The Steampunk Aesthetic


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Epistemic Status: Poetry. More confident about Linux than I have a right to be.

Last year, some friends wanted to buy a boat to live on, because the Bay Area is hella expensive. They acquired a tugboat, in Alaska. I was among a few people who helped them pilot it south.

I currently do not have enough information to know whether the boat turned out to be a good idea, but in the meanwhile I gained what you might call (if you'll pardon the phrase) an intuitive, gears level understanding* of the Steampunk Aesthetic.

(My dad tried to teach me this when I was little. Sorry I didn't get it at the time, Dad)

i. Aesthetics of Abstraction

The Apple Aesthetic is clean, smooth, and magical.

You hold a glowing rectangle in your hand, formed as solid and opaque as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You touch the rectangle, and things happen. You can learn to communicate with a little homunculus inside named Siri and ask her for favors, and if you phrase the words just right, perhaps she might grant your wish.

The rectangle has secrets, but you are not meant to pry into them too deeply, and if you try, forces from beyond will thwart you in ways subtle and unsubtle.

If your rectangle breaks, you cannot fix it. You must take it to the Apple Priests in their white halls of power, lit by shining icons. They will secret your rectangle away, work their arcane power on it and return it to you (or perhaps leave you another rectangle in its place).

The Linux Aesthetic is magical too, but of a different sort.

There are arcane languages you can learn, but they do not hold your hand. You either know the words of power, or you do not. Most ways of speaking the words of power are so wrong that nothing happens. Worse is to be almost right, and yet so wrong that you undo entire chapters of you life.

You may borrow scrolls from wizards more powerful than you, but god help you if you speak their words without understanding what exactly they mean. Read one scroll blindly, and fate might spare you. Read three scrolls that you stole from different masters, and reality may twist itself into such knots that you can never undo them.

But, get the words exactly right, and you can shape reality to your will.

Apple and Linux have their respective virtues, but we are not here to talk about them – we are here to contrast them with Steampunk.

The steampunk world is one of exposed wires. Pipes. Steam. Heavy levers. Hot furnaces. Oil that gets all over you no matter how hard you try. You are not a wizard, manipulating the world from your ivory tower. You are a mechanic, and you live in the world.

Apple and Linux abstract things away. There's something of a spectrum here – Apple abstracts more things away, more thoroughly. And this ranges from pristine alien monoliths to design-it-yourself-wizardry to build-it-yourself artifice. If you learn enough about reality, nothing is mysterious, and everything is mutable, even delicate electronics.

But I think there's a clearish dividing line between the world of abstract invisible spells, and the iron jungle of a several-decades-old tugboat.

In the steampunk world, everything is made of stuff, and stuff is in principle understandable if you look at it, experiment, and think. Comprehension requires few abstractions.

You might have more complex things to think about than you'd face in the ancestral environment, and you might need diagrams to expand your effective working memory. But most what is happening is macroscopic, and you can reason about it with intuitions not too far removed from those of your ancestors. Gaining those intuitions involves physical feedback loops and objects you can mostly look at with your eyes.

Most distinct from the Linux world is the physicality. A wizard can be frail, and yet shape reality with the sheer power of their mind and words. A mechanic must have fingers that can turn rusty bolts; calluses that can withstand accidental pinching, arms that can turn heavy cranks. You can augment your strength with ropes and pulleys to lift a thousand pound engine, but you'll need the coordination of your shipmates and some brute force to hold it in place while you race to diagnose a flaw in it's underbelly and then reach in awkwardly to tighten a new set of screws.

ii. The Boat

The Situation

The boat had a crew of about six [aspiring?] rationalists.

Some of them had relevant skills. I did not especially.

Originally we planned to leave in a couple days, and undertake a roughly weeklong journey from Ketchikan Alaska to San Francisco, hopefully in time for Ephemerisle. As it turns out, several-decade-old tugboats come with loads of problems (who knew?) and we had to fix the engine, the backup generator, much of the plumbing, acquire an anchor, replace the weak link in the anchor chain, and figure out why the toilet wouldn't stop flushing.

I was roughly tied for "least relevant skills for boat operation". There was a giant Myst-style puzzle to solve (complete with levers that do a different thing when you hold them down longer) and all I had to contribute was generic agency.

Getting There

The boat was kept in a lakeside junkyard – tied to a barge which was tied to a barge which was tied to a pier. To get there, you had to balance on a sometimes-slippery giant log lashed to the first barge, climb up a ladder, hop over a railing, navigate a deck cluttered with random junk, jump across a gap to the second barge, climb over another railing, then another.

This was more fun at night (or early morning), on days when the ship's bathroom wasn't working well, and you had to make your way to a nearby port-o-potty.

It was also more fun while carrying heavy equipment to and from the ship, where a single slip might send a large, expensive thing down into the brine.

(Incidentally, further information about the port-o-potty and shipboard toilet can be found on my other blog, where I review bathrooms that strike me as aesthetically interesting and rate them one a 1 to 10 scale).

Every Inch Counts

I've made improvements to my apartment before. But there wasn't much pressure to optimize it.

The livable area on the ship was small, and it was frequently important to have access to tools and supplies quickly – and yet not have those things be in your way because the limited space to store things was also the limited space you needed to, say, eat.

During storms, with the ship rocking significantly, objects it'd normally be fine to just set in a table instead needed to be fastened down. The dish cabinet, for example, had internal safeguards to keep the plates in place. (Relatedly, this was also the first time I had a clear sense of what "batten down the hatches" means)

The average square foot was more interesting than the average square foot at most apartments I've ever lived at.

