Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bostodelphia Steampunk-a-go-go: Taking a Steam with Jake von Slatt

Von Slatt with Steampunk Ax

Our inaugural Steampunk article, an interview with Jake von Slatt.


JVS: Jake von Slatt
CP: Cod Peace
CTI: Cheesesteak the Impaler

Enjoy! And we welcome your feedback.

Taking a Steam with Jake von Slatt

CTI: Cod Peace and I have toweled ourselves up and reported to Dillons Russian Steam Bath in Chelsea to conduct our interview with Boston area steampunk posterboy (or perhaps daguerreotype gentleman?) and Weekly Dig "Good Bostonion" Jake von Slatt. After some bickering with Cod on the way here in the Bostodelphiamobile, I've come to realize that this setting may not be the ideal thematic location I had envisioned. Turns out steampunks, in fact, do not mill about in clouds of steam. Well, Herr von Slatt's just going to have to do it this once for Bostodelphia. Besides, while I'm a little worried what all this hot moisture's going to do to my roll, Cod's actually starting to give off this tasty, poached smell.

Herr von Slatt, thank you for taking the time to meet with Bostodelphia.

JVS: My Pleasure Mr. Impaler and please call me Jake. Lovely place this! it reminds me of The Gellert, a wonderful 19th Century spa in Budapest.

CTI: Going over your broader array of projects, it seems like you've been doing DIY tinkering for a while before "steam punk" was really in the vernacular. I'm wondering how you fell into the word, and how or if you've reconciled your work prior to encountering steampunk. Have you always been "steampunk?" What did you call your work prior to encountering the term? Has your involvement with the word affected the aesthetics or production techniques of your work?

JVS: "I've been Steampunk all along, I just never knew what it was called" is a common refrain on the Steampunk message boards and is true for me as well. When I was 11 or 12 I got into electronics in a big way and I would spend hours in the 621 section of the Public Library. Invariably the books that appealed to me were the works from the early 20th century that contained "projects for boys" that would get the authors sued or shipped off to gitmo if they were published today.

While other nerdy kids were playing with their 101 Electronic Project kits from Radio Shack with PNP and NPN transistors, my earliest experiments were with leyden jars, home-made lead acid batteries, vacuum tubes, and high voltage coils. I built a spark gap transmitter with which I could send Morse signals some distance, of course it also obliterated television reception in the entire neighborhood when in operation.

So I've always had a passion for the old tech and part of the reason for that is its accessibility to the tinkerer. 19th tech can be recreated with tools you can own or build. I don't need a vapor deposition chamber or a wafer fab facility to build a radio, the most sophisticated thing I need is a good vacuum pump.

As for the word itself; when I'm working in my shop and I need, say some sort of linkage, I look through my junk box and see what similar to the part I'm looking for and I modify it to serve. I'll admit to co-opting the term Steampunk in a similar way for my website.

CTI: To me, those invested in the word "steampunk" -- and my knowledge base stems from Sterling and Gibson's collaboration on The Difference Engine which introduced steampunk aesthetic to a mass audience -- are forced into a comparison with cyberpunk "culture," if sucha culture can even be isolated and identified from mainstream technological aesthetics anymore. Broadly sketching cyberpunk as a meshing of a subgenre of science fiction (and music and other arts), "information wants to be free" ideology and its Orwellian counterforce, and a hacker culture involved in technological exploits and play for fun and profit regardless to matters of law, we can see a movment that was forecasting, or maybe trying to force, massive societal changes through information technologies. Is there similarly grand world-thinking among practitioners of steampunk crafts or arts (mad scientist megalomania?), or are steampunks engaged with something more personal or intimate? Maybe nostalgic?

JVS: Certainly some are primarily interested in the nostagic. However some of the harder core fans think more in terms of lifestyle. In many ways I think Steampunk is a reaction to Cyberpunk, its a desire to inject an element of humanity and passion into something cold and virtual and as such I think it will have a longer run.

Making things is also a central theme among (what I am going to start calling) Steam Punks, as is a general anti-corporate, pro-individual attitude. We're anti-corporate not because big companies are evil or anything, but because they are boring and promote sameness and we see too much of that in the world. We treasure unique things.

: To follow up on that, Jake, or push it differently: I get Steam Punks are similar to at least the first cyberpunk iterations in the anti-corporate, pro-individual, what we may call a "techno libertarian" outlook (and by libertarian I mean more DIY than "Republicans who want to smoke pot"). However, other than the fact that a lot of yesterday's "cyberpunks" have more or less sold out to contemporary digital capitalism, the other thing was that the cyberpunk technological savvy was seen by the movement as an imperative. Some formulation of a "cyber" future was inevitable, they were just leading the way and the rest of the world would have to catch up. Some saw it as a mission to sort of "evangelize" the future and help the luddites bridge the digital divide, etc. Others saw themselves as future princes with those not hip to the movement their future serfs, etc. In other words, whether you got cyberpunk or not, the cyberpunk movement would ultimately affect you; and arguably, some element of it actually did. I'm wondering if the average Steam Punk sees him or herself as providing an example to the "masses" as yet untouched by steampunk, or seeing themselves having a broader social impact than their individual craft and apparent niche audiences?

