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 clear 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 similar to 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?

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Interesting post; I may have more to say on this later… for now, let me just point out that within the world of personal computers, there is a third alternative to what you call the “Linux aesthetic” and the “Apple aesthetic”: the “Macintosh aesthetic”[1]—which is to say, that which is exemplified by the “Classic” Mac OS (prior to OS X) (and, to a large but ever-decreasing degree, by modern, i.e. X, versions of the OS).

In the Macintosh paradigm, these things are true:

  • You do not need to know arcane incantations to do things. Things work exactly how they seem like they should work. It’s impossible to accidentally wreck anything (e.g., by speaking an incantation in a slightly wrong way).
  • Intuitions imported from an understanding of everyday macroscopic phenomena will often serve you in good stead when it comes to understanding, and interacting with, the system.
  • Your environment / your tools / etc. can be modified, adjusted, and so on, by manipulating them in obvious, straightforward ways. A great deal of customization is possible, which requires no specialized knowledge. (Likewise, you can fix problems yourself, without being an expert in “deep wizardry”.)

The “Macintosh aesthetic” thus seems much closer to your “steampunk aesthetic” than either the “Apple aesthetic” or the “Linux aesthetic”. (It’s possibly the closest you can get to what you describe, given the technological and practical constraints of “a personal computer operating system / user interface”. Small improvements—further steps toward “steampunk”—can be made, I think, but not large ones.)

And what is interesting about this is that just as you describe your experience being fun-theoretically sound, so the experience of using your computer was (and is—though, again, less and less so with each passing year) more fun-theoretically sound—or, simply, more fun—in this aesthetic than in the other two.

Back in the Good Old Days, I had subscriptions to several “Mac enthusiast” magazines—Mac Home Journal, Macworld, etc. Every month there’d be letters from readers, excitedly describing how they discovered one or another sort of “hack”—though that is a modern word; understand that no coding was involved, no typing of commands into a terminal or any such thing—to improve their productivity, to help them do something more effectively, to do some neat trick. These were not programmers, you understand; most were people who hadn’t written a single line of code in their lives (as I had not, at the time). These “hacks” usually involved manipulations of objects—files and folders; windows; menus; buttons; etc.—and these intrepid enthusiasts usually discovered them merely by “playing around”, which is to say: clicking on things and seeing where that got them; or having ideas, doing things which seemed like they should make sense, and finding out that the result was exactly what they expected. The whole thing was suffused with a deep sense of fun, of play.[2]

(One particularly interesting aspect of this, is how often the same trick was rediscovered, by multiple people, on multiple occasions. Of course, this is exactly what we’d expect, yes? If the “hack” is an arcane incantation, abstract and inscrutable, then discovering it is unlikely… but if it may be discovered merely by exploring a world of comprehensible objects, then discovering it is quite likely, and it will pop up again and again…)

Now, I write all of this, not just because this seems like a good opportunity to evangelize my favorite operating system, but largely in response to this:

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 while still having gears level understanding of everything going on around you.

It seems obvious to me that it is possible to build, even in the world of modern personal computers, something which is much more “steampunk” than most of what we have now. Obvious, I say—because it has already been done.

Of course, even if you’re using a Mac, you’re still sitting at a computer, typing at a keyboard and clicking on things with a mouse. It’s not the most steampunk that we can get. (The world of the so-called “natural user interfaces”—a domain in which I have done some meager work myself, as it was the subject of my research during my brief time in academia—shows some promise toward that end; though getting from “promise” to “polished, ubiquitous consumer technology” is no mean feat…) But it’s important, I think, to have a good sense of what is possible—and, most concretely and importantly, of which aspects of currently popular aesthetics/paradigms are limitations of technology, and which are contingent trends (imposed on us by fashion, by market pressures, etc.). To that end, the “Macintosh aesthetic” shows us that we can get closer to our “steampunk” ideal via design, without having to make fundamentally technological advancements. That, I think, is a critical insight.

