The STEMpunk Project: As The World Opens.

She moved slowly along the length of the motor units, down a narrow passage between the engines and the wall. She felt the immodesty of an intruder, as if she had slipped inside a living creature, under its silver skin, and were watching its life beating in gray metal cylinders, in twisted coils, in sealed tubes, in the convulsive whirl of blades in wire cages. The enormous complexity of the shape above her was drained by invisible channels, and the violence raging within it was led to fragile needles on glass dials, to green and red beads winking on panels, to tall, thin cabinets stenciled “High Voltage.”

Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.

They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power—of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. For an instant, it seemed to her that the motors were transparent and she was seeing the net of their nervous system. It was a net of connections, more intricate, more crucial than all of their wires and circuits: the rational connections made by that human mind which had fashioned any one part of them for the first time.

They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going—not the oil under the floor under her feet, the oil that would then become primeval ooze again—not the steel cylinders that would become stains of rust on the walls of the caves of shivering savages—the power of a living mind —the power of thought and choice and purpose.

Atlast Shrugged, Ayn Rand

In the classic film American Beauty there is a famous scene wherein one character shows another a video of a plastic bag as it’s blown about by the wind. In whispers he describes how beautiful he found the experience of watching it as it danced, and amidst platitudes about “a benevolent force” he notes that this was the day he fully learned that there is a hidden universe behind the objects which most people take for granted.

One of the chief benefits of The STEMpunk Project has been that it has reinforced this experience in me. While I have thoroughly enjoyed gaining practical knowledge of gears, circuits, and CPUs, perhaps the greater joy has come from a heightened awareness of the fact that the world is shot through with veins of ingenuity and depth.

Understanding the genesis of this awareness requires a brief detour into psychology. Many people seem to labor under the impression that perception happens in the sense organs. Light or sound from an object hits someone and that person observes the object. Cognitive science shows definitively that this is not the case. Perception happens in the brain, and sensory data are filtered heavily through the stock of concepts and experiences within the observer. This is why an experienced mechanic can listen to a malfunctioning engine and hear subtle clues which point to one possible underlying cause or another where I only hear a vague rattling noise.

As my conceptual toolkit increases, therefore, I can expect to perceive things that were invisible to me before I had such knowledge. And this has indeed been the case. More than once I have found myself passing some crystallized artifact of thought — like a retaining wall, or an electrical substation — and wondering how it was built. That this question occurs to me at all is one manifestation of a new perspective on the infrastructure of modern life which is by turns fascinating, humbling, and very rewarding.

I have begun to see and appreciate the symmetry of guard rails on a staircase, the system of multicolored pipes carrying electricity and water through a building, the lattice of girders and beams holding up a bridge; each one the mark of a conscious intelligence, each one a frozen set of answers to a long string of “whys” and “hows”.

This notion can be pushed further: someone has to make not just the beams, but also the machinery that helps to make the beams, and the machinery which mines the materials to make the beams, and the machinery which makes the trucks which carries raw materials and finished products to where they are needed, like ripples in a fabric of civilization pulsing across the world [1].

It’s gorgeous.

A corollary to the preceding is an increased confidence in my own ability to understand how things work, and with it a more robust sense of independent agency. For most of my life I have been a very philosophical person: I like symbols and abstractions, math, music, and poetry. But if every nut and bolt in my house was placed there in accordance with the plans of a human mind, then as the possessor of a (reasonably high-functioning) human mind I ought to be able to puzzle out the basic idea.

Don’t misunderstand me: I know very well that poking around in a breaker box without all the appropriate precautions in place could get me killed. I still approach actual physical systems carefully. But I like to sit in an unfinished basement and trace the path from electrical outlet to conduit to box to subpanel to main panel. On occasion I even roll up my sleeves and actually fix things, albeit after doing a lot of research first.

In fact, you can do a similar exercise right now, wherever you are, to experience some of what I’ve been describing without going through the effort of The STEMpunk Project. Chances are if you’re reading this you’re in a room, probably one built with modern techniques by a contractor’s crew.

Set a timer on your phone for five minutes, and simply look around you. Perhaps your computer is sitting on a table or a desk. What kind of wood is the desk made out of? Were the legs and top machine-made or crafted by hand? If it has a rolling top, imagine how difficult it must have been for the person who made the first prototype.

Does the room have carpet or hardwood floors? Have you ever seen the various materials that go under carpets? Could you lay carpet, if you needed to replace a section? Are different materials used beneath carpet and beneath hardwood? If so, why?

You’re probably surrounded by four walls. Look at where they meet the floor. Is there trim at the seam? What purpose does it serve, and how was it installed so tightly? Most people know that behind their walls there are evenly-spaced boards called “studs”. Who figured out the optimum amount of space between studs? How do you locate studs when you want to hang a picture or a poster on your wall? Probably with a stud finder. How did they find studs before the stud finder was invented?

Does the ceiling above you lay flat or rise up to a point? If it’s a point, have you ever wondered how builders get the point of the ceiling directly over the center of the room? Sure, they probably took measurements of the length and width of the room and did some simple division to figure out where the middle lies. But actually cutting boards and rafters and arranging them so that they climb to an apex directly over the room’s midpoint is much harder than it sounds.

If you do this enough you’ll hopefully find that the mundane and quotidian are surprisingly beautiful in their own way. Well-built things, even just dishwashers and ceiling fans, possess an order and exactness to rival that of the greatest symphonies.

I’m glad I learned to see it.


[1] See Leonard Read’s classic essay I, Pencil, for more.

3 thoughts on “The STEMpunk Project: As The World Opens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s