: Of course there is a great deal of variation among those that would identify themselves as Steam Punks, there is a definite Anarchist contingent and a lot of Steam Punk identify with the green movement and see the re-visiting of the old tech as a path to sustainability, steam power is, after all, perfect for bio mass energy conversion.

: Howso?

: In a nutshell, global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels which result in the release of ancient carbon (in the form of CO2) into the atmosphere. Biomass is any solid or liquid plant product that will burn. The carbon that is released to the atmosphere when these fuels are burned is carbon that was fixed from the atmosphere last year, not 10 million years ago. The process is essentially carbon neutral. The advantage steam has is due to the fact that steam boilers can easily be designed to burn multiple types of fuel, whereas internal combustion engines require a liquid form with particular characteristics. A Stanley Steamer will run fine on veggie oil, kerosene, gasoline, diesel or paint thinner and it would be fairly easy to add a fire box to allow one to burn wood chips, peat moss, whatever.


Large scale power from biomass is a proven technology, Steampunks are interested in downsizing such systems to power individual homes or compound, just in case there's an apocolypse or something.

I describe myself as a "bleeding heart libertarian" and think that's consistent with Steam Punk. We promote the blending of science and romance, technology and humanity.

: Is there an international appeal to SteamPunk or is it more limited to Anglo countries?

: I hear it's huge in France
and Germany right now, also in the U.K. where the blend of fans is really quite fascinating. To see 50-something railroad steam enthusiasts discussing pocket watches and goggles with 20-something Goths in psuedo Victorian parlance is trippy as hell. Yah just gotta love Teh Intarweb.

Right now the busiest forum on the web is run out of the U.K by a young lady who sports the moniker "TinkerGirl" she's the force behind the Brass Goggles Blog and the forum can be found at http://www.brassgoggles.co.uk/bg-forum/index.php

CP: Is it popular in the UAE yet? If it is you're going to make a sh*t load of money.

JVS: Not that I know of, but recent articles in Ocean Drive and Vegas magazines may change that. As aside, it tickled me greatly to see a link for steampunkmagazine.com, a publication with some definite Anarchist leanings, in a pair of over-sized, super glossy, hyper-capitalist luxury goods magazines - now that's punk.

CTI: Why would you want steam in the desert?

CP: Because there's an obscene amount of $ (and, er, euros these days) floating around, and if a tiny percentage gets steampunked JvS will be driving
a gold-plated steampunked Yaris to his day job.

CP: Is the essence of being a "steampunk(er?)" in the creation of steampunk crafts or in the mere consumption of them? How significant is the do-it-yourself model to steampunk, as opposed to something like goth where there's a ready
market of fashion accessories, music, etc. to decorate one's self with, and thus no need for DIY? Relatedly, does the burgeoning market for luxury steampunk goods (JvS's keyboard can be purchased from another steampunker, Datamancer) detract from the DIY, homespun air to most steampunk websites?

JVS: Not at all! Being an individual artisan making unique items and selling them to the non-player characters is very much in line with my view of what makes a Steam Punk. I firmly believe that all artists should be able to make a living wage plying their art and the internet has given us the platform to do so.

However, if a corporation starts manufacturing steampunk keyboards in large quantities it's likely that the Steam Punks will eschew them even if fans of Steampunk buy them up by the hundreds. That's OK too, we love our fans and understand that not everyone would want or can afford a handmade keyboard.

I myself sell nothing, I consider my product to be the entertainment my website provides to my visitors. In fact, I will shortly be publishing a licensing notice on my site which will state that my designs are licensed under Creative Commons, Non-Commercial Attribution, Share-alike license with a commercial exception for individual artisans. That is to say people are welcome to make copies of my work and sell them as long as they credit me for the design and the profits are supporting an individual or family.
But to answer your question; the essence of Steampunk is the infusion of technology with romance.

: On that licensing, do you see any affinity in the philosophy of Creative Commons, NCA, "share" licenses and the "gentleman tinkerer" steampunk may be a throwback to? A techno-romantic idea, as I'm really not sure how well this is supported by history, that technology is simply an expression of an open scientific community, so all technology should be fundamentally open, non-proprietary to better facilitate the exchange of ideas. This notion of course flies in the face of the contemporary model for "product development". Key to this is whether this is simply romantic (or hyper intellectually liberal) thinking, or can we really point to steam-age precedent.

