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Washington State University
CAS Connect November-December 2014

Maker culture, from STEM to STEAMpunk

Assistant Professor of English Roger Whitson is tackling a unique, new challenge: using a 3-D printer to make 19th-century technologies, some of which never existed.

Roger Whitson
Roger Whitson

An expert in 19th-century literature, Whitson is also an expert in “steampunk,” a modern, science fiction-based social movement easily recognizable by its look. Fans of steampunk often dress in Victorian-era garb, heavily modified with leather, brass, and various mechanical parts and often featuring high-tech-but-also-handcrafted gadgets.

The imaginative technologies Whitson hopes to make are largely those developed by steampunk enthusiasts. He’ll utilize a three-dimensional printer, housed in the Department of English, to manufacture up to five whimsically styled and potentially practical devices.

‘Quirky’ technology meets scholarship

The 'Neverwas Haul,' a steampunk-styled mobile home. (Photo: Scott Beale Laughing Squid)
The ‘Neverwas Haul,’ a steampunk-styled mobile home. (Photo: Scott Beale Laughing Squid)

On the surface, steampunk technology can be “quirky” and “completely ridiculous,” Whitson said. Some of the things that fans come up with are in line with Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, a Victorian-era work of science fiction in which the characters use an enormous gun to shoot travelers into space.

But other steampunk innovators have developed ideas for technologies that were ostensibly possible, given the materials and know-how available during Queen Victoria’s reign of the British Empire. Whitson, for instance, plans to build his own “retrocomputer.” Other technologies exemplify what Victorian-era inventors might have viewed as futuristic technology.

Underlying the quirkiness factor is a phenomenon that Whitson finds especially fascinating. Whether it’s a fan’s teacup version of the late nineteenth-century Stirling engine, or modern technology that looks like it was built in 1870, using cogs, brass, and wood, these visions of technology have cultural, even political, resonance, he said.

Whitson aims to build examples of so-called “steampunk artifacts” using funds from his WSU New Faculty Seed Grant ($17,000). His project titled “STEM to STEAMpunk: Critical Making as Literary Scholarship” will explore steampunk as an avenue for understanding cultural production and critique.

STEM refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, while STEAM includes an ‘A’ for the arts.

In addition to 3-D printing, Whitson’s faculty seed grant project involves producing a webinar series about making as a form of critical and humanistic inquiry.

Steampunk versus ‘the machine’

Steampunk-inspired USB flash drive. (Photo: Tom Harrington)
Steampunk-inspired USB flash drive. (Photo: Tom Harrington)

Steampunk began as a literary genre, and fans and writers alike actively engage with romanticized versions of the Victorian period, including its aesthetics and technology.

From the fantastical inventions of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to more recent novels set in dystopian Victorian-esque worlds, authors and producers have long been pushing boundaries of technology and culture and setting people’s imaginations afire.

While known widely for influencing fashion, steampunk’s Victorian aesthetic has a deeper meaning for many fans and expresses a particular relationship with technology and modern society.

Steampunk embraces maker culture, a “tech-enhanced version of the arts-and-crafts culture of the 19th century that arose as an alternative to mass production of industrial goods,” said Whitson.

Steampunk-styled computer screen and keyboard. (Photo: Jake von Slatt)
Steampunk-styled computer screen and keyboard. (Photo: Jake von Slatt)

Maker culture reacts against the “black box ideology” of large technology-producing corporations, in which technology is made mysterious and essentially invisible to its users.

“Most people don’t know how a laptop actually works,” Whitson said. The very things that made computers widely accessible—streamlined designs and graphical user interfaces—means relatively fewer people now know how to program or put computers together, he said. “People really are in the dark when companies introduce new programs and tell them what devices they should want.”

Steampunk counters this by bringing the “cogs” (literally and figuratively) to light, emphasizing an understanding of how technology works by displaying its material elements.

“It’s anti-‘ignore the machine’ and anti-‘let corporations dictate what it is we do with technology.’ It can spark a desire in people to understand how machines are made and what choices go into their construction,” Whitson said.

Cultural critique—vanished technologies and more

A classic steampunk costume. (Photo: Pete Labrozzi)
A classic steampunk costume. (Photo: Pete Labrozzi)

Steampunk thinks in unconventional terms about history as well as technology. One example is thinking about reviving “dead media,” a term coined by science-fiction author Bruce Sterling to describe “technologies that were abandoned due to infeasibility,” Whitson said.

For instance, an attempt to remake the steam-driven Stirling engine using a cup of tea is whimsical but it also invites reflection on society’s choices—and rejections—of particular technologies. The reasoning might go like this, according to Whitson: “Maybe it was a hundred-year mistake that we went after the internal combustion engine.”

Other critiques are directed at steampunk itself. Some writers say that the Victorian period should be romanticized with care; Diana Pho, for instance, has written on steampunk fans’ tendencies to remove the brutal legacy of colonialism from their interpretations of Victorian culture. Yet this tendency, too, is valuable in Whitson’s opinion—it’s another opportunity to understand how people engage with and appropriate pieces of the past.

Forms of costume play, or “cosplay,” including steampunk, bring together “everyday people who ‘live’ online and are interested and want to participate in these conversations about how we understand and remember the past. It’s not only in academic circles that these conversations happen,” Whitson said. The nonacademic contributions of fans are important to cultural knowledge and understanding, he said.

Conversations about Victorian culture are becoming more mainstream as the steampunk movement grows more popular. SteamCon, an annual convention, has been held in Seattle since 2009, and the IBM Social Sentiment Index describes steampunk as a major new fashion trend in 2013.

Digital making at WSU and beyond

Steampunk is only one of Whitson’s fields of interest. He teaches courses in the Digital Technology & Culture (DTC) major as well as classes in 19th-century literature, and his work primarily falls at the intersection of the two.

He is also the co-author of William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media, a book about the appropriation of 19th-century poet William Blake’s work into memes and digital media. “I’m interested in how people latch onto and change things and make them their own, culturally,” he said.

Along with Dene Grigar, associate professor at WSU-Vancouver and director of the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program there, Whitson is a curator of the online archive “Critical Making in Digital Humanities,” which contains several projects by faculty and students in the United States and elsewhere.

“Roger [Whitson] has done a really great job pulling in a lot of interest about digital humanities and maker culture,” Grigar said. “The archive is ongoing—we’re updating for the next Modern Language Association convention, adding projects. I’m not aware of any other archives like this for maker projects.”

Whitson is scheduled to teach a steampunk graduate seminar in spring 2015. He recently signed a contract with Routledge to write a book about steampunk and digital humanities.