‘“The elements of steampunk are all about exposing the inner workings of technology,” explains Jake von Slatt, proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop and perhaps the best known of the steampunk designers. “It’s about using design to make the working of technology scrutable through an object’s aesthetic. So many of the objects in today’s world are black boxes, and what happens inside them is totally invisible. So steampunk was all about revealing those inner workings, and empowering people to understand technology again, even if it was only fictitiously.”
In other words, steampunk is a bit of a power fantasy: not of the technologist, but of the maker, the tinkerer, the engineer. The guys who can rebuild an engine from scratch, but who are as powerless to fix the iPhone that they just dropped in the toilet as the rest of us.
The crunchy emo Victorian aesthetic of steampunk also worked against it, argues Beschizza. “The specificity of its look — it was often kitsch and self-referential — limited steampunk’s appeal to people with less esoteric interests,” he says. “And the younger generations of geeky, imaginative, expressive folk coming online in the 2010s interrogate culture more aggressively than earlier generations ever did. Steampunk had to contend with the historical truth of its own ironies, its fetishistic relationship to an age of imperialism, colonialism, and sexual and racial inequality. Like Lovecraft, it didn’t really come out the other side of that interrogation — we absorbed what was good and moved on to new old things.”
And what was good? Divorced of their gear-cog trappings, the best parts of steampunk live on as a wide-scale design and political movement known as Right to Repair. This movement, which is picking up steam among state legislatures (and vehemently opposed by major tech companies like Apple), is ostensibly about combating forced obsolescence and breaking the modern consumer electronic upgrade cycle, through legislation that forces companies to make their products repairable by the end user. In other words, it’s about empowerment and transparency: the right to understand the technology you depend upon.’