: Ah, it's a common mistake to think we care about what the past
was . We're much more interested in what it should have been and what the future can be. I like Cory Doctorow's "reputation economy" concept a lot and I see something of it in the way the current crop of Steampunk enthusiasts interact on the net. A "gentleman" would not outright copy someone else's work, if only because the
the community would recognize it and his cred would drop.

As for the real world, I feel that there should be some patent protection to give companies the incentive to be first to market with a new technology, but it should reflect typical product development times, nothing longer.

Ultimately, desktop fabrication
is going to eliminate much of manufacturing and then it will be only ideas that hold real value (see here and here). Recently an economist at Cambridge published a paper on optimal copyright length - his conclusion is that 14 years is optimal in term of economic benefit. That sounds about right to me.

: It seems like there's a sort of "whimsical utopian" vibe to Steampunk. Jake, you've mentioned elsewhere that in the Victorian era the "amateur" could significantly contribute to scientific and technological understanding. However, the Victorian era was marked by huge human suffering at the hands of industrialization. For example, the railroads in England cost something like 1-3 human lives per mile, factories routinely ruined worker's bodies, and coal smoke was a key factor in producing the infamous London "pea-souper" smogs. While this "dark side" to Steampunk's genealogy is acknowledged in the fiction, do the more "hands on" as opposed to storytelling steampunks acknowledge this, or do you yourself envision any acknowledgement of this in future steampunk projects?

: Well, what is wonderful and exciting when done as a hobby can really suck as a career. I'm currently working on a blast furnace project for melting aluminium, brass - and I hope - iron. This is going to be dirty and dangerous and because I'm only playing at it, fun as hell. But it will give me a peek into the life of a foundry worker of an earlier era.

I guess I am starting to make a real distinction between Steampunk as an aesthetic and genre of fiction and Steam Punk as a lifestyle. The utopian vibe you're referring to is indeed part of Steampunk, and its the source of the design aesthetic that we draw on when we craft our devices. But we Steam Punks are far more interested in the lives of those toiling in the factories and workshops of the 19th century then what went on in the manors of the high born and wealthy.

Our top hats are filthy and our goggles have cinders melted into the lenses.

: Pardon the coarseness of this followup, but isn't this a form of slumming? I'm trying to find a way to formulate this without sounding more flippant than I intend, but isn't this coming at the possibilities of techno-romanticism with the high mindedness of a Dr. Frankenstein, but one wanting to get grimy with Igor? Maybe it's not fair to push you along this line, and it should be saved for a rant. Still let's see where this goes. You personally are curious about the 'raw forces' at play in the foundry, so you're building this furnace project. Cool, and your colleagues or associates or friends will probably say "cool" too, but what I think Cod Peace is getting at is the material nostalgia represented by "brass and clockwork" vanity consumable ... stuff through which the owner can claim a removal from the ugliness of late capitalism and a contact or intamacy with an age when technology was more romantic ... without acknowledging the actual social ugliness of that era?

: Jake, could you elaborate on your conception of the "personal industrial revolution"? Does this include putting your children to work digging coal seams and your wife to work smelting iron ore? Actually, aside from the difficult work of coal and iron production, this reminds me somewhat of the people reviving ancient building techniques using clay/lime plasters, wattle-and-daub, and so forth, since well into the 1800's the average American (the vast majority of whom were not city dwellers) were capable of building their own shelter. With the export of the manufacturing sector and the cultural denigration of blue collar work over the last 30 years the average American these days can barely swing a hammer.

: There you two go with the
History again! ^_^ Really what we're discussing here is my phillosophy rather then what Steampunk actually is. But I delight in declaring my phillosophy Steampunk and if people agree then, well that how language evolves.

It's more about humanizing technology so that people are comfortable with it, understand it, embrace it, love it. The best way to do that is to start with the basic physics that most 19 Century tech directly exemplifies. Once you understand a light bulb, it's a short step to understanding a vacuum tube. Once you understand a vacuum tube it's a short step to the transistor, then the integrated circuit. Stir in the concept of binary logic and you have the basis for all digital tech. But you have to start with that electro'nic
(?) switch that was invented in the late 1800s.

Steampunk is as much about the future as it is about the past.

: Why doesn't steampunk involve more, well, actual steam, like
Crab Fu's projects

: I-Wei is brilliant isn't he!? I love his work. Well, I can tell you that it will [involve more steam] for me and that I think you will see more of it as the old time steam afficinados discover Steampunk. Can you imagine the elder statesmen of steam hobbies suddenly discovering they have young fans on the net? Many will not know how to take it, but a few will rise to the acclaim.

