The California Steampunk Convention – Keynote

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Hi Everyone!  I’m in Seattle now hang’n with rockstars and anarchists for a couple of days of decompression post SteampoweredCon in San Jose.  Steampowered turned out to be a really great event with lots of fascinating people of an even broader spectrum then the already broad spectrum I expected.

My flight was delayed and as a result I was exhausted and a bit shaky when I arrived to give my keynote with only minutes to spare.  The room was at capacity and the crowd quickly made me feel at home. I gave my prepared speech and then unveiled the Wimshurst Machine which I built for an article that will appear in Make Magazine early next year.

Then I brought Jeff VanderMeer up and we announced the fact that on Monday we signed with Artisan Books to write a book on Steampunk!  The book will be highly visual and project oriented and will draw from and highlight all corners of the community.  I’m really excited about this project and really, really happy to be working with Jeff who is a consummate professional and really nice guy.  It was also kind of neat that we shared the announcement, and in fact our first meeting in the flesh, with a thousand or so attendees at the Con!

The following is the complete text of my keynote – it’s un-copyedited or proofed so please ignore the typos!

You should also have a look at Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Reflection on Tinkering from which I borrowed liberally for the speech as it was incredibly relevant to the ideas I wanted to convey that night.

 

Steampunk Keynote

What sort of future were you promised? When I was young they told me I’d have robotic servants to tend to my every need, cars that would drive themselves while I read the newspaper and vacations in orbiting space hotels. When I was a bit older they promised me ecologically friendly communities where we would all live together in geodesic domes in our white jump suits.

But by the time I had reached High School they had stopped promising the future. We were all sure that we would grow up into a post-apocalyptic tomorrow where we would be roaming a desert landscape in our jury-rigged vehicles and punk rock haircuts in search of the next gallon of gasoline.

When things started to look up again our future remained dark, we’d be human flash drives with data jacked into our skulls and our destinies determined by mysterious and shadowy entities that may or may not be human, or even ”alive”.

Today, the only future we are promised is the one in development in the corporate R&D labs of the world. We are shown glimpses of the next generation of cell phones, laptops, or MP3 players. Magazines that use to attempt to show us how we would be living in 50 or a 100 years now only speculate over the new surround sound standard for your home theater or whether next year’s luxury sedan will have Bluetooth as standard equipment.

What do you do when you are promised no future beyond the next Steve Jobs keynote address or summer blockbuster movie? What do you do when your present consists of going to work, paying the bills, and trying to make ends meet? Our society would have you put your head down, work a little longer, try a little harder, and maybe order that 50-inch wide screen TV from Amazon.com.

"If you want something done right, do it yourself." Haven’t heard that much lately have you? Except perhaps from people who want to sell you home improvement supplies. But everything else is labeled "no user serviceable parts inside" including your future.

Is it any wonder, then, that some of us have decided to take a step sideways? A step out of the corporate time stream and into one we have made for ourselves? A step into a world of adventure and romance where we each seek out our own futures on our own terms without having to wait for it to go on sale? A step sideways into a past that never was and a future that still could be.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jake von Slatt and I simply cannot express how happy it makes me to be with you here tonight.

I’m going to start off by talking a little about what I do and why I do it and where I think Steampunk is headed. Then we’ll get the the unveiling.

"Maker" describes what I do and "Steampunk" describes the style in which I most commonly work.  Thus calling me a Steampunk Maker is roughly equivalent to calling someone a "Jazz" "musician."

Being a Maker is sort of like being an artist, but I have no training in the arts. It’s also sort of like being a craftsman, but I don’t make things for sale – though Makers other do. Tinkerer is also a good colloquial description of what I am and what I do.  I make things for the shear joy of creation. I also really enjoy sharing the things I make and the tools and techniques I use with other people. 

Recently the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an independent policy and research center, held a conference called

"Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge: Production in the Digital Age."  One of the attendees, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang – a  research director at the Institute for the Future – talked about the conference in his blog.

 

He wrote:

 

What is Tinkering?

You can define tinkering in part in contrast to other activities. Mitch Resnick, for example, talks about how traditional technology-related planning is top-down, linear, structured, abstract, and rules-based, while tinkering is bottom-up, iterative, experimental, concrete, and object-oriented. 