  1. For obvious reasons, this makes your choice of terminology somewhat unfortunate/awkward, since who else but Apple created the Mac…? On the other hand, I can’t quibble too hard; you’re certainly not wrong about what the current state of Apple design is… ↩︎

  2. The same spirit pervaded the once-ubiquitous Macintosh User Groups—local clubs of enthusiasts and evangelists (again, made up of mostly not-programmers), who shared their Mac knowledge, swapped cool tricks, and so on. (One of my most memorable experiences in high school was founding just such a “MUG” with a few of my friends.) And, yet again, the same playful spirit was pervasive in the world of Macintosh shareware—which, if you are not familiar with it, is nearly impossible, I think, to imagine. I may write more about this topic in particular, one day, as it’s an incredibly fascinating—and, in my view, truly important—piece of computing history, which is in danger of being forgotten. ↩︎

The “Macintosh aesthetic” thus seems much closer to your “steampunk aesthetic” than either the “Apple aesthetic” or the “Linux aesthetic”. (It’s possibly the closest you can get to what you describe, given the technological and practical constraints of “a personal computer operating system / user interface”. Small improvements—further steps toward “steampunk”—can be made, I think, but not large ones.)

Oh, yeah. And actually, I had the surreal experience yesterday of right as I was finishing this post, seeing Julia Galef link to this Mac Plus emulator:


I clicked to poke around the games, but what hit me with a surprise kick-in-the-nostalgia was ResEdit, which I have joyful memories of using to poke around the innards of various files. Once upon a time, you could edit any of the internals of basically any program via a graphical interface, swapping out graphics and changing strings. (I think the game Escape Velocity was most designed to work well with this but it otherwise worked)

I clicked to poke around the games, but what hit me with a surprise kick-in-the-nostalgia was ResEdit, which I have joyful memories of using to poke around the innards of various files. Once upon a time, you could edit any of the internals of basically any program via a graphical interface, swapping out graphics and changing strings. (I think the game Escape Velocity was most designed to work well with this but it otherwise worked)

Quite right. The resource fork, and ResEdit, was one of the most brilliant aspects of the Mac’s design. (And yes, Escape Velocity made the most extensive well-known use of it.)

(Aside: I use several Macs that run the classic Mac OS to this day—largely because there are a number of programs and tools that were created for that system, of which there do not exist acceptable modern analogues. The point, once again, is that many of the limitations we face are not fundamentally technological; we very much have the technology to do a much greater variety of things than we currently do… it really is a matter of design, more than anything.)

I'm chuckling to myself as I read this because this morning there was heavy snow outside and my power was out, so I hiked partway up out of the valley I live in to get reception on my cell phone to call the office and find out whether it was open (it was) and then went back down shovel the shared parking lot and driveway with my neighbors so we could get our cars out, then halfway to work found that the road was blocked by a fallen tree so me and a few others who had stopped sawed it up and hauled it clear of the road (someone had a chainsaw in the back of their pickup thankfully) so we could get to where we were going. Is ruralpunk a word? If it isn't I find I want to make it a word.

This doesn't happen every day, but I would guess I have a day like that around once a month. I've been considering moving to a city for access to better jobs, and the thought of growing unused to events like the above has been one of the factors that make me reluctant. Perhaps it's an irrational appreciation for a rugged aesthetic, but I find I'm more cheerful after nature makes me solve some problems that involve grabbing something physical and working up a sweat.

Wow, this is great. This post sums up a lot of drives I recognize in myself, for which I didn't have a name or even realize they were grouped until now.

Example: I live in Africa. One reason I like it is a "steampunk" building accessibility: when I want air conditioning in my room, I go out, buy the A/C units from the store, and ask around to see who can install it -- usually this is just a random guy with some tools who will come same-day, cut a hole in the wall, run the pipe outside from the room, and install the fan unit on the roof. I can watch how he did it, see the tools he used, and do it myself next time if I choose.

I've seen entire buildings go up in a week or two, made from concrete blocks. I've had one-day turnaround on custom furniture (wood standing desk) built to my exact specifications. When I'm in the US, everything feels sacred -- I'm "not allowed" (in my mind) to cut a hole from interior to exterior in my house. I might screw it up somehow. In Africa, you can get things done fast and pretty well too, and it all feels accessible to me.

(And yes, I realize I'm much wealthier than the people around me in Africa. I agree that helps, in that money makes things move faster, but I don't think it's the cause of the sense that I could do this myself that I get while I'm here)

Originally this was a whole other section of the post, but I didn't have any dramatic conclusion, just a bunch of meandering thoughts:

Choice of Environement

The two available venues are basically "improve your work environment" or "improve your home environment." (Improving the commute to work is achievable but I think that'd need to focus exclusively on the physicality elements rather than the customizability elements. Participating in more exciting hobbies is certainly an option too, but I'm interested in how our environment is shaped such that exciting hobbies feel less necessary)

After thinking about it a bunch, I'm somewhat pessimistic about any kind of deep integration, but there at least seems room on the margins.

