What does a futurist, a cultural historian, and one of the world’s leading tech companies have to do with steampunk? Perhaps, well, a lot more than you think. The Tomorrow Project by Intel is a series of conversations with leading scientists, engineers, thinkers, historians, and science fiction writers about how today’s most imaginative minds can construct new ways of seeing the future. One of their documentaries, Vintage Tomorrows, filmed by Byrd McDonald of Porter Panther Productions and produced by Brian David Johnson, proposes that steampunk is one method people are using in order to understand the impact of technology today. A highlight of my weekend at New York Comic Con was watching a rough-cut version of this film, where the question of steampunk, technology, and social change comes into play.
Before the screening started, Johnson, who is also Intel’s resident futurist, introduced the film by stating, “If steampunk subculture is revising the past, in a way it is also making a request of the future by presenting a different model for it.”
And that model steampunk presents, apparently, is rooted in both new innovation and an old-time sense of community. Immediately, the documentary is more than your average Steampunk 101 show reel. Instead of the flash & bang of various examples of steampunk tech, one of the film’s opening scenes is at dinner table, where cultural historian James Carrott poses the question to several steampunks: “How does steampunk mediate the relationships between people and technology?” What follows is a thoughtful round of answers from various people in the steampunk community and outside observers.
The range of people featured in the documentary is impressive so far (though the filmmaker Byrd McDonald is looking to expand the film with additional interviews). Many featured in Vintage Tomorrows definitely have street cred as steampunk participants and observers, including SteamCon co-founder Diana Vick, authors Cherie Priest and Cory Doctorow, Girl Genius creators Phil & Kaja Foglio, photographer Libby Bulloff, and Steampunk Magazine founding editor Magpie Killjoy. The film visits the costuming workroom for fashion designer & cosplayer Claire Hummel and gains some insight from “steampunk postcolonialist” Jaymee Goh. Aside from talking heads, it also features some great examples of steamwear, a background on Victorian-era technology, and a tour of Cory Doctorow’s collection of steampunk stuff (he’s got a very impressive one, including a leather gas mask from artist Bob Basset and one of the original typewriter keyboards featured on the web).
A common thread forms from the multiple answers: the film proposes that steampunk, with its incorporation of today’s tech with retrofuturist aesthetics, is society’s way of processing technology advances that are coming a bit too quickly for the liking of the average person. Steampunk as a technological-inspired movement is far from anti-tech; in fact it’s a way of humanizing technology in an increasingly streamlined, impersonal world. That being the case, then, understanding the popularity of steampunk at today’s cultural moment is just one way that developers can understand how to create better tech that appeals to people.
Steampunk’s way of humanizing technology also runs parallel to the human stories that Vintage Tomorrows features, including a personal story from Kevin Steil, the Airship Ambassador about how the community helped him heal from personal hardship and tragedy, and the sense of real camaraderie among the steampunks in the film.
After the documentary, the documentary’s film staff and several featured speakers, including Doctorow, Carrott, and authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett held a Q&A to address audience feedback and debate about what constitutes the existence of a subcultural community. Is it a set of subcultural markers? And what happens when those markers get commodified by the mainstream?
Doctorow particularly made some interesting observations about steampunk’s subcultural status—that is, doubting its capability of being a true “subculture,” at least based on the concept that subcultural life constitutes a bohemian lifestyle. “Bohemians instinctually look form subcultural markers that make you unmarketable,” he said, which “steampunk doesn’t really have. It’s not like getting a face tattoo, after all.”
Bennett observed that “Subculture doesn’t want to be commodified, and thanks to today’s technology and the internet, people are finding individual ways to resist that.” She does admit, however, that “though ultimately it will be commodified, that does not change how steampunk objects will remain as subcultural markers.” She and Guinan also mentioned the influence of the Maker movement on steampunk, and whether its DIY ethos would have a lasting impact (many people on the panel thought so).
On steampunk’s expanding subcultural space, Carrott noted that how past subcultures had a centralized location where “everything was happening” and for steampunk, that space is now online. “Instead of having the punks all hang out in Greenwich Village,” he said, “you have all the steampunks on the internet.” This brings a “multidimensional aspect to where the dialogue about steampunk is going,” and hopefully, makes it a more lasting subculture because everyone can contribute to it.
Other questions that came up for debate included people who are classified as steampunk but reject the title themselves (“That is a trend we noticed happening,” McDonald noted, “but people still get excited about the word.”), and what the role of lower class had in steampunk (Doctorow answered, “Steampunk can be a counterfactual world where everyone can have machines but not the factories,” though he also pointed out how his story “Clockwork Fagin” deals with working-class orphans who were crippled from factory accidents.)
While the screening proved to be very intellectually productive, what does the future hold for Vintage Tomorrows? McDonald has certainly expressed interest in expanding the rough-cut of the documentary to feature more interviews. The film is scheduled to be released by Intel in 2012, along with a companion book co-written with Carrott that includes more information about the steampunk subculture. Interested folks can discover more about The Tomorrow Project and Vintage Tomorrows on their website.
And if you haven’t seen their nifty trailer yet, here it is:
Ay-leen the Peacemaker thought this was much better than waiting 8 hours to see the Avengers trailer at NYCC. She is also the founding editor of the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana and runs Tor.com Steampunk on Facebook and Twitter.