Anne Balsamo and Perry Hoberman have looked at a wide variety of tinkering activities, ranging from circuit bending to paper prototyping to open source to blogging. They argue that these varied activities are unified by a common set of principles or practices. (The following are just highlights.)

 

  • Tinkerers improvise, iterate, and improve constantly.
     
  • Tinkerers use materials at hand, combining heterogeneous parts and components (e.g., raw and finished materials, handmade and industrial objects, customized and personalized consumer products) in ways that push beyond the boundaries of their original contexts. As a result, tinkered objects tend to be collages, appropriations, and montages. Tinkering is bricolage.
     
  • Tinkerers are also social animals. Their success depends in part on being able to tap into porous and ad-hoc communities. For most of what they do the manual is useless; other tinkerers are the only ones who are likely to have the information you need.
     

Tinkering isn’t so much a specific set of technical skills: there tends to be a pretty instrumental view of knowledge. You pick up just enough knowledge about electronics, textiles, metals, programming, or paper-folding to figure out how to do what you want. It certainly respects skill, but skills are a means, not an end: mastery isn’t the point, as it is for professionals. Competence and completion are.

How cool is that, eh?  Academics are studying tinkering and whats more, they totally get it! 

Alex goes to say some more things about Tinkering that I feel are eerily applicable to Steampunk – and here I’ve taken some of the things he said slightly out of context to emphasize that point and I’ve also trimmed some of his citations:

He wrote:

One of the things I talked with several people . . . about was how historically specific tinkering is. The deeper question is, is this just a flash in the pan, a trendy name without any substance underneath? The answer we came up with is that this is like a musical style, both the product of specific historical forces, and an expression of something deeper and more fundamental.

Think of the historically contingent forces shaping tinkering first. I see several things influencing it:

 

  • The counterculture. Around here, countercultural attitudes towards technology . . . are still very strong, and the assumption that technologies should be used by people for personal empowerment. Tinkering bears a family resemblance to the activities embodied in the Whole Earth Catalog.
     
  • The EULA rebellion. The fact that you’re forbidden from opening a box, that some software companies insist that you’re just renting their products, and that hardware makers intentionally cripple their devices, is a challenge to hackers and tinkerers. Tinkering is defined in part in terms of a resistance to consumer culture and the restrictive policies of corporations.
     
  • Users as Innovators. The fundamental assumption that users can do cool, worthwhile, inspiring, innovative things is a huge driver. Tinkering is partly an answer to the traditional assumption that people who buy things are "consumers"– passive, thoughtless, and reactive, people whose needs are not only served by companies, but are defined by them as well. When you tinker, you don’t just take control of your stuff; you begin to take control of yourself.
     
  • Open source. Pretty obvious. This is an ideological inspiration, and a social one: open source software development is a highly collective process that has created some interesting mechanisms for incorporating individual work into a larger system, while still providing credit and social capital for developers.
     
  • The shift from means to meaning. This is a term that my Innovation Lab friends came up with a few years ago. Tinkering is a way of investing new meanings in things, or creating objects that mean something: by putting yourself into a device, or customizing it to better suit your needs, you’re making that thing more meaningful.
     
  • From manual labor to manual leisure. Finally, I wouldn’t discount the fact that you can see breaking open devices as a leisure activity, rather than something you do out of economic necessity, as influencing the movement. Two hundred years ago, tinkering as a social activity– as something that you did as an act of resistance, curiosity, participation in a social movement, expression of a desire to invest things with meaning– just didn’t exist: it’s what you did with stuff in order to survive the winter. Even fifty years ago, there was an assumption that "working with your hands" defined you as lower class: "My son won’t work with his hands" was an aspiration declaration. Today, though, when many of us work in offices or stores, and lift things or run for leisure, manual labor can become a form of entertainment.

Wow, this really echoes some of the things I’ve been thinking about in the last couple of months for a new project I’ll talk about in a little bit.

I’ve long felt that making is therapy. Knowing how to create some of the things you rely on in daily life reduces the mystery, and thus the fear, of technology in general. And with each new thing you make, each idea you absorb, each tool you learn how to use you gain power. By understanding how things work you also learn to think critically about technology in the wider world. You’ll be able to tell when our leaders or candidates for office understand the technology policy they are backing or are just repeating the party line.

