Thursday, 3 September 2015

Cyber/Steam/Diesel/*–punk


Punk rock arrived in the 1970s, an angry, loud genre barely able to be called music. Actually, more a juvenile scream of impotent rage. Rage because the promises of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s had withered away to dust and the gen-Xers realized we'd been lied to. The music industry had locked up access. Bands were overproduced, and bland, but sold, played on the radio and made lots of money. Everyone else was now pretty much shut out of the gravy train. Moreover, we were all supposed to be living in luxury by now. We were all supposed to have modern houses and poverty and hunger were supposed to be solved – indeed, could have been solved – but those in charge had instead ghettos, decrepit inner-cities, and ever-prevalent pollution.
Even when people did escape to what was supposed to be 'the good life' it turned out to be bland, boring and devoid of meaning. Suburbia went from being an idolized idyll to a place to escape from, what Kunstler described in The Geography of Nowhere and a pointless place without any real public spaces.
Punk recognized this reality and cursed against the lie that modern life was getting ever-better.
In 1980, William Gibson wrote his first cyber-punk novel, at the same time that Ridley Scott produced “Blade Runner” based on the Phillip K. Dick short-story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” set in the aftermath of a world nuclear war. However, Scott and Gibson didn't set their stories in a post-nuclear world, but rather in our world, postulating more of the same: technology would become ever more complex and fantastical, but pollution would remain and poverty and grit and dirt would be as prevalent as it always was. Gibson coined the term cyber-punk to signify it's focus on complex electronics and computer technology.
Shortly after, Bruce Sterling started postulating an alternative history, one where Charles Babbage actually completed his difference engine and ushered in the information age 100 years earlier. What would our technology have looked like if we had Victorian ornate style instead of sleek plastics? Which led to the first genre to come along that didn't assume that everything we have is all that could have been. There could have been a dozen turnings that led off to fully explore the potential of earlier technologies. Steam-punk, as it has become known, does not automatically assume that everything from the past is necessarily inferior to our present. Many things about our past were, in fact, superior to what we have today.
Once one breaks free from the cultural assumption that everything new must be better than before, and begins to appreciate the ways in which the latest-and-greatest is sometimes quite inferior to what we had in the past, then one begins to understand what *-punk is: the recognition that many technologies of the past worked just fine and really have not been improved upon at all.
Much of what we had used far less energy (in actual use, but mostly in embodied energy required in their production) than technologies we use today. In many cases, older techologies are better suited to perform tasks than anything we have now. One also comes to be aware of just how powerful the story we tell ourselves – that we are on an eternal, inevitable march of progress to colonize outer space and spread across the universe ad infinitum – grips the common imagination and keeps us from simply solving most of the problems afflicting us, because we reject perfectly adequate solutions because they are not modern enough.

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