Calibrating Stress

There was a LessWrong post sometime in the past couple months that I can't find right now, about setting your stress level. There are periods where it's better to be low stress, and periods where it's better to be high stress. If you're trying to relax and watch a movie, being wired for action is counterproductive. If you're trying to do some spontaneous parkour, attempting it from a low-stress state adds a bunch of activation energy requirements. Being able to control your stress level in either direction can be valuable.

Much of an office environment is designed to produce low physical stress and distraction. The goal is to focus on thinking.

I'd personally like to be able to jump, climb, and play. But doing this easily requires me to be at a moderate stress level which is surprisingly hard to come by. (Lately I've been trying to cultivate "parkour mindset", and notice things on the street I can jump on, but it doesn't take much for that to feel like too much of a context switch)

Integrated Physical Challenge

I can think of things you might change in an office, but all the options involve making the job arbitrarily harder, and for that physical hardness to be somehow interwoven into the world so that it's not an abrupt, high-activation energy requirement to engage with it.

I think even the "getting hands dirty" thing is relevant here – offices are clean, even if they're cluttered. If I did exercise and got sweaty, I'd be flinching as I set down on a nice couch, worried about staining it. On the boat, this just wasn't a problem at all.

I think it might also be important that the challenge not be skippable, because then with every interaction you end up with a small incentive towards skimping. As soon as you start taking the easy path, your body starts relaxing, and then it gets progressively harder to climb, jump or pull a heavy lever. On the boat, there was no elevator. If you wanted to carry something from the bridge to engineering, you had to climb multiple ladders and close heavy doors.

On the flipside, unskippable challenges harder for a bunch of people with varying physical aptitudes and/or disabilities do their job. (There's a host of issues surrounding accessibility here)

You could make challenges skippable but optimized for fun/satisfaction. Take the common dichotomy of "take the stairs" vs "take the elevator." The stairs aren't more interesting, just blandly effortful. But what if you got to climb an indoor waterfall or labyrinth of monkeybars? (I don't think this'd fly in a stereotypical corporate office, but I can imagine some Silicon Valley tech companies going for it)

The March of Optimization

Physicality is probably the most relevant-to-human-health aspect of steampunk, but the most conceptually interesting is the "being able to optimize an environment in ways that you maintain gears level understanding of."

The problem is the manner of optimization that's available. It's not that we're done figuring out how to configure office environments – there's room for clever ingenuity there. It's just that it's generally better business to have people specializing in that. Or, if not, the degrees of optimization don't require physical embodiment.

I'm just trying to run a business, man – If you're trying to run a company, making a bunch of things harder is kinda insane. It's hard enough to succeed if you're playing on easy mode, or sticking to the hard modes that directly matter to your business.

Most of these options suffer, if nothing else, from being expensive.

[comment abruptly truncates because it's 1am and this really isn't the most important thing for me to be doing and I want to just get it out there]

This is at least in the same ballpark as something I've been trying to figure out how to articulate for a while.

There's some relation between people and what I hope we don't end up calling "punk objects". (Punk, of course, was all about DIY. In Communist countries, punks set up their own record-printing shops, and printed records on anything they could get their hands on -- most memorably, used X-ray film.) And there's a quality about the people who cultivate these sorts of relations. This might be what Heinlein was talking about when he said specialization is for insects.

The flip side of that is a sort of alienation. If you can't fix or modify your Apple, and have to struggle endlessly with it to get it to do anything it's technically capable of doing but that Apple doesn't want you to be able to do (or at least to do easily), is the Apple really yours? Do you own the thing?

What this reminds me of is the recent social-media habit of imbuing large media corporations with the power to dictate identitarian dignity -- for example, Elbonians petitioning Disney to make movies about Elbonia with Elbonians in them, so that Elbonians can feel better about themselves. Those Elbonians can't pop open the hood of their own group identity -- it belongs to Hollywood, and only Hollywood can tinker with its internals.

(I think Rod Dreher would take this a lot further, and would say something about Vaclav Benda.)

