Intel Advocates a Return to a Better Past at IDF: Steam Punk

Rob Enderle

One of the most compelling presentations I’ve seen from any vendor this past decade was this week’s presentation by Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson on Steam Punk. Intel co-funded a research project and related film surrounding this initiative to try to explore a more intimate technology future.  

It has become apparent that we are becoming so focused on a throwaway iCulture that we are losing the connection we use to have with the tools we use to work and play with. There was a time when we passed down the tools of our trade from typewriters to pocket watches and the technology came with the memories, and often the personalized modifications from the generations before us. 

The Apple iProducts are the reflection of a current throwaway society up to its armpits in e-waste and with less and less connection to the tools it uses for play and work. Magic is no longer the wonder of a passed-down, beautifully crafted and customized product, but something that was tossed together and designed to last a day past warranty expiration and then discarded.  

Steam Punk is a counter-culture response to this unfortunate mood and while a bit more extreme than most would accept for mainstream, it does showcase an alternative future where we are more engaged with our technology and it is a deeper part of both our lives and our heritage.

Intel and Steam Punk

In concept, Steam Punk is an alternative past/present/future and the related stories often contain similar pop culture elements of vampires, zombies and mad scientists. It is an idealized Victorian world where power comes largely from mechanical means and where test tubes don’t give way to transistors, so you’d think a company largely founded on the concept of transistors would find it an unattractive alternative present.

But the part of this that Intel is interested in isn’t the technology, but the way people interact with it. Intel has been employing anthropologists, ethnologists and clinical psychologists to better understand how people and technology should relate in order to create a better future where we are more successfully connected to the technology we use.

This is where Steam Punk shines because in this Steam Punk alternative world, technology isn’t mass-produced in final form. The last stages are crafted by experts who build it specifically for you. These craftsman actually exist today and I have a both a keyboard and a monitor from Datamancer, a craftsman who takes off-the-shelf computer components and turns them into desk art that could be passed on lovingly to the generations that survive me. 

Currently, we have a conflict between those who engineer technology products and those who consume them as we increasingly get things we don’t really understand, couldn’t repair if we wanted to and have no deep connection with. Steam Punk imagines a time when the user and the builder are more closely related and rather than cookie-cutter offerings, each product is unique to our needs and we took some part in its creation.  

Wrapping Up: Challenging the Status Quo 

It is very unusual for a dominant vendor to challenge the status quo, but the standing advice is that if you want to predict the future, you need to invent it. And predicting the future is what largely differentiates firms that survive from those that become extinct.    

With this effort, Intel isn’t just trying to predict the future, it is trying to create a future that it would rather live in where the people who use Intel’s products are more deeply connected to them, where future PCs and their users aren’t in conflict but in symbiosis and where we once again look longingly at a parent or grandparent’s technology after they have passed and it conveys a loving memory rather than just rusting away in a landfill discarded and forgotten. 

I think Intel is on to something and we should be striving for a better future than our current iProduct past is taking us. I actually think this is a more assured future for firms like Apple as well, because the connection is deeper between products and the people who use them, and the death from missing a fad or trend far less likely. 

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