Tag Archives: Steampunk

Steampunk Cometh?

EmberWhile in London, I had a chance to catch up with Trevor Davis.  Davis is one of the people responsible for the IBM Social Sentiment Index and the prediction in January of 2013 that we should expect Steampunk to move from its status as a niche enthusiasm to something more mainstream.

IBM offered its prediction in a wonderful graphic.  (Click on the image to get a larger view.)


I came home from 3 weeks in London to find a Pottery Barn catalogue waiting for me.

Here, I thought, was just the place you might expect to find a steam punk reference…whatever other cultural trends might come swimming into view.  I began to read.

The results were vexing in the way this kind of work is so often vexing.  There was both no evidence and some evidence of steampunk  in the Pottery Barn catalog.

No, there is no explict reference verbal or visual.  No helmet made of  leather, studs, and brass fittings.  No science fiction weaponry as if designed by a Victorian.  No elaborate time pieces that somehow look to be, mysteriously, steam operated.   No glasses that look like something lifted from a 19th century optometrist.  There was nothing obviously, unmistakably out of the Steampunk design handbook.

And that’s a pity.  These catalogs, stemming perhaps from the brilliant early work by Stephen Gordon for his Restoration Hardware catalogs, now have range they didn’t have in the Sears Roebuck days.  The contemporary catalog lets in lots of things in addition to the product.  Things are staged beautifully and with great care.  So it’s not inconceivable for a Pottery Barn to include a Steampunk helmet or watch for illustrative, evocative, purposes.

Still the fact that there is no explicit reference to Steampunk is NOT evidence that there is no Steampunk influence.  I think you can see it in the color pallet, in the mad scientist theme, in the laboratory.  As follows:

Ember Ember Ember Ember


In point of fact, something happens to trends as they move from the margin to the mainstream.  They are obliged to give up some of their defining features.   This is a little like the social climber who is obliged to give up some of her friends if she wants to rise.  To include a Steampunk helmet would mean quoting an aspect of the  trend that is too strange and wonderful for the average American household (at least the kind who shop at Pottery Barn).  (If I may voice a note of skepticism against this argument, there is something pretty strange about the skulls.  The American household is perhaps less timid than we think.)

This necessary “gearing down” of the trend is the reason that early adopters often disdain the trend as it enters the mainstream.  Clearly, it’s been diminished or “dumbed down.”  Or to put this another way, the trend must give up some of its extreme characteristics to find a larger audience.  In a word, it must be dedorkified.  (In effect, this reverses the work of the enthusiastic early adopters / inventors who delight in dorkifying the trend in the first place.  I think we can probably agree that the whole issue of dorkification deserves more careful study.)

Trends are Diderot packs.  They are a bundle of ideas, aesthetics, materials, colors, shapes, motifs.  Not all of these are welcome on the voyage from margin to mainstream.  Some will move on.  Others will fall behind.  And this may help explain why the signature pieces of the Steampunk look are not in evidence by the Pottery Barn catalog. Indeed, the absence of these things are exactly what we would expect of Steampunk in this new context.  In sum, the absence of proof is, in a sense, proof of proof.  As it were.

So now we have a problem.  The most defining design signatures, the ones we can used as proof of a trend’s diffusion, are, in some cases, the very things that will be “edited out” by the diffusion process.   It’s not that the Steampunk influence is not there in the Pottery Barn catalog.  But there can be no influence unless it is in a sense rendered invisible.

All of this suggests we need a more robust methodology for identifying a trend in motion.  Perhaps some combination of colors, shapes, objects, with a statistical feeling for how far from random is the presence of certain elements especially in certain combinations.  This tool might enable us to say that our intuitive feeling that the Pottery Barn catalog is in places “pretty Steampunkish” has foundation…because the copresence of these colors, objects and shapes is precisely x far from random.  Naturally we would to examine all the Pottery Barn catalogs and see if we can show when the trend enters the catalogs and whether this corresponds to what we know about the development of the trend itself.

Trends have internal dynamics.  We also know that whether and how fast they move through the social world depends on a set of diffusion dynamics that we are relatively good at thinking about.  (My own modest contribution can be found here.)

But our work as students of the trend is not complete until we create a model of all the trends, and all the decisive economic, historical, social, demographic, technical, digital, and other factors that make up the context in which the trend flourish (or fail).

