steampunk’d!

the way in which this reminds me of robots is, let’s say, tenuous. for the uninitiated, steampunk is this:

a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of “the path not taken” of such technology as dirigibles or analog computers; these frequently are presented in an idealized light, or a presumption of functionality.

Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk and shares a similar fanbase and theme of rebellion, but developed as a separate movement (though both have considerable influence on each other). Apart from time period and level of technological development, the main difference between cyberpunk and steampunk is that steampunk settings usually tend to be less obviously dystopian than cyberpunk, or lack dystopian elements entirely.

Various modern utilitarian objects have been modded by individual craftpersons into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.

think Wild, Wild West. think wood and chrome and steam pipes and engines. victorian styling + high technology. excellent.

recently, here in brooklyn, we had the other half of an installation called The Telectroscope. an only half-clever idea, but rather amusing nevertheless:

Hardly anyone knows that a secret tunnel runs deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean. In May 2008, more than a century after it was begun, the tunnel was finally completed. An extraordinary optical device called a Telectroscope was installed at both ends which miraculously allowed people to see right through the Earth from London to New York and vice versa. On 15th June, having helped more than 50,000 people establish or rekindle transatlantic friendships, the Telectroscopes vanished, as mysteriously as they had first appeared.

and here it is:

a whimsical idea brought to life with video conferencing, The Telectroscope has the definite stylings of a steampunk piece. friends said it was a bit disappointing, but i have to say i’m sad i missed it at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

and then, the other day, i saw that Nokia is doing some steampunk interpretations of their own… you can’t deny this looks beautiful – and taps in to the iPod + iTunes idea of music as a form of individual expression as much for the listener as the performer.

it’s this print piece that caught my attention. again, in addition to just being beautiful, the steampunk interpretation makes me think of an older idea of contraptions and machines – something perhaps more elegant, or at least more ornate.

and then that got me to thinking, too. where did this notion of robots come from anyway? i was out to dinner at Jane with my friend Jeff the other day, and he busted out with a bit of trivia (i’m telling you – everyone has something to say about robots!!). It turns out that the word ‘robot’ was, if not coined by, first used in public by a Czech writer in a play about a factory that makes artificial people. Wikipedia has more:

The word robot was introduced to the public at large by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in 1921.[15] The play begins in a factory that makes ‘artificial people’ – they are called robots, but are closer to the modern idea of androids or even clones, creatures who can be mistaken for humans. They can plainly think for themselves, though they seem happy to serve. At issue is whether the “Robots” are being exploited and, if so, what follows?

in fact the word was coined by Čapek’s brother, and is derived from the slavic word robota which means ‘labor, work’ but in the sense of drudgery or serfdom. and from here we have the underlying notion of what a robot really is – something artificial we have created to do work; a machine enslaved to the work we wish to free ourselves from. perhaps this is why we often imagine robots throwing off their master’s shackles – we can’t imagine any entity, regardless of it’s fakeness or realness, embracing drudgery and slavery. we believe that eventually, everyone will want to be free. we see freedom as a virus or environmental impetus to evolve. we believe in freedom so earnestly, in fact, that we think that machines may develop those attributes that make the desire for freedom possible. and yet, for some reason, that scares us – we worry that those same machines will try to turn the tables on us, and place us back into the slavery we invented them to escape in the first place.

it’s kind of like those dreams you have where you’re running as if in slow motion – trying so hard to get away, to break free, to reach your goal, but unable to get anywhere. is it simply that we know this desire for freedom is futile? or is it that we can’t yet envision what freedom would really look like, and therefore hold ourselves back from it, even in our fantasies?

and speaking of fantasies – in polish, there’s a phrase “robić loda”. it’s based on that word “robota” again – which means in this construction, “to do.” the word “loda” means “ice-cream.” but “to do ice-cream” is not what this phrase means. it means to give a blow job.

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