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Steampunk and The Singularity

Could there be two more disparate subjects than steampunk and the Singularity? Both have ties to science fiction: Steampunk started as a science fiction subgenre about 20 years ago; the Singularity has been embraced by the science fiction community as the latest best guess as to what our future looks like. Science fiction is where their connection ends.

From its beginnings as an experiment in one small corner of the literary world, steampunk has exploded onto the youth scene. With its stories set mostly in the Victorian age of corseted women and top-hatted men, it’s tailor made for fashionistas who love upsetting the mainstream. Who at this late date of extreme casual dress would have thought we’d be heading back to petticoats, bustles, fall front trousers, and waistcoats? In addition, the steampunk world is filled with mechanical computers, analytical engines, and steam powered technology. It is based on the idea that we could have gone digital without the use of semiconductors, electronics, and all things tiny. Things in a steampunk universe are big, brassy, and buildable by anyone with a blowtorch or crochet hook and a place to rest them on. Regardless of how lo-tech they are, however, steamage machines can do higher math, thanks to Charles Babbage’s difference engine.

Science fiction writers, apparently tired of neural networks and transistors as fodder, latched onto Charles Babbage’s idea, creating a new arena based on old materials. As modern tech gave writers little choice except to move into the virtual, the universe of science fiction seemed to be shrinking to molecular size. For those who work hard to learn the craft of describing the world, disillusionment crept in. The Singularity seems to leave little of the world to describe. The clever sf writers, slaves to the gee whiz factor, reacted. They encased fabulous new toys in velvet and made them work with gears instead of miniscule switches. The steampunk aesthetic was born.

Mostly what the steampunk authors did was create beautiful scenery. The punks latched onto the neo-Victorian universe because the punks have always loved beautiful scenery. And there’s nothing more beautiful than a pocket watch, a monocle, and a lace-trimmed, bustle-draped gown packed into a dirigible basket, steamship stateroom, or dining car of an 18th Century train. Things in steampunk are tangible and they hiss. Who, punk or otherwise, can resist that?

The Singularity on the other hand is all electronic. It’s quiet and almost invisible: a logical conclusion to our present reality. Sure it’s the best hope for life eternal, but it relies on plastic and other miracle materials yet to be discovered and not romantic in the least. There’s no hissing. Other than at the generating plants required by the ac system of electrical delivery, there is no place for steam in the future of the Singularity. As our tools get smaller the aesthetics get harder to see or care about. Even the robots are becoming disappointing. They’re starting to look more and more like humans; they have skin instead of metal plates. There’s very little new information to play with, nothing to make our imaginations soar. On top of that things are getting safer. Life is less risky, more predictable. As the sky becomes limitless it becomes less interesting to look at.

Why are these two mostly unrelated phenomena even being compared? Because they are occupying my head, that’s why. The Singularity is always with me. Steampunk, however, is a new arrival. BookViewCafe.com, the authors’ collective of which I’m a member, has decided to publish an anthology of steampunk stories. We have a great premise (which cannot be revealed until the formal announcement has been made) based on all kinds of Victoriana–something I know nothing about. I volunteered to contribute a story to the book, so I thought I’d do a little research to find out what makes steampunk tick. Steam obviously, but not really. Steampunk is only marginally about steam. What it really is about is the punk movement; it’s an extension of that in fact. What is punk? It’s mostly an anti-mainstream movement that embraces above all else the DIY (do it yourself) philosophy.

The DIY aspect of steampunk is what makes it so different from the Singularity. We cannot achieve the Singularity without the workings of a massive infrastructure of knowledge and its delivery. We need not only the Internet and a pile of computers, but a lot of people to be on board working through problems in the development of new tech. And lots of money for specialized tools and materials will help.

Steampunk, punks in general, and the whole DIY movement, place an emphasis on creating things with your hands out of available materials, stuff you can get free or cheaply from Home Depot. And in general it’s an all by yourself type thing. Mainstream culture is eschewed. You don’t need to buy other people’s ideas, you have your own. There is nothing that will bring the Singularity to a grinding halt quicker than if people go off by themselves.

