I begin my keyboard artifact analysis by looking at the Steampunk inventor/artist who seems to inspire almost everyone else, Jake von Slatt. A little bit of background, first.
“Meet Mr. Steampunk”
According to an article in Wired, von Slatt (a pseudonym) is an “IT professional, managing Beowulf clusters for a small research firm outside of Boston.” Von Slatt describes himself as a “Steampunk mechanical hacker” who believes the “do-it-yourself and Steampunk movements are driven by the same obsession: the idea that a single mad engineer working in his lab can help change the world by having mastery over his machines.”
Von Slatt is, as P8 from my interviews would say, is a maker. A maker, according to P8, is more than a crafter because of their willingness to be open with their process; to teach, to encourage feedback and discussion. It would be one thing for von Slatt to make his beautiful inventions and keep them to himself and his family. It’s an entirely different thing now that he’s put them online, documented his process so others can replicate it and alter it to suit their personal style.
I’ve been unable to get a direct interview with Von Slatt, which is completely understandable since he’s the celebrity of Steampunk: everyone I have managed to interview has mentioned his name. That said, I’ve seen some of the interviews he’s given for Wired Science, etc, which helps me analyze his creative process (I hope).
The Keyboard Mod
According to von Slatt, he went into this modification knowing he wanted to build a functioning keyboard that was nice enough quality to use every day. I’m very lucky as a researcher because von Slatt has made his entire creative process available for me to analyze, and creative commons attribution, at that. So to begin, let’s look at the before and after of the finished piece.
According to the write-up, this keyboard is made of the original IBM Model M “Clicky” keyboard base, brass plating, keyboard keys, brass-rimmed buttons, photo paper to cover the buttons, felt, translucent acetate, G.E. Silicon II Window and Door Sealant, gaffer’s tape, clear lacquer, and black spray paint.
It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at this keyboard modification that not only is von Slatt a tinkerer, he knows what he is doing. Not only does he know what he is doing, but he is able to describe and explain what he is doing so others can replicate his process.
For example, the reason why he chose the Model M keyboard was because it has “removable key caps and the under-cap has a flat surface ideal for affixing a new key top.” What can we learn from this as designers? Perhaps that it is okay if we make objects that our users can pull apart without ruining the functionality? It should be noted that even though the key caps were removable with a screwdriver, von Slatt took care to do it properly. After removing the keys, von Slatt cut off the “skirt” that surrounds the key post by using a dremmel tool, and sanded the edges so that the key post is flat enough for a keyboard keys to be glued to it. It is this level of detail that we can expect from von Slatt. He used gaffer’s tape to deaden the sound of the keys clattering against the plastic, and lined the top of the keyboard with black felt to cover the beige plastic of the keyboard bed, I assume.
The base of the keyboard is made of brass plate, which, while being the favorite of Steampunks, seems to be a metal that von Slatt has liked for years, as said in his Wired Science interview. As with other Steampunks, von Slatt seems to have been interested in such metals and aesthetics before there was such a term as Steampunk. Contrary to the true Victorian aesthetic, which we tend to see as an egregious amount of decoration, von Slatt wanted the design of the keyboard to be “simple and clean.” The resulting design actually takes up less space than the original model.
The key faces are a mixture of typewriter keys and print-outs for the function keys. As the typewriter didn’t have the corresponding mappings for our function keys (1 – 12), von Slatt typed roman numerals on photo paper, and glued them to some brass-edged buttons he found. The extra spaces left from the larger keys (enter, backspace, caps lock, etc) were covered with the left-over holes from the felt.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the Steampunk community knows about Jake von Slatt. What he does, and what he shows on his website, is seen as gospel, as it were. What for him are fun experiments to be shared with others have become inspirational sources for others who never knew they could have keyboards and LCD monitors that would fit in with their preferred style.
The most interesting part of Steampunk modification is its explicit intertextuality, as listed below.
- Steampunk modification references the lush aesthetics and materials of the Victorian era.
- Steampunk modification suggests the romantic meaning we associate with the Victorians.
- Steampunk modification borrows techniques from other Steampunk modifications.
Before I go into more detail about the Victorians, I should, for full disclosure, admit that most of my knowledge of the Victorians is of the English, not American, history. This is due to my extensive and intensive research for a novel I am in the process of writing, set in the 1880s.
Now then. The Victorians were known for their intricate handwork, and the rising tensions between industrialization and craftsmanship. Why? Because machinery was on the rise, farming was on the outs, and with it, handcraft. In England especially, the method of farmers tilling the land and the aristocracy owning it was on the downward slope due to the United States flooding the market with cheaper imports of flour, wheat, cotton, etc. The English market simply couldn’t keep up, and so turned its eye to manufacturing using the imported raw materials. The rise of industrialization, i.e. machinery replacing men, concerned William Morris. William Morris was the craftsman, artist, and architect who began the Arts and Crafts Movement, where the point was to combine form and function so they worked inseparably, creating, as I’ve often quoted before, a “thing of beauty forever.” He championed and romanticized the handwork of artisan masters and disdained the impersonal, shoddy work of machinery-made products. I say champion and romanticize because he argued for the more complex, more intricate, more meaningful production that a craftsman could create in comparison to the simpler, impersonal products Victorian machinery created.
