prongs with a hammer very hard and quick and the tire would come off for a change in the pits.

The Corvette had lungs, covered by a hub cap which that had a three prong sticking out of it. It served no purpose, but to echo a great function that it didn’t have. It was dun dun dunnnnnn…decoration.

Put wood panels on a car and you have to sell it to surfers.

Good spines on books extend the life of books, when books where expensive things they had to last a long time, also they got handed around more.
With modern manufacturing we don’t need bonded leather. It doesn’t improve the book. You put Notes on Virgina in a gilded leather jacket and it is still full of racist idiocy. I have had two copies of Animal Farm. One was a mass market paper back I got in high school, the other is a first edition that a buddy got me for my birthday. The story is the same in both. The first edtition is more historic so I kept it, and gave my high school age brother-in-law the paper back. I kept the history, because the product was the same.

GM invented planned obsolescence
A car would look different one year than the year before. They did this to make functional items fashion. Why because function evolves slowly but fashion is made up, it is made up to sell junk. As we all know GM is like the best product design company ever.

I view humanist features as fashion.

Please keep the blog going and going, it makes lunch time such fun.

clarky Pooh said...

blogith more
blogith more
blogith more

you are on the verge of being a blog tease

KJ said...

Well, let this non-blogger join the discussion.

I have to say that I have been a fan of steampunk for awhile now. I know this is way off of my minimalist style, but a good design is good no matter what style it is.

As for the bantering about function and form, let me add this. The steampunk versions are quite attractive to me, because they echo a time when the designs actually tried to be aestheically pleasing sometimes whimsical and different, and not mundane and boring "and I can get on a shelf anywhere in the world". I do believe form follows function ,but good form also gives a satisfaction in the function. I can also say that I have not always liked some of the steampunked items due overkill of excessive decoration, but those that work hard to make the past and future a visual reality, I must applaud.

Here's the key,
Do I want the Porche or Corvette, depends on which one I enjoy driving most.

Matt said...

I'm with you KJ, it's about time you jumped in.

As for your Porche vs. Corvette scenario, I know if I had to make that choice I would go for the Porche and it would have nothing to do with the function of either vehicle. See my new post for more on that sort of thing. It's all about the experience...