: What makes a band steampunk (e.g.
Abney Park )? Do they perform on steam calliopes?

: They are Steampunk because people said they were Steampunk and they decided that was cool and that they would be Steampunk with all their hearts. At least that's my take on it. You're asking a garage tinkerer for music critism? ;-)

: As I've thought about this interview, and my initial "steampunk is derived cyberpunk" opening line of questions, I keep coming back to J.F. Sebastian in
Bladerunner. You've got the quintessential man alienated by "futureshock capitalism", skilled to do a job in the "real world"; and at home: he tinkers these clockwork "friends". On the other end of the spectrum, you have the portrayal of Tesla in The Prestige (and lots of other speculative and alternative history fiction) who pretty much embodies the idea of the "technomancer" a literal magician of technology. His tragedy is a lot different from Sebastian's, his thinking and technological wonders could "utopianize" the world, if he wasn't thwarted by "the powers that be" usually represented by Edison, and so since we live in a world whose technology and intellectual property framework can be seen as more derived from Edison than Tesla, the Tesla tragedy is one for everyone. So I guess I have outlined here two "archetypes" for the Steampunk. On one hand there's J.F. Sebastian, a pathetic figure. On the other, you got Tesla, the tragic noble figure buried by more worldly men. Is this a a workable framework for Steampunks?

: Nah, the guy I think of is the Blade Runner merchant who "only does eyes." The individual craftsman trading in bio-tech in the back alley.

: Is there one (or two or three) technologies or industries you'd rather see produced or replaced by Steampunk craftsmanship? If so, could you discuss their implementation (either alt historical or in a contemporary "revolutionary" moment) and any socio-political-economic ramifications?

: Again we're crossing over from for Steampunk "proper" to my personal phillosophy, but so be it. Desktop fabricators are going to bring the downfall of mass production and will allow physical object to be developed by communities of enthusiast int the way that Open Source software is developed today. It will allow collaborative product design and personal customization of anything. It will be a return to the days whe you went to the local blacksmith or carpenter with a sketch of what you wanted and he would make it, often imbuing it with his own design aesthetics as well as your own.

: One might imagine Steampunkers going a bit overboard with the steam lifestyle and Victorian nostalgia. Or perhaps following in the footsteps of
two trapped Chinese coal miners, who survived by eating coal. Which brings me to the question, what's the tastiest type of coal: brown, bituminous, or anthracite?

: Anthracite is nice and crunchy and good for getting up a good head of steam, but you want that nice gooey bituminous stuff if you're going to do any serious forging of iron.

: If you keep heating steam you'll eventually create plasma once you hit a few million degrees. Do you think plasmapunk
is a viable future design style? If we heated you in a closed vessel to several million degrees could you make us a plasmapunk monitor?

: I think "Plasmapunk" is already used by the Hemogoths . <shudder>

: Let's say this steambath and steampunk teachin were assaulted by Daleks, because well they hate all forms of individual expression and I imagine the only thing a Dalek may hate more than a Steampunk is a Time Lord. How can you Steampunk your way out of such a scenario? Bonus points if this sandwich and my fishy collaborator survive too.

Cheesesteak's hypothesis becomes reality as a squad of steampunk Daleks burst into the bath, destruction of the artisan and his interlocutors at the top of their task list.

: Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!

: (Grabbing the sandwich and reaching for the poached fish) Quick, this way, up the stairs!

: Hey, is Steampunk even a verb? NGGGGGGGGG!

(Hunkered nearby Cod's incinerated scales, Jake scarfs the Cheesesteak, opting internal carriage as the best way to protect the sandwich from the waste of Dalek destruction. Making his way to the bridge of his unleaded Zeppelin, he answers the Dalek fried fish final question): To paraphase Doc Brown "It's whatever you want it to be, Marty!"

Daleks fume, left behind in the hot mist by Jake as his Zeppelin debarks the bathhouse.

(Dalek image from http://promus-kaa.deviantart.com/art/Steampunk-Dalek-45896043

For further reading, issue 4 of Steampunk Magazine has just gone been released, including an open letter to Jake von Slatt and Datamancer.


Phillip said...

Great interview!

Tom Ligon said...

Darn, and I thought I has coined the term "plasmapunk" last night at the Balticon science fiction convention!

By the JVS definition, when I'm up at my cabin in the mountains heating with wood and solar and messing with my blacksmith's forge, I'm a classic steampunk.

By extension, my involvement with inertial electrodynamic fusion, especially my inspiring the amateur fusion movement embodied by fusor.net and talk-polywell.org would make me an archetypical plasmapunk. I'm not quite the prototype, as Robert W. Bussard, Robert Hirsch, and Philo T. Farnsworth would have to be the ultimate examples.

Tom Ligon
Science Fiction Author