You can make the argument—and I have—that we’re living in the design era of the cyberpunk. In Silicon Valley, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all devoted to perfecting concepts first popularized in science-fiction novels, ranging from virtual reality to virtual assistants. Major advances in A.I. and bio-modification are made on almost a daily basis, and in the media, cyberpunk is the aesthetic du jour, popping up in everything from Stephen Spielberg movies like Ready Player One to widely anticipated video games like CD Proket’s Cyberpunk 2077. As I wrote a few months ago: “Tears in rain is the motif of cyberpunk and tech’s future: the indistinguishable blurring between that which man creates and that which is a force of nature. That is why cyberpunk isn’t just sci-fi. It’s design theory.”
But what of steampunk, cyberpunk’s anachronistic cousin? A design movement and aesthetic that came to prominence in the mid-2000s as a direct response to the rapid evolution of consumer electronics, steampunk was a brass-and-leather alt-universe in which the products we have all come to depend on were retrofitted together using the technology of the late 19th century. Instead of airplanes, steampunk embraced zeppelins; instead of computers powered by electricity running through silicon, steampunk imagined steam-powered mainframes running calculations by churning gears. For a brief period between 2007 and 2012, steampunk as an aesthetic was everywhere, from Project Runway to Disneyland Paris.
But now it’s all but dead. What happened? Why did steampunk die, while cyberpunk thrived? It turns out the iPhone has a lot to do with it.
The watchwords of steampunk are gears and cogs, brass and copper. Inspired by the literature of writers like Jules Verne, Michael Moorcock, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and K.W. Jeter, it stands out for its retro-Victorian aesthetic.
Think of it this way: If cyberpunk is an exploration of what near-future technology could be if the divide between the digital and analog was erased, steampunk is a thought experiment about what tech could become if the analog was taken to the extreme. So instead of console cowboys…