Artifact Analysis: Second Wooden Keyboard

Here we have another wooden Steampunk modification of a keyboard, this one from Marcus in Germany. I can’t seem to find much information about this modder. I know he’s a reader of Jake von Slatt’s Steampunk Workshop website because that’s where I found this modification, and that he had made a comment about a different method for creating typewriter-style keys for the keyboard. I take this to mean Marcus is a problem-solver, as are most user-makers, and that he is worried about cost. As he said on Steampunk Workshop, there are only “so many typewriters in the world,” and not many are available on eBay in Europe.

Before (kind-of):

After:

Identification

This modification is made using “fancy brass fasteners” with the gems taken out for the key frames, paper, polycarbonate sheet to protect the key printouts, cardboard, an 80-yr-old  wooden picture frame, three analog displays for the status lights, a brown shoelace to cover the power cord, and fabric.

Evaluation

This is one of the few keyboards that I’ve seen where Marcus really focused on the analog metaphor. It wasn’t enough to convert the keys to a typewriter style, even the status lights had to be converted to analog gauges to indicate on/off. This keyboard is a representation of the maker’s dedication. For example, the method for creating the keyboard keys is as follows:

  1. Remove the key
  2. Cut off the key skirt in the manner described by Von Slatt
  3. Remove gems from brass fasteners
  4. Print new key labels
  5. Paste new labels to cardboard backing
  6. Cover new labels with polycarbonate sheet
  7. Place label inside the brass fasteners
  8. Insert brass fastener inside keyboard key leg
  9. Replace key leg into keyboard frame

And this was the process for every key on the keyboard! That’s dedication, as far as I’m concerned. From the pictures I’ve seen, some keys look a little more neatly done than others, which makes me wonder whether Marcus got tired of the process. Too much repetition can equate to boredom, I’ve found in my interview analysis.

It seemed important to Marcus to represent the implied age of the keyboard modification. Rather than using wooden molding and making it look old, he found old furniture spare parts and fitted them together to encase the keyboard frame. I’m unsure why this particular fabric was used, as to my eye, it doesn’t necessarily go with the analog gauges and wooden frame. I would have gone with a deep velvet, perhaps, or some other material that would more closely complement the dark stain of the wooden frame. I think it’s the hue of the green that gets me, but then, I’m very picky about colors.

Cultural Analysis

I originally found this on Jake von Slatt’s Steampunk Workshop, as it seems von Slatt is the go-to man for such modifications, or at least for sharing modifications. I suspect this is because von Slatt shares his process and is very open and welcoming to other ideas and processes, especially when compared to Datamancer, another well-known technology modder. This isn’t to say that Datamancer isn’t open and welcoming at all, but this is simply to say that von Slatt encourages discussion by posting to a blog, whereas Datamancer has only recently created a blog and instead posts to static HTML pages. Additionally, von Slatt doesn’t provide “DIY keyboard kits,” and Datamancer does.

That said, Marcus has posted his process to a German forum named OffRoad Cult, and seemed very open to answering questions about his process. He posted pictures as he went along so others could follow and perhaps determine where they would differ.

The existence of the internet and its community is a huge contributing factor to Steampunk’s existence. This isn’t to say that without the internet Steampunk wouldn’t exist, because people involved with Steampunk have always been interested in these topics… now they have a singular term to describe their varied interests.

Interpretation

What is the meaning behind this modification? Well, it’s hard to say without speaking to Marcus so I’d like to reference something from my interview with P9 which relates, I think. P9 mentioned that so much of how we interact with the outside world, family, friends, etc, is through technology (our computers). As such, shouldn’t the metaphorical importance of our technology physically look its importance? P9 said that it’s “sad” to see this “beige lump of plastic and metal” whose ugliness doesn’t properly represent their feelings about it, that being their connection to family, friends, and culture.

With this in mind, I’m beginning to see that particular opinion in these modifications. People want their computers and technology to physically represent the emotional or psychological importance. Not only that, but they want their technology to better represent their identity, how they interact with the technology, etc.

I find it fascinating that people are making these modifications. Why keyboards, I wonder? Perhaps because it’s easier to modify a keyboard in comparison to a monitor or laptop keyboard. There are pieces to pull apart and scrutinize. There are tons of functioning keyboards in the dump or Goodwill or in our basements to pull apart and experiment with, without fear of ruining the keyboard we are currently using with our machines. As mentioned by my interview subjects, people are more likely to experiment with materials that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

Moral of the story

So what can we, as designers, learn from this? Again, I like the idea of designing for disassembly. Design something that can be taken apart in some fashion without destroying the functionality or meaning. If we’re attempting to empower our user-makers to make personally identifiable appropriations, and making designs that our user-makers can use, interpret, alter, adapt, and explore, somehow we need to bring down the cost, as well.

Constraints are good, right? We need to embrace constraints? So let’s embrace cost and disassembly. It might be a step in the right direction, it might not. We won’t know until we try.