The Future Value of Old Ideas


David Zach gets me thinking about the future.

I can’t take credit for the title of today’s post. It’s actually the subtitle of a little book called Worth Remembering by my friend, futurist David Zach.

David and I first met in the Twitter-sphere several years ago, when he reached out to me regarding one of my storytelling classes. We’ve corresponded on and off since. Then last week, I serendipitously ran into David at a local coffee shop. (Or rather, he came running up, having recognized my Twitter photo!)

It seems pretty ironic now that David and I first started tweeting before I actually “got into” steampunk. Because who better to explore the “futures of yesterday” with than a bona fide futurist—whose whole job is to study how the future happened in the past, and what past trends mean for the future that’s yet to be.

So finally, after far too long communicating online, David and I met for a coffee of our own. (Or, in my case, a Green Hornet smoothie from Colectivo. Love those things!)

It didn’t hurt that, before he arrived, I’d been reading a book on Victorian spiritualism as research for an upcoming novel. What struck me about the book was its utter timelessness. The anecdotes might have played out in the world of cogs and corsets . . . but the same tricks that were used to delight (and deceive) back in the Industrial age are still around today. David concurred with my thinking, showing several examples where trends from past eras are being used to predict and successfully combat modern crises.

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My copy of David’s thought-provoking book

And that got me thinking. What if the real value of these “retro future” and “futuristic retro” genres (like steampunk) is not that they transport us to the past, but instead that they help us prepare for the future?

Think about it. The Victorian Era was an age of unprecedented technological and social change. People were awash with information as never before, even though their technologies seem outdated to us today. Likewise, travel around the world was far more accessible, and I think we would all recognize the same wide swings of excitement and terror about the future that mark the discourse of our own changeful time. If you doubt, all you have to do is pick up any Victorian work of  social commentary (Thomas Carlyle’s Signs of the Times from 1829, for example) and you’ll find many points that resonate with today’s social commentators, although perhaps in more arcane language.

All this goes to show: despite all the so-called technological changes, humankind itself hasn’t changed very much in the last 150 years. Which leads me to suspect that the practice of steampunk—whether writing it, making it, or living it—is really just a clever way to unpack the future values of old ideas.

As the oft-quoted saying goes, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” How much of our anxiety about the future, as well as our uncertainty of how to respond, might be cured by examining the best and worst of the past?

Or maybe, after all, I’m just looking for an excuse to justify creating more anachronistic Victorian worlds. And if so, that’s okay too.

Because either way, a future with steampunk is a better, smarter future . . . even if it shouts huzzah and smells vaguely like steam oil.

Visit futurist David Zach at his website and grab your copy of his book Worth Remembering: The Future Value of Old Ideas.

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