TED Conversations

Joseph Stanga

Executive Director, Wichita Con 2012

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Steampunk 101: On the import of retro-futurism.

Note: The views expressed herein are solely mine, and do not necessarily reflect the entire Steampunk movement.

Steampunk was a term coined in 1987 to describe a subset of science fiction literature which drew heavily on elements of late 19th-century to early 20th-century technology, aesthetics, and typically-dystopian worldviews. In contrast to Cyberpunk, which looked towards a futuristic dysfunctional human society wrought by digital technologies and societal frailties, Steampunk employed a retro-futuristic perspective in which steam was the source of propulsion and mechanical energies. Often drawing on actual historical data relating to Victorian-era societies, it envisioned an alternate future based on the notion that technology did not necessarily evolve as it actually did, and that the resulting history of the 20th-century did not necessarily occur the way it did.

Since then, Steampunk has evolved to encompass society in fields well beyond literature: fashion, art, music, film, gaming, politics, history, and education. It has transitioned from its origins into an entire set of outlets, one in which creativity and imagination are valued traits, in which history and social commentary run parallel, in which the throwaway culture is met with resistance, in which we are called to evaluate our technological progress and look for ways to improve it.

In some ways, the Victorian era was one of enlightenment: new technologies were reshaping society from the ground up, as people transitioned from animal-drawn machines to steam-powered ones, as gas lights were replaced with electric lights, and as colonization produced the beginnings of a heterogeneous culture.

The value of this is (no less than) threefold: First, that understanding history helps provide perspective to the modern era. Second, that appreciating the origins of our technology can help us think outside the box when contemplating new technology. Third, that creativity and imagination are valued traits.

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    Dec 15 2011: Was there a question about this topic? Yes. Steampunk is cool and great to think in a "What would Jules Verne think/do?" way, but I'm not sure what kind of a response that you are looking for. As far as steam-powered stuff goes, why can't they bring back the steam powered car? I know that the old Stanley Steamer had the dangerous effect of having it's boiler blow if it overheated, but I would like to think that with modern technology it may be a possibility to create an environmentally friendly auto that ran on very little water. Gas companies woudl hate that!
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      Dec 16 2011: I don't know... this is only my first topic, not counting another idea which was more suited for the Suggestions for improvement of TED and not an actual topic. But when I looked at some of the other topics, there were things like "What is your favorite word?" This topic may not pose too many questions initially, but I think there is room for growth.

      It's not just about looking cool or examining what Jules Verne would have done, but about keeping an open mind for the future, in the same way that, in the era before and leading up to the second industrial revolution, there were no limitations on what was and wasn't possible -- people dreamed up all sorts of ideas and just let their creativity go wild. They weren't thinking outside the box, per se, because the new paradigm meant that there was a new box, and people just didn't know the boundaries of it. In the same way, modern technological advances -- from new ways to harness energy to nano-technology to bio-engineering to genetic engineering to quantum physics and challenges to Newtonian laws of thermodynamics -- should enable people to open up their minds to the idea that anything is possible, if only they would dream it, instead of artificially limiting that creativity with presumptions about what is and isn't possible.

      Next, there is a message that reusing things for art, if nothing else, is preferable to throwing it "away."

      Too, revisiting old ideas, like the Stanley Steamer or the Besler Airplane, with the benefit of modern hindsight, could help pave the way for the reintroduction of great ideas which have done little else but sit on shelves gathering dust.