Furthermore, the tools and techniques with roots in the 19th Century are often more appropriate for the individual craftsperson or small collective who does not have the resources to make huge capital investments in equipment and facilities.

 

So just what are we laying the ground work for here?

From a DIY technology perspective, Steampunk is a romanticized cousin to the Maker movement—and the Maker movement is the hardware-based offspring of the hugely successful and important Open Source software revolution.

The advent of cheap personal computers spawned a society of programmers and hackers who write computer programs for their own use and distribute the source code, the program’s core instructions, for free to anyone that’s interested. Over time, these hackers have coalesced into groups and organizations that are capable of rivaling the skill and ability of huge corporations when it comes to the production of computer programs and particularly computer operating systems.

Furthermore, the Open Source movement seeks to protect the free and open nature of what they have wrought with tools like the GNU Public License that require subsequent users and modifiers of their work to make those modifications freely available to everyone under the same terms. Today you can, and many do, run even the largest businesses on what is essentially free software.

What a nightmare for software and operating system companies that their chief competition comes from groups of passionate hackers who produce their programs for the sheer joy of Making and then distribute them for free!

Over the next couple of decades we will see swift advances in rapid prototyping and desktop fabrication. Already there are so-called 3D printers that can produce basic housewares such as hair combs and salt shakers. In the very near future these machines will be able to produce all manner of things rapidly, cheaply, and on demand. 

Self-manufacturing really isn’t too far away. We’ll have 3D printers or "fabricators" in our homes that can "print" objects just as we have 2D printers attached to our computers now.

The advent of personal computers has opened up digital and machine assisted graphics design to a wide community of artists, desktop manufacturing will open up product design to hobbyists and enthusiasts that will design for fun rather then profit.

What a nightmare for manufacturers that their chief competition might come from Makers who produce designs that anyone can manufacture on demand. Makers that would produce those designs for the shear joy of creation and would give them away for free.

Steampunk preserves the notion that we can do it ourselves, that we can not only assemble kits and flat packs from IKEA but that we can design things ourselves.

Just as cheap personal computers spawned the revolution that is Open Source software, these fabricators will be the platform for the next Industrial Revolution – and this time it’s personal.

Finally, where Steampunk sub-culture headed?

I have a bit of a confession to make; I don’t really know what Steampunk is. Genre, aesthetic, movement, sub-culture, style, all of these terms have been used to describe it but none quite capture the richness and variety I see in this community.

Unlike past, and I’m going to use the word "sub-culture" just as a convenience, unlike past sub-culture Steampunk seems to have formed from the merger of multiple interests that contain within them a common thread – and that is some attachment or passion for history, for understanding the origins of technology, and perhaps a desire for the perceived romance of a bygone era.

How else do you explain a sub-culture that brings together people of such divergent experience? Why in the very room I’ll bet we have writers, costumers, electronic hobbyists, live steam enthusiasts, corset makers, artists, blacksmiths, scrap bookers, photographers, musicians, and people who engage in every other creative endeavor you can imagine!

And Steampunk continues to attract more people. Recent coverage in the New York Times, Newsweek, and on MTV have introduced new people to our little hobby. Some of you may be here tonight because you spotted one of these stories and were entranced. Welcome!

But as Steampunk expands it will exhibit all of the characteristic of past movements and sub-cultures. Sub-cultures do have a natural life cycle.

Some of you will likely find this irritating but it is natural, to be expected, and best ignored. There is no way that someone else can ruin the thing that you are passionate about by liking it too!

But as this occurs, do keep in mind the legacy that Steampunk will leave in main-stream culture. Will Steampunk be like Goth, a largely artistic and non-political sub-culture? or will it more closely resemble Punk rock culture with it’s desire for radical change?

For my part, I would like to see a Steampunk sub-culture that was more like the cultural movements of the late nineteen sixties and early seventies. A movement based on humanistic values and a desire to inject some excitement, romance and peace into our busy lives as well as a recognition that our actions have a great impact on the global environment.

We don our top hats and goggles to show the world we’re different. Fashion is often the flag of a sub-culture and the most visual aspect of Steampunk is certainly its fashion. But years from now, when all is said and done and Steampunk is historical footnote, I hope that I will look back and feel that the Steampunk somehow made a difference too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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