Now, what the Apple thing reminds me of is preschool. In one of the first preschools my parents sent me to, they had a System. You had to ask the teacher how to play with a toy before you could lay your hands on it, and you could only play with it on a tiny little rug with your name on it, and when you were done you had to roll up your rug and put it in the corner, and outside structured class time that was the only thing you could do. Grade school was more of the same. And now that I have a job and an apartment in a building owned by a faceless corporation, I spend forty hours a week tooting around with a laptop in a tedious, highly structured manner, and when I go home I feel like I'm in storage -- like a dolphin at Sea World after closing time. OK, show's over, go back to your cage.

There are a lot of things missing in the default urban life, but the thing you're talking about here is definitely one of them, and I'm not sure what, if anything, can be done about it. I think it's entirely possible that this is the result of an at least semi-deliberate human domestication process, and that resistance to it is difficult and socially costly.

This post is rekindling my urge to run away and live on a boat :)

I'd propose that another aspect of the steampunk aesthetic is uniqueness - a rebellion against the era of mass production. You don't live in a standard Mark II Apple iBoat, you live in a constantly changing hand-built ship-of-Theseus that only you could ever understand or operate.

In that aspect at least, Linux has steampunkish tendencies. You may start with a standard distro, but over time it becomes a web of shell scripts and homebuilt jury-rigged tools, until you reach the point where someone asks if they can use your laptop and you are forced to reply in all honesty "probably not".

A large part of the reason I want to make programming more accessible to people is to give them this sense of ownership over the devices that run their lives. It may end up being messy and inefficient, but it would feel more human.

This overlaps again with 'choice of environment'. The fact that most people live in rented houses and aren't allowed to redecorate, let alone replace the stairs with monkeybars, is maybe kind of dehumanizing.

Yeah, part of the point of this post was to highlight that Steampunk and Linux share a lot of commonalities (of the sort you describe here), and the main difference is that Steampunk involves more physicality.

until you reach the point where someone asks if they can use your laptop and you are forced to reply in all honesty "probably not".

I lol'd

A large part of the reason I want to make programming more accessible to people is to give them this sense of ownership over the devices that run their lives. It may end up being messy and inefficient, but it would feel more human.

I ardently and enthusiastically agree with your goal—giving people a “sense of ownership over the devices that run their lives”—but deeply disagree with the notion (quite common today, indeed) of doing it via programming.

In my other comment, I describe the alternative to what you propose—namely, the “Macintosh aesthetic”. In such a system, one does not write code to customize things (unless so desired!), but nonetheless customization, building novel structures, etc., is very much possible. And, as I say, such an approach is already tremendously more accessible, to non-programmers, than programming will or can ever be.

A digression:

This overlaps again with ‘choice of environment’. The fact that most people live in rented houses and aren’t allowed to redecorate, let alone replace the stairs with monkeybars, is maybe kind of dehumanizing.

This is absolutely correct; I couldn’t have said it better myself. And the same applies to personal computers. But note: averaged across the distribution of humans, the returns from increasingly radical customization diminish (as returns from anything tend to). That is, you get great gains of satisfaction, pleasure, etc., from allowing minor customization—if you live in an apartment, and can move the furniture around, and tack posters to your walls, that is a huge improvement over living in, say, a hotel room—and the gains from being able to replace the stairs with monkeybars are (again, averaged across the population) comparatively minor.

We can notice two things: first, that “increasingly radical customization” is often (though not always) synonymous with “more functional [rather than merely aesthetic] customization”. And second, that—as we know from the literature of occupational psychology, psychology of HCI, ergonomics, etc.—the feeling of control is what directly mediates satisfaction with the experience of some process/task/etc., rather than actual control. But the feeling of control may be induced in many ways, and its correlation with the degree to which one is actually “changing the plumbing” of a process or system is imperfect, to say the least!

A tangentially related, but no less important (though often overlooked), point is that there is often quite a fine line between aesthetics and and functionality, simply because almost any mechanism which is designed for aesthetic customization may be repurposed to provide functionality.[1] Three very simple examples:

  • Allow users to set an arbitrary their own desktop background (“wallpaper”), and they can use it as a way to keep important and often-referenced information (a daily task checklist, say) in an easily-accessible way. (Of course, in reality, applications exist that are designed just for this purpose; but consider a primitive system with no such applications—there, the desktop background can serve this purpose in an impromptu fashion.)
  • Allow users to arrange the file icons in a folder (or on the desktop) in an arbitrary way (and maintain this arrangement, in a guaranteed-persistent manner), and they can use this functionality as an additional dimension of structure/organization. (People can remember spatial data organization schemes more easily than abstract ones.)
  • Allow users to set their own icons for files, and they can use this to create easily visually parseable organization schemes for their digital workspaces, and construct impromptu workflow-enhancing systems.

