Vintage Tomorrows Connects Steampunk, Makers, and the Future of Technology

Vintage Tomorrows cover, O'Reilly
Vintage Tomorrows cover, O’Reilly

Often we do, quite literally, judge a book by its cover. And like the cliché implies, sometimes what’s inside is so much more than what we expected. I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative about the cover of Vintage Tomorrows–in fact, it was the cover that first drew my eye. What I didn’t expect was 383 pages that connected so many dots for me, so many of my interests that I had no idea were related, much less that they could all draw lines back to steampunk.

The book’s subtitle, A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology, summarizes as well as so few words can what’s to be found inside, but what it really gives you a glimpse of is the duality of the co-authors, one looking back and the other looking forwards. James Carrott is the historian half, but also was once the global product manager for the Xbox 360. Brian David Johnson looks into the metaphorical crystal ball to see technology’s future for Intel. The title of the first chapter, “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walk Into a Bar,” gives you a good idea of the tone of the rest of the book (much of which was imagined over pints of beer). It’s an academic tome with distinctly non-academic language. In referring to steampunk as “‘postmodern’ like nobody’s business,” Carrott notes, “and I hope never to use this word again in the course of this entire book (scary, bad academic things happen when one invokes such demons).” I wholeheartedly agree.

They begin the story of steampunk with the hippies and beats and 60s counterculture. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Leary–people long before anyone was gluing gears on goggles, before anyone thought of the word “steampunk.” But the roots are there, and it’s not too many pages before you’re getting acquainted with Burning Man here in the 21st century–Black Rock City and, more specifically, The Neverwas Haul, a magnificent steampunk creation, a self-propelled, three-story Victorian house on wheels that captured Carrott’s soul at Burning Man and hasn’t since let go. It reappears throughout the book, complete with black-and-white pictures that will send you online looking for more.

The book includes interviews with Cory Doctorow and Cherie Priest, among many others, including tales from the table of the Vintage Tomorrows dinner party, “getting together as many smart people as possible” to talk about what steampunk is, why it’s important as a subculture at this point in time, and what it can teach us about the future.

The most salient point for me that came from all of this is that steampunk isn’t about yesterday. It’s about today. It’s about how we’re reacting to a world of connectedness and closed devices and constantly keeping up with an overwhelming tide of information that never stops slapping its waves against our screens, which are never more than an arm’s reach away. Carrott writes:

There’s a progressive feel to Victorian culture, and elements of it that really embraced science, the idea of progress and the future. Victorians were absolutely facing some of the very same questions that steampunk writers and artists tackle: ethics in a landscape of infinite technological capability…

Technology is advancing at a rate that leaves us spinning more than ever before in human history (the iPhone and Android were released only five and a half years ago, the iPad three years ago, and you could spend another entire book talking about 3D printing!). But not only is there a new device seemingly every day, we’re locking them up more and more. The iPhone is the poster device for this problem–you can’t so much as change the battery yourself, and most iPhone owners don’t even see that as a problem. Increasingly, your devices do what their designers wanted them to do for you with little option for them to do what you want them to do for you. Steampunk is a reaction to that. It’s a memory of the time when instead of buying a new thing when your old one broke, you fixed whatever the thing was. Perhaps you even improved it to better suit your specific your needs. We’re living in a time where fewer people have the skills to do so, and many of their broken things don’t even let them try.

And that’s when this book connects the story of steampunk to the maker/hacker movement. Maker Faires and hackerspaces/makerspaces. Backyard fabs and garage labs. People who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the digital world and the idea that showing someone what you’ve made requires a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection are putting their efforts into tangible creations. And as the MAKE motto says, “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

That attitude then connects to my own day job–open source software (and increasingly, open source hardware). Open software is built on collaboration, sharing, and creating greater things built on the greatness of those who came before you. In her interview in the book, Libby Bulloff of Steampunk Magazine says, “It’s really great to walk into a makerspace full of folks and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m working on. What are you working on?’ Teaching doesn’t have to happen in a school. It can happen anywhere. I’m really impressed at a number of the people in the steampunk scene sharing their knowledge and not being proprietary about their projects.” Steampunk exemplifies and embodies that open source culture.

This book is an adventure, not just through steampunk, but through a time machine of technology past and future. It’s probably the only book where you’ll be able to connect Justin Bieber, The Beatles, and America’s Next Top Model in the same chapter without thinking the authors are completely daft. And what about all those gears? You can’t have steampunk without gears, can you? On page 329, you get an answer to all the gears-glued-on.

We’re using steampunk as a way to smooth out the ride of this bullet train we’re taking to the future. Vintage Tomorrows helps draw the map of how we got where we are. And as to where we’re going? “Keep an eye on the makers and the hackers, the builders and the artists… it’s going to be awesome.”

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By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.