Friday, 11 August 2017

From steampunk to Star Trek: the interwoven strands between science, technology and consumer design

With Raspberry Pi computers having sold over eleven million units by the end of last year, consumer interest in older technology appears to have become big business. Even such decidedly old-school devices as crystal radio kits are selling well, whilst replicas of vintage telescopes are proof that not everyone has a desire for the cutting-edge. I'm not sure why this is so, but since even instant Polaroid-type cameras are now available again - albeit with a cute, toy-like styling - perhaps manufacturers are just capitalising on a widespread desire to appear slightly out of the ordinary. Even so, such products are far closer to the mainstream than left field: instant-developing cameras for example now reach worldwide sales of over five million per year. That's hardly a niche market!

Polaroid cameras aside, could it be the desire for a less minimal aesthetic that is driving such purchases? Older technology, especially if it is pre-integrated circuit, has a decidedly quaint look to it, sometimes with textures - and smells - to match. As an aside, it's interesting that whilst on the one hand current miniaturisation has reduced energy consumption for many smaller pieces of technology from the Frankenstein laboratory appearance of valve-based computing and room-sized mainframes to the smart watch etal, the giant scale of cutting-edge technology projects require immense amounts of energy, with nuclear fusion reactors presumably having overtaken the previous perennial favourite example of space rockets when it comes to power usage.

The interface between sci-tech aesthetics and non-scientific design is a complicated one: it used to be the case that consumer or amateur appliances were scaled-down versions of professional devices, or could even be home-made, for example telescopes or crystal radios. Nowadays there is a massive difference between the equipment in high-tech laboratories and the average home; even consumer-level 3D printers won't be able to reproduce gravity wave detectors or CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tools any time soon.

The current trend in favour - or at least acknowledgement - of sustainable development, is helping to nullify the pervasive Victorian notion that bigger, faster, noisier (and smellier) is equated with progress. It's therefore interesting to consider the interaction of scientific ideas and instruments, new technology and consumerism over the past century or so. To my mind, there appear to be five main phases since the late Victorian period:
  1. Imperial steam
  2. Streamlining and speed
  3. The Atomic Age
  4. Minimalism and information technology
  5. Virtual light

1) Imperial steam

In the period from the late Nineteenth Century's first generation of professional scientists up to the First World War, there appears to have been an untrammelled optimism for all things technological. Brass, iron, wood and leather devices - frequently steam-powered - created an aesthetic that seemingly without effort has an aura of romance to modern eyes.

Although today's steampunk/alternative history movement is indebted to later authors, especially Michael Moorcock, as much as it is to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the latter pair are only the two most famous of a whole legion of late Victorian and Edwardian writers who extolled - and occasionally agonised over - the wonders of the machine age.

I must confess I much prefer steam engines to electric or diesel locomotives, despite the noise, smuts and burning of fossil fuels. Although the pistons and connecting rods of these locomotives might be the epitome of the design from this phase, it should be remembered that it was not unknown for Victorian engineers to add fluted columns and cornucopia reliefs to their cast iron and brass machinery, echoes of a pre-industrial past. An attempt was being made, however crude, to tie together the might of steam power to the Classical civilisations that failed to go beyond the aeolipile toy turbine and the Antikythera mechanism.

2) Streamlining and speed

From around 1910, the fine arts and then decorative arts developed new styles obsessed with mechanical movement, especially speed. The dynamic work of the Futurists led the way, depicting the increasing pace of life in an age when humans and machines were starting to interact ever more frequently. The development of heavier-than-air flight even led to a group of 'aeropainters' whose work stemmed from their experience of flying.

Although scientific devices still had some of the Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson appearance of their Nineteenth Century forebears, both consumer goods and vehicles picked up the concept of streamlining to suggest a sophisticated, future-orientated design. Items such as radios and toasters utilised early plastics, stainless steel and chrome to imply a higher level of technology than their interiors actually contained. This is in contrast to land, sea and aerial craft, whereby the practical benefits of streamlining happily coincided with an attractive aesthetic, leading to design classics such as the Supermarine seaplanes (forerunners of the Spitfire) and the world speed record-holding A4 Pacific Class steam locomotives.

3) The Atomic Age

By the 1950s practically anything that could be streamlined was, whether buildings that looked like ocean liners or cars with rocket-like tailfins and dashboards fit for a Dan Dare spaceship. However, a new aesthetic was gaining popularity in the wake of the development of atomic weapons. It seems to have been an ironic move that somewhere between the optimism of an era of exciting new domestic gadgets and the potential for nuclear Armageddon, the Bohr (classical physics) model of the atom itself gained a key place in post-war design.

Combined with rockets and space the imagery could readily be termed 'space cadet', but it wasn't the only area of science to influence wider society. Biological research was undergoing a resurgence, which may explain why stylised x-ray forms, amoebas and bodily organs become ubiquitous on textiles, furnishings, and fashion. Lighting fixtures were a standout example of items utilising designs based on the molecular models used in research laboratories (which famously gave Crick and Watson the edge in winning the race to understand the structure of DNA).

Monumental architecture also sought to represent the world of molecules on a giant scale, culminating in the 102 metre-high Atomium built in Brussels for the 1958 World's Fair. It could be said that never before had science- and technological-inspired imagery been so pervasive in non-STEM arenas.

4) Minimalism and information technology

From the early 1970s the bright, optimistic designs of the previous quarter century were gradually replaced by the cool, monochromatic sophistication of minimalism. Less is more became the ethos, with miniaturisation increasing as solid-state electronics and then integrated circuits became available. A plethora of artificial materials, especially plastics, meant that forms and textures could be incredibly varied if refined.

Perhaps a combination of economic recession, mistrust of authority (including science and a military-led technocracy) and a burgeoning awareness of environmental issues led to the replacement of exuberant colour with muted, natural tones and basic if self-possessed geometries. Consumers could now buy microcomputers and video games consoles; what had previously only existed in high-tech labs or science fiction became commonplace in the household. Sci-fi media began a complex two-way interaction with cutting-edge science; it's amazing to consider that only two decades separated the iPad from its fictional Star Trek: The Next Generation predecessor, the PADD.

5) Virtual light

With ultra high-energy experiments such as nuclear fusion reactors and the ubiquity of digital devices and content, today's science-influenced designs aim to be simulacra of their professional big brothers. As stated earlier, although consumer technology is farther removed from mega-budget science apparatus than ever, the former's emphasis on virtual interfaces is part of a feedback loop between the two widely differing scales.

The blue and green glowing lights of everything from futuristic engines to computer holographic interfaces in many Hollywood blockbusters are representations of both the actual awesome power required by the likes of the Large Hadron Collider and as an analogy for the visually-unspectacular real-life lasers and quantum teleportation, the ultimate fusion (sorry, couldn't resist that one) being the use of the real National Ignition Facility target chamber as the engine core of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Clearly, this post-industrial/information age aesthetic is likely to be with us for some time to come, as consumer-level devices emulate the cool brilliance of professional STEM equipment; the outer casing is often simple yet elegant, aiming not to distract from the bright glowing pixels that take up so much of our time. Let's hope this seduction by the digital world can be moderated by a desire to keep the natural, material world working.