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 jacking their brains directly into cyberspace, steampunk is all about steam-powered rocket ships and clockwork robots — from a design perspective, making technology as intuitive as the inside of a pocket watch.
“The elements of steampunk are all about exposing the inner workings of technology,” explains Jake von Slatt, proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop and perhaps the best known of the steampunk designers. “It’s about using design to make the working of technology scrutable through an object’s aesthetic. So many of the objects in today’s world are black boxes, and what happens inside them is totally invisible. So steampunk was all about revealing those inner workings, and empowering people to understand technology again, even if it was only fictitiously.”
In other words, steampunk is a bit of a power fantasy: not of the technologist, but of the maker, the tinkerer, the engineer. The guys who can rebuild an engine from scratch, but who are as powerless to fix the iPhone that they just dropped in the toilet as the rest of us.
And that is exactly why steampunk took off when it did, starting around early 2003. According to Rob Beschizza, an editor at Boing Boing — one of the web’s oldest and most popular fringe culture blogs, which reported on the rise of steampunk firsthand — steampunk became popular alongside the internet’s maker movement, which itself was a response to technology’s rapid evolutionary clip.
“Steampunk was a sublimated mania for handcrafted machinery, an aesthetic of an age of invention coming at the point where our technology was moving beyond our control (let alone made ourselves), and when technical creativity was becoming an extraordinarily complex and exclusive field,” he says. “By providing a distinctive aesthetic and a cultural framework pulled from older things, it made creative geekery accessible and fun.”
Steampunk really took off in 2007, though. It’s the year mainstream magazines like Wired began reporting seriously on the movement (I know, because I wrote the article). It’s when Google searches for steampunk begin slowly trending upward, to peak in 2016. And in examining that chart’s dips and troughs through the years, you start to see a pattern. Web searches for “steampunk” tend to peak in September or October, right around the time the new iPhones hit the market. And there’s a reason for that, according to Von Slatt.
“At the height of its mainstream popularity, I think steampunk was a cultural response to the ultimate technological zeitgeist, the iPhone,” says Von Slatt. With its touchable chiclet icons and large all-glass screen, the iPhone may have been the most consumer-friendly computer to ever hit the market, but it was also the most inscrutable. When turned off, the iPhone was the ultimate black box: a glued-and-sealed silicon sandwich that could only at great pains be deconstructed. Suddenly, millions of people were connected at the hip to a computer that plugged into nearly every aspect of their lives but that was mechanically impenetrable to anyone except scientists.
We may love our smartphones, but we also fear them, because we don’t understand them. We fear apps tracking us without our knowledge, or the radio bands embedded inside our phones pumping invisible radiation into our brains, or a bad actor hacking into our iPhone and spying on us without our knowledge. Some of these fears are more realistic than others, but they are all fueled by subconscious unease with the fact that we depend so deeply upon machines we don’t really feel we understand. And so, we as a culture turn to steampunk as an empowering fantasy, about what modern technology that we could understand would look like.
Yet distrust in new technology is something we outgrow as a culture. Most people don’t fear getting an X-ray or jumping on an airplane, but there was a time when these fears were common. So perhaps it is no surprise that nearly two decades after steampunk first became popular as a design movement, and more than a decade after it peaked as a response to the iPhone, steampunk has all but died off—this, despite the fact that technology is more inscrutable than ever.
“I think steampunk might have been the desperate last attempt of boomers like me to understand technology and make it more transparent before they gave up completely,” Von Slatt says. “As a movement, we tried to turn steampunk into something more consequential than it turned out to be. We now have an entire generation of kids who grew up with smartphones; even people like me, we have a whole decade of memories under our belt, peering into these little rectangles of black glass. They no longer seem as cold as they once appeared.”
The crunchy emo Victorian aesthetic of steampunk also worked against it, argues Beschizza. “The specificity of its look — it was often kitsch and self-referential — limited steampunk’s appeal to people with less esoteric interests,” he says. “And the younger generations of geeky, imaginative, expressive folk coming online in the 2010s interrogate culture more aggressively than earlier generations ever did. Steampunk had to contend with the historical truth of its own ironies, its fetishistic relationship to an age of imperialism, colonialism, and sexual and racial inequality. Like Lovecraft, it didn’t really come out the other side of that interrogation — we absorbed what was good and moved on to new old things.”
And what was good? Divorced of their gear-cog trappings, the best parts of steampunk live on as a wide-scale design and political movement known as Right to Repair. This movement, which is picking up steam among state legislatures (and vehemently opposed by major tech companies like Apple), is ostensibly about combating forced obsolescence and breaking the modern consumer electronic upgrade cycle, through legislation that forces companies to make their products repairable by the end user. In other words, it’s about empowerment and transparency: the right to understand the technology you depend upon.
From that perspective, steampunk never died at all. It just lost the “Jules Verne goth” aesthetic and went mainstream. Which means the future of tech design may very well owe a debt of gratitude to steampunk. The movement focused a lot of the ideas that are now informing our ongoing debate on the role that technology should have in the world and in our lives.