Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction literature that traces its roots back to the early science fiction of Jules Gabriel Verne and Herbert George Wells. The most common expression of Steampunk involves imagining the world in which steam power rather than the internal combustion engine became the dominant form of energy. Typically, Steampunk fiction and design evokes an alternate history that weds aspects of the modern day, such as computation, to elements of Victorian aesthetics, materials and culture. The name “Steampunk” appears to have been coined in 1987 by author Kevin Wayne Jeter, to describe the revisionist histories of himself, Timothy Thomas Powers, and James Paul Blaylock.
Since the coining of the term, Steampunk has experienced a steady growth within popular culture, transforming from a fringe genre to a fictional form of broad mass-market appeal with examples in literature film, graphic novels, and computer games. The canonical contemporary work of Steampunk fiction is ‘The Difference Engine,’ (1990) a speculative history written by Michael Bruce Sterling and William Ford Gibson in which Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” ushers in an era of mechanical computation at the start of the industrial revolution.
In comics, Alan Moore’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ draws heavily on Victorian literature to envision an alternate history where Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr Jekyll (and Mr Hyde), the Invisible Man, Mina Harker, and Dorian Gray team up to fight threats to the British Empire. In the film, Barry Sonnenfeld’s ‘Wild Wild West’ represents one of the first mass media appearances of the Steampunk aesthetic, with its giant steam powered machinery.
The rise in popularity of the Steampunk aesthetic has also given birth to a subculture movement of self-identified “Steampunks.” Although still a young movement when compared to other subculture groups, such as Punk, the Steampunk community already has many avenues of cultural expression including international Steampunk conventions, Steampunk musical acts, local Steampunk hobby organizations, and even touring Steampunk circuses. One of the key defining characteristics of Steampunk, however, is that it is built around physical artefacts that evoke an imagined alternate past, present and future. This article focuses this aspect of the Steampunk movement as most relevant to human-computer interaction.
The notion of design fiction is still taking shape in the discourse of human-computer interaction and fashion design research. Although its origins are unclear, the earliest use of the term appears to be in a presentation given by Julian Bleecker at the Engage Design conference in 2008. Julian Bleecker’s talk was given in response to an unpublished article by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell entitled ‘Resistance is Futile: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing.’ In this article, the authors perform parallel analysis of design trends in science fiction television during the period from 1963 to 1989 and developments in ubiquitous computing in the 1980s. Science fiction plays a significant role in shaping the general public’s understanding of science fact.
David Lawrence Kirby uses the term diegetic prototypes to “account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence.” Both David Lawrence Kirby and Julian Bleecker provide the gestural interface from the film ‘Minority Report’ as an example of a fictional realization of a technology that went on to broadly inform public opinion (and design practice) about interactive technologies. A more recent work by Julian Bleecker explores how actual design and science as practices intersect with the imagined futures of science fiction narratives. In a recent Academy of Contemporary Music interactions article entitled ‘Design Fiction,’ science fiction author and futurist Michael Bruce Sterling considers how a design perspective can be used to inform the creation of fiction that better engages with the issues of an imagined or desired future.
In interaction design, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s speculative design and design noir are good examples of design fictions as a strategy for exploring interactive technologies, similar to William Gaver’s ludic design. Dag Svanaes and William Verplank’s exploration of potential metaphors for the design of TUIs advises designers to adopt metaphors from magic and paranormal phenomena, the staples of fantasy literature.
Stacey Kuznetsov and Eric Paulos view “do it yourself” practitioners as “expert amateurs” who create, modify or repair objects without the help of paid professionals. The notion of the “expert amateur” reflects the fact that the skills involved in do it yourself are often quite advanced and grow continually in practice. Further, it reflects the fact that the culture of do it yourself is based on “anti-consumerism, rebelliousness, and creativity […] supporting the ideology that people can create rather than buy.” We see this manifest in a practice of bricolage in Steampunk design. Typically with do it yourself, the techniques used are shared for others to duplicate or improve upon within an open source model. For example, websites like Make Magazine and Instructables are online communities that include how-to resources, blogs, and community forums. Early do it yourself practices emerged from hacker cultures and were thus influenced by a computing ethos, programming versus hacking and open source.
Appropriation is related to the do it yourself culture, and it can be described as the use of a designed artefact for a purpose different than intended by the designer(s). Appropriation has been identified as central and inevitable in the use-life of design artefacts and systems. Researchers have discussed the need for technologies to support appropriation. For example, Hughie Mackay and Gareth Gillespie argued that the design processes of conception, invention, development and design require the inclusion of social appropriation in order to fully understand designs and technologies. Austin Henderson and Morten Kyng argued for the need to tailor a workplace system and allow for design-in-use which refers to the ongoing design of systems by end-users in order to adapt systems to their particular needs. Human-computer interaction and computer supported cooperative work theories have emerged, such as ‘Instrumental Genesis’ that identifies appropriation as part of the human developmental process in transforming designed tools into instruments of use; and ‘Adaptive Structuration Theory’ that sees appropriation in social terms as the internalization of perceived technical and social structures that influence future actions, for example; appropriation is a way of incorporating technology into individual or group work practices. We see these key concepts as the bridge between the phenomenon of Steampunk and human-computer interaction.
We contend that Steampunk’s manifestation as both a fictional genre and a community of design practice are bound together by the powers of design fiction. Design fiction facilitates the feedback loops between Steampunk practice, Steampunk community, and Steampunk fiction. We argue that this analysis provides an important perspective on how design fiction, do it yourself, and appropriation can be used as strategies for human-computer interaction, while foregrounding the ways in which design is fundamentally rooted in questions of ethics, values, and identity.