Thursday, May 09, 2013

Art & Culture: Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson

“A futurist and a cultural historian walk into a bar.”

The name of the first chapter is like a lead in to a joke, but is instead the set-up for a deeply interesting book deeply enmeshed in the culture of “what if?” Early on in Vintage Tomorrows (Make) the authors explain their journey in a way that sets the whole book up:

It begins, like so many great ideas, over a beer. A futurist and a cultural historian have a pint in Seattle and start talking about the future and the past. They’re both technologists, so it’s hardly surprising when the conversation drifts into the topic of steampunk, a modern day mashup of the future and the past, technology and culture….
So over a beer historian James H. Carrott and futurist Brian David Johnson ask themselves: What can steampunk teach us about the future? What happens when we look backward in order to look forward?
Over the next couple of years the pair traveled the world asking that question. And, face it, if it should be anyone asking this stuff, it’s these two. Johnson is a futurist at Intel where he does “future casting” to “provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing.” Carrott, meanwhile, has brought humor and theater into his work as a historian and he was for a time global product manager for Xbox 360 hardware. They are geek princes, clearly. Exactly the correct duo to set upon this journey. And they did it up right.

Is Vintage Tomorrows sometimes a little uneven? It is. And certainly parts of the book seem more gripping and convincing than others. For instance, when they are interviewing “experts” like William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, James Gleick and Margaret Atwood, they are at their best. Later, when they talk about their documentary-in-progress, they are less engaging. (But perhaps, by then, there was less to say?) For the most part, though, this is a worthwhile, if challenging, journey and definitely a book with something to say. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area, where he works in the high-tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science-fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

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