The ship came to us relatively optimized, but we were a larger crew that it's previous owner with different needs, and I ended up spending a fair amount of time thinking about how to improve it further.

iii. Fun Theory

More than anything else, I was struck how fun-theoretically sound repairing the boat was. It wasn't the most fun I've had – much of it was in fact un-fun. But it was more engaging on a wider variety of axes than anything else I've attempted.

First off, there was the aforementioned just getting to the boat and back. Normally, walking to the grocery store involves, well, walking. Not jumping over chasms. Once on the boat, many devices (including doors) involved heavy levers that I had to grunt satisfyingly in order to swing open or closed.

And, of course, we were confronted with numerous puzzles.

There was a washing machine that didn't work. I didn't know anything about plumbing. But things are made of stuff and pipes are made out of things and I looked at them and touched them to see whether they were warm and figured out where water was blocked and what needed to be done about it.

"Doing something about it" required unscrewing something that needed a weird tool. (The knuts underneath the sink were made of plastic, and my wrench would clearly tear it apart). I hunted around the engine room for something that'd work.

I couldn't find anything, so I had to make my own tools. The ship supplied raw materials: I found pieces of PVC pipe that were the same size as the plastic knuts, and sawed grooves into them to create a makeshift socketwrench.

Once I had tools, I still had to figure out how to contort my body to fit it under the sink, and then figure out how to angle my arm, and then I just had to physically endure the awkward position and apply brute strength.

Meanwhile, it had been a week and everyone was overworked and going slightly crazy, so I was also modeling everyone's mental state and figuring out if there was anything I could do about that.

I was making skill checks using basically every single D&D attribute I had on my character sheet.

It was stressful, but extremely fulfilling. It was the most human that I've ever felt.

Specific Fun Theory principles that seem relevant include:

iv. Elements of steampunk

I should right about now admit that the ship was more "dieselpunk" than "steampunk", but I think the underlying aesthetic is the same. The core that seems relevant to me is:

  • Mechanical solutions to problems
  • Freedom to optimize, experiment, and brew your own solutions (within a macroscopic environment with few layers of abstraction, where ancestral environment intuitions are still relevant)
  • Success requires physical prowess and embodiment, as well as mental adeptness.
  • Willingness to get your hands dirty (literally)

Steampunk fiction often also involves Victorian Era fashion and culture, but I think this is largely superfluous – the characters doing the actual steampunking are more focused on the traits listed above, the characters doing court intrigue or whatever could have been doing that in many other genres.

If you're simply reading or watching a steampunk story, the physicality may not be as obvious, but this is because you're consuming the story through a layer of abstraction that's intrinsically non-physical.

Why would you want this particular cluster of things?

In some sense this cluster is pretty arbitrary. But I think it has a few concrete things going for it. Ultimately it may not be practical or desirable to "live steampunk" directly or completely, but I think it provides a useful complete package to examine, which throws into relief the degree to which the default world is inadequate.

First is completeness - the steampunk cluster of problems, skills and solutions lends itself towards covering a lot of human needs at once.

Second is cohesiveness - the cluster of skills/problems/solutions fit together. Once you step into that world, nothing about it feels arbitrary.

Third is power and flexibility Many of the useful qualities here (getting to optimize your own environment using your own mental and physical skills) could be obtained from many eras and settings. You could drop yourself off on a deserted island and build everything from scratch, Gilligan's Island style.

But all things being equal, higher technology still seems better. If I were to taboo 'steampunk', what interests me here is the highest level of technology you can obtain while still having gears level understanding of everything going on around you.

(I'm not sure I can articulate why this feels important to me, and can only say this essay is tailored for those to whom it seems viscerally important)

v. Why can't we have hard things?

While repairing the boat, I'd spend all day lifting heavy things and climbing around athletically and nothing about it felt hard or obnoxious – and all of it was deeply intertwined with solving interesting problems, and developing my own tools to do so.

It threw into the sharp relief the ridiculous of my default-world life, where I struggled to remember to go to the gym for 20 minutes or do 12 pushups or whatever. For some reason, being able to 'just lift or climb things like it's nothing' requires a context switch.

Spiegelman's Monster

Kaj Sotala once told the story of what happens when you remove all restrictions from a life form:

In 1967, the biologist Sol Spiegelman took a strand of viral RNA, and placed it on a dish containing various raw materials that the RNA could use to build new copies of itself. After the RNA strands had replicated on the dish, Spiegelman extracted some of them and put them on another dish, again with raw materials that the strands could use to replicate themselves. He then kept repeating this process.
No longer burdened with the constraints of needing to work for a living, produce protein coats, or to do anything but reproduce, the RNA evolved to match its new environment. The RNA mutated, and the strands which could copy themselves the fastest won out. Everything in those strands that wasn’t needed for reproduction had just become an unnecessary liability. After just 74 generations, the original 4,500 nucleotide bases had been reduced to a mere 220. Useless parts of the genome had been discarded; the viral RNA had now become a pure replicator, dubbed “Spiegelman’s monster”. (Source.)

Later going on to say:

As technology keeps evolving, it will make it easier and easier to overcome various constraints in our environment, our bodies, and in our minds. And then it will become increasing tempting to become a Spiegelman’s monster: to rid yourself of the things that the loosened constraints have made unnecessary, to become something that is no longer even remotely human. If you don’t do it, then someone else will. With enough time, they may end up ruling the world, outcompeting you like Spiegelman’s monster outcompeted the original, umutated RNA strands.

There's a bunch of important philosophical questions packaged together here, that will become increasingly important if we get an Age of Em or something similar. If things go badly, we get Moloch's endgame. If they go well, maybe someday the whole world can be designed such that the opportunities available to us are more aligned with our physical needs.

But in the meanwhile, how much of this can be applied to day-to-day life?

In the comments here I'm interested in the near-term, practical question: What sort of constraints might be useful to preserve (or recapture) right now, to improve quality of life in the present day?