The Steampunk Phenomenon
Steampunk began as a fiction genre that imagines alternative histories in which technology never moves past the steam-driven industrialism of the Victorian Age. It portrays worlds ruled by retro-futuristic inventions, like heavy-geared automata and whirring Babbage-style mechanical computers.
It has since expanded into its own aesthetic, impacting both fashion and design, as well as a thriving community of makers who retrofit 21st century artifacts with the stained woods and brass knobs of the 19th century (c.f., the above picture of a steampunk modem).
One reason steampunk resonates is its intuitive physicality. Our modern world of plastic cases and digital chips is mysterious and sterile. A steampunk contraption, by contrast, is driven by pistons and valves that match our mental schema for how things function in the physical world.
This physicality is appealing (an idea fleshed out thoughtfully in Matthew Crawford’s wonderful manifesto: Shop Class as Soulcraft). Put simply, we’re attracted to things whose function we can concretely grasp.
From Novels to the Office
The reason I’m talking about steampunk is because I think its retro attraction can teach us something about modern productivity.
The standard knowledge work organization, like so many things in our contemporary world, runs in a mysterious and sterile fashion. Messages fly back and forth, comments are annotated to PDFs, Gcal invites flow freely — and somewhere in this digital busyness we march ambiguously toward getting things done.
If you’ll excuse the somewhat strained expansion of this term, the steampunk approach to professional effectiveness would eschew much of this sterile electronic freneticism and instead turn back to systems and artifacts that are more intuitively concrete.
I don’t quite yet understand the full contours of this steampunk productivity movement, but its basic motivation is clear: when we can embody our work in a clear, visual, physical manner, we can accomplish more, and do so with more satisfaction.
The answer to our economy’s distressingly stagnant non-industrial productivity numbers, in other words, might not be faster chat tools and better-featured shared documents, but instead a return to a more analog and hands-on relationship with our work.