So was IBM right?  Is the planet called Steampunk exercising a tidal pull on the oceans of contemporary culture?  Reader, you decide.

Steam punk: a square inch of contemporary culture by Carlen Lea Lesser

A couple of weeks ago, I was corresponding with Carlen Lea Lesser about Steampunk and its influence on a recent Burberry line of clothing called Prorsum Line.  

I asked Carlen if she would consider writing a few hundred words on Steampunk and the line.  I have a rough idea about what Steampunk is but I wanted Carlen’s "square inch" on the topic.  She was kind enough to oblige.  

Here then is Carlen on Steampunk.

I was completely stunned as I read Chief Culture Officer and saw a reference to Steampunk and how it was an important trend to watch and understand.  I don’t think I ever would have thought to find a fringe subculture/sub-culture discussed in a book like that, but maybe I should have.

Steampunk began as a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction.  It is generally characterized as a blending of either Victorian-style and modern technology or Jazz-age style and modern technology.  It’s a world of "what if?"  What if we had steam powered cars?  What if we had computers that ran on clockworks?  What if dirigibles were a common form of transportation? Dirigibles (think of the Hindenburg) are a dead giveaway that what you are reading or watching is at least influenced by Steampunk.  The films Lemony Snickett, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Golden Compass, and even the Harry Potter films, are recent examples of mainstream Steampunk influenced films.  But don’t think this is an entirely new idea, the true father of this lived in the actual steam era: H.G. Wells.

At its heart, Steampunk today is a revival movement, but with a twist — it’s intentionally anachronistic. When the Victorians were in their Neo-classical revival phase it was hardly purist.  You can find a telling bell-jar or antimacassar on the scene to give it away.  Plus, they were a bit obsessed with clutter and could never really master that simplicity.  But it wasn’t done with a wink and a nod.   Steampunk is.  It imagines a world where the old and the new blended together.  Sometimes this is presented as just how the world evolved, and sometimes it’s presented as a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of technology and culture.  In the latter, the Steampunk blending of old and new is out of necessity and ingenuity.

Like a lot of fictional worlds, Steampunk has crossed over into real life.  Some people live this as a true lifestyle, some do it a hobby and at conventions, and some just fuse it into life as a sensibility.  This ranges from everything from inventing amazing Steampunk gadgets (working or not) to fully adopting a Steampunk fashion aesthetic.  Some people go all out with this, but many, like me, find ways to subtly work the style into a wardrobe without it, hopefully, looking like I’m wearing a costume all the time.  Maybe it’s just the cut of a jacket, granny boots, a pendant made from old watch parts, or my current favorite – an antiqued bee pendant with a working compass embedded into it.

The Steampunk aesthetic is clearly tapping into what I would call a growing sense of pragmatic optimism, and hints of it starting to appear more and more in mainstream culture.  Recently I even noticed it in Burberry’s new Prorsum line of clothing.  Burberry is not a brand I’ve ever had any interest in, which is why I was so stunned by the Fall 2011 line they recently debuted.  If you don’t know about Steampunk you might just see the military trend that seems to be working it’s way back into our wardrobes again.  When I look at it, I see a luxury brand’s interpretation of Steampunk.  Specifically it called to mind Warren Ellis’ amazing graphic novel series, Freak Angels.

Freak Angels is in the post-apocalyptic school of Steampunk, which is always amazingly optimistic.  But this line of Steampunk isn’t a dreamy utopian form of optimism. It’s a very pragmatic form of optimism.  Think of it as, "yes we blew up the world and that seriously sucks – but let’s get to the rebuilding and try not to screw it up quite so badly this time.  And if someone would invent a way to take a hot shower that would be bloody brilliant."

The Prorsum 2011 Fall line, evokes the slightly "ragamuffin fabulous" feel of post-apocalyptic Steampunk without making the wearer look like they are heading over to ComicCon.   One could say that the resemblance is superficial, but if you look a the collection as a whole and the way it’s presented, I think you’ll find that most of same cultural ingredients that lead to Steampunk are at work here too.


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Square Inch Anthropology.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 17.  click here.


The image is from the Burberry.com website and shows a jacket from the Prorsum line.