As the Singularity pushes us into a virtual life where only our brains are needed to define ourselves, the DIY philosophy emphasizes work with our hands and development of physical skills through repetitive movement of muscles. It places an emphasis on the physical world. The brain is required not as the vessel of the experience, but to make the real vessel–the machine, the body–work. The brain is not the be-all and end-all. It is simply another tool in the belt.

Steampunk could very well just be a fad. Maybe it’s like the swing movement of about ten years ago where everyone was running around in zoot suits and pointy toed shoes and using cigarette holders. They all jump jived onto that bandwagon, but where are they now? Still listening to the Voo Doo Daddies? Probably not. The same sort of thing could easily happen with steampunk in five or six years. The kids will move onto something else. Youth culture has to do that, that’s how it works. If it stays static, it is no longer youth culture, it is mom and dad.

What will remain, though, once we’ve moved beyond steampunk, is the DIY philosophy. Humans cry for something to do with their hands besides manipulate a rodent-like device. Regardless of how much we love our tech and the superior intellectualized world it has given us, we will always want to create things with our hands, do things with our hands. We will strive to develop hand-to-eye coordination and work through the challenges of physical reality to define ourselves.

The Singularity will come or it won’t, but one thing is certain, post humans one way or another will always include a contingent of folks that make their own tech, their own art, their own lifestyle. There will always be a DIY punk movement, steam or otherwise.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s bookshelf at BookViewCafe.com

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7 thoughts on “Steampunk and The Singularity

  1. I have to say, this is one of the best comparisons of two very great ideas in science fiction I’ve read (IMO).

  2. From reading this I have come to the conclusion I am writing a combination of these two ideas – I personally thought that steam punk was about an alternative tech route and being interested in that I know that there are several more to explore as different as steam is to micro electronics and yet using the same underlaying maths.

    But then I came from a community of crafty-geeks so the singularity-punk distinction is not something I’d thought about. They stem from the same people depending on what resources are present at what time.

    This has given me food for thought though – so thankyou 🙂

    Saffy

  3. Interesting perspective, but I have to point out that it’s not quite right to suggest that the DIY movement does not also rely on a vast network of others to make it work.

    After all, how do all those lovely DIY-friendly materials get to home depot in the first place? Who makes the jigsaws and soldering irons that DIYers can’t live without?

    A vast network of industrial producers, that’s who. DIY, as exemplified and glorified by its modern practitioners in MAKE magazine and elsewhere, literally could not exist without that network backing it up. In that regard, it is no different than the singularity folks, who can’t do without the plastics and silicon that make up their future.

    I love your suggestion that the DIY _philosophy_ is what differentiates Steampunk from Singularity. That is a useful and insightful observation.

    Babbage couldn’t have build anything at all without a vast network of coal miners and metal refiners to supply him with steel and brass. We wouldn’t pretend otherwise, so let us also not pretend that modern DIYers are in some way magically independent of the supply networks that back them up.

  4. Absolutely right, Jason. But Home Depot isn’t the only supplier around, they just happen to be universal in the U.S. and so makes sense to be mentioned in a blog post. Going further, I doubt most people would seek out a local millwright let alone cut down a tree in their own backyard. In today’s complicated world, it’s hard to get off the grid. But there are degrees to DIY and if you at least start to think about it, you begin to be more self-sufficient. If nothing else you can at least come up with your own entertainment instead of defaulting to TV. You don’t have to buy everything pre-made. You start with a “some assembly required” and move on to designing and building your own furniture. Or whatever. Point is, you can and should do some things for yourself. You’d be amazed at what you can make out of found objects. Would we be able to live a life completely without our technology. Some people can. Maybe not you and me, but it is still definitely possible.

  5. Actually you can bootstrap just about anything including high tech if you have the knowledge and skill set required. If you can recognise iron ore et al and know how to slaughter a goat with sharp rocks you can bump start everything from scratch.

    The issue is that you need a skill and knowledge set that spans low tech (DIY/craft) and high tech.

    Braking the last saw does not spell doom.

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