(These are not made-up examples; I have seen each of them used, just as described, “in the wild”. And there are many other examples, of course—I could list them all day.)

All of this is to say that we can get a lot of “sense of ownership” mileage out of relatively little “customization capability” investment. Make a system sufficiently flexible in its surface details—and you may find that there is very little need to touch the system’s deep nature, to induce user satisfaction and inspire user loyalty.

[1] That this is a general point may be seen by noting that much of aesthetics is visual, and that vision is the highest-bandwidth sensory modality that humans have. This means that any mechanism that allows for the customization of the visual appearance of an interface adds degrees of freedom that allow for the transmission of information to the user. (“Sensory bandwidth”, by the way, is a critical aspect of UI design—and one that is too often overlooked in the popular systems of today, though it once informed much of the orthodoxy in the field, and continues to do so among professional HCI researchers and designers.)

This was, as I said, a digression; I’ve run out of time for now, though there’s much more to be said here—about composability, about importable intuitions, about discoverability, about smooth skill gradients, and more… but that’ll have to wait.

I wish you wrote more about the other aspects mentioned in your last sentence.

Walkable cities. We can choose where to live based on whether can we walk to work (full disclosure - I do not). We can also support local development plans which are friendly to pedestrians, and put residential development and commercial development in close proximity.

For example, my current commute is 1 hour. I can reliably cover a minimum of 3 miles in that time walking, even accounting for inclement weather. If I were to be walking 6 miles a day, I would be in substantially better shape.

I like this a lot and agree that it's important. Working with physical objects is maybe my biggest weakness as a human being right now. I spent most of my life working with mental objects and spent most of the last year-ish working with emotional objects, but I'm still relatively disconnected from metal and stone and wood and fire.

I know a guy in Boulder who's just been building a tea house for the last few months, and the main thing he posts on Facebook is pictures from the construction site. It's incredibly refreshing.

I've also occasionally suggested that high school should be replaced by dropping off all the teenagers into a jungle and picking up whoever's left 4 years later, for this reason among others.

If you would like to see this lifestyle/philosophy lived out fully in real-time, you can watch Jamie Mantzel's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/JMEMantzel

He is living on an island in Panama, in a concrete building he built single-handedly, using a solar powered bulldozer he designed and built himself, collecting materials and components from the mainland on a solar-powered cargo boat he built himself, etc etc.


I'm reminded of the time I had a corrupt filesystem image and wanted to uncorrupt it. It turns out you can just read the filesystem specs and follow the data and see exactly what's gone wrong and where. In this case I only had to change I think one byte before I could successfully mount the filesystem.

The thing that had changed that one byte had also changed many others, so I don't think I got any value from the recovered filesystem. But I still felt powerful and wizardly in a way that I don't often, even as a programmer (even running Gentoo Linux on my home computer).

("Even" makes it sound like I tink programmers are more powerful than others, but I mean more "despite that programming is similar along many axes to this thing".)

This was a FAT32 filesystem, and I expect a modern filesystem would be a lot harder to do that with, which is a shame. Years later, I also had an unsuccessful attempt to do something similar with an audio file.

On the boat, it was quite conceivable to build a ramp or something to bypass the slippery log (we didn't do it because it wasn't a good use of time, similar to how you probably wouldn't build a linux shell script to address a problem with a particular application that you planned to upgrade in another couple days or something).

Steampunk still tries to abstract away things, the abstractions just involve physical things.

Steampunk fiction often also involves Victorian Era fashion and culture, but I think this is largely superfluous

Hmm. I wonder what essential steampunk costume would look like, then. I'm sure it would have lots of pockets. Maybe the clothes would always look like they had been designed from scratch to accommodate the specializations of the wearer.

Police would probably wear some kind of small shield on their shoulder, suggesting that they're ready to stop/protect someone at any moment, as that their purpose.

Affluence would be signaled not with high quality versions of ordinary clothes, but with a special kind of rectangular, leather, intricately patterned bag that the rich would carry under-arm, these would be referred to as (and would have evolved from) "wallets", the suggestion being that they need a copious amount of currency to be accessible to them at all times in case they face a sudden need to buy something expensive, as that is their purpose.