Monday, June 16, 2008

Steampunk and Recumbent Bikes

BoingBoing points to this steampunk recumbent bike, and it's something to behold. Some things about the steampunk aesthetic really turn me on, and some kind of leave me cold. The lamps on this bike, for instance, are too crufty for my taste. I guess my taste in steampunk runs more to Deco and less to Neo-Victorian.

What really gets me excited about this bike, though, is the mechanism. It's a "tadpole" tricycle, which means two wheels in front, one in back. I don't know if all tadpoles steer this way (I don't know much about recumbents yet), but this one steers by the simple mechanism of separate braking on the front two wheels. Brake right to turn right, brake left to turn left, etc.

I could see some serious safety issues if the brakes on just one wheel failed, though, so I'd want some kind of emergency brake on the drive wheel.

When I showed this to Christie, she asked me why, in my opinion, steampunk is so popular right now. I think part of it is maker culture. There's a movement against consumer culture, and steampunk, at least right now, screams "I made this!"

The maker movement hearkens back to the craftsman movement in the earlier twentieth century, the cottage movement before that, and, I would imagine, so on and so on. But that's a different post.

There's also the fact that technology has very little embodied history in it. When I look at a chair, even a high-design, mass-market chair at Target or Ikea, there are design elements that hearken back to Windsor chairs and beyond. Steampunk does the same thing with elements of technology, giving them the same aesthetic depth as a fine antique.

Of course, not all steampunk is functional. A lot of it is just art, nothing more. And who can say why a given art movement takes prominence when it does?

I can venture some opinions as to why it's so popular with geeks. First of all, it's deeply intertextual. Steampunk references books, movies, and comic books, as well as actualy historical artifacts, events and persons. Geeks love any subject where there's always more to learn, and where you can lord that knowledge over others (you know it's true!).

Secondly, the Victorian era is an enormously evocative period for geeks. Tremendous strides were made in technology and science, many of them by amateurs motivated largely by a love of knowledge. To your average cubicle dweller, the discovery of a new particle is completely out of reach, but a weekend naturalist in the late 1800s could very well discover a fossil that brought the prevailing taxonomies of the time to their knees.

Finally, geeks are neophiles. But the world is largely populated by people who are mildly, if not wildly, suspicious of change. We geeks love to imagine what sort of wonderful things we might have today if the world wasn't run by neophobic cave-dwellers.

If the neophiles had had their way, the geek is thinking, we'd be riding in fusion-powered flying cars, and steampunk recumbent bicycles and so on are the antiques we would have had if we were living the future we should have gotten.

But there's no disputing that this keyboard is 31 flavors of awesome.

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