Steampunk, as I see it, is a continuation of this Arts and Crafts movement issue. It romanticizes the Victorian era as a simpler time, the “good ole times,” as it were, before the age of the impersonal, cold, sterile computer. The Victorians used what we consider lush materials, both for aesthetic and pragmatic reasons. There was no such thing as mass production at the time, at least not to the scale we see today, and so we see the Victorians as carefully handcrafting all the everyday objects in their homes and offices. We see the formality and wish for the elegance. Simple objects like pitchers, writing desks, telephones, chairs, etc, have a level of detail and organic beauty that we rarely see in designs today. When we call something beautifully designed today it’s for the clean lines, the distinctly modern and stark style that we think futuristic designs should look like. And computers, of all things, should have modern, contemporary designs, right?
Beyond all this, Victorian designs are still around today, which speaks to their longevity. We know what a Victorian typewriter looks like not only from photos, illustrations, and advertisements, but also because people today still own them and see them as objects of beauty. Same thing with light posts, cash registers, and other random objects that people use for decorative purposes in their homes. The Victorian designs were built for disassembly for the simple reason that they couldn’t design it otherwise; they didn’t have the technology, often enough, to completely close off an object’s form and prevent curious exploration.
The same thing happened with modern computing. When the personal computer came into being, computers were made for disassembly because we didn’t have the technology to do otherwise. This became the play space of the curious tinkerer, and companies such as Apple actually included the hardware specifications to encourage use and exploration in the 1980s. Where did that go? Why don’t companies do that today? Part of this culture disappeared because our market has turned into a services industry, which means by definition the majority of our population doesn’t work with its hands anymore. With this comes the realization that we miss working with our hands, and so turn to a time when working with our hands was more prevalent, i.e., the early Victorian era.
Why not other eras, I wonder? I’ve come to realize that so much of Western culture today is heavily influenced by the Victorians, due to the first time in history England had a “middle class.” We are in the midst of a global economic crisis, and here in the United States we are losing our middle class. We are on the tail end of what the Victorians began, and that frightens us, because we don’t know where to go from here. We can’t relate to the Georgian or Regency, for instance, because those cultures still clung to the more traditional market of aristocracy and everyone else. Everyone else being farmers, merchants, lawyers, clergy, etc. The Victorian middle class began the obsession with cleanliness equating to Godliness, because they needed a way to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, who perhaps didn’t have the time or energy to be constantly cleaning. The Victorian era was dirty, my friends. It took a full day to do simple laundry because the washing machine was in the process of being invented. There was constant black smoke spewing from the stovepipes and chimneys of London, rats, cockroaches, and rampant exploitation of children in the factories. But we don’t reference these things with Steampunk, we reference the excitement of innovation and exploration that happened during the Victorian era. We want to feel the golden glow of being a part of Victoria’s Empire; we want the hopeful gaiety of the era, and forget our apathy and ennui.
Interestingly, I’ve found that of the Steampunk modifications, men tend to do technology such as keyboards, monitors, etc, and women tend to do jewelry and costuming. This isn’t to say the opposite doesn’t happen, it’s just what I’ve found as yet. Why is that? Why do men modify technology, and women jewelry/clothing? Culturally speaking here in the United States, this is a fairly typical gender distinction. I know I am an anomaly for the simple fact that I am a female with a computer engineering degree, I am not afraid to dive into the guts of my computer or encourage someone else to do the same because I know I have access to a tutorial online from someone who is, presumably, more experience than I am with such matters. Besides which, I have the experience of working with my father with his computers when I was younger. He taught me the rules about grounding oneself when working in a mini-tower to prevent my inevitable static electricity from shorting the motherboard, and how to vacuum the dust from the interior without pulling out the more delicate pieces, etc.
Um… Jake von Slatt is my hero, and I can see why everyone and their mother is inspired by his works?
In all seriousness, it seems to me there is a lot to interpret here. First, why choose a keyboard to modify? Von Slatt had the keyboard, I assume, since 1989 based on the fact that he also knew the exact model of machine that came with the keyboard. There was history with the keyboard, and a knowledge of how to take it apart without destroying the actual functionality. There is also the fact that, being an IT manager of Beowolf clusters, the keyboard is his livelihood. He no doubt works at a keyboard every day, and why shouldn’t a professional of his caliber have a nice instrument with which to work?
As a designer, I see the following points as opportunities to empower my user:
- I can design for disassembly.
- In designing for disassembly, I can provide the specifications of the design to encourage exploration.
- In designing for disassembly, I can provide tutorials and side projects online to encourage a dialogue and therefore more personal meaning.