18.17, Sunday 25 Jul 2004

We went for a tour round St Pancras Chambers yesterday. Celia took photos, and Phil did a write-up. During the 1960s and 1970s, the building was used for offices by British Rail, who put suspended ceilings in the tall rooms and slathered white and beige paint over the marble columns and the murals. Eventually they computerised their accounts department, punching holes in the ornate ceiling and swinging the wiring down into the old coffee lounge. Rod and I discussed a 1960s version of steampunk (the iron staircase had already been too much for me; I could see the building unfolding into a mechanically articulated robot, striding off down the Euston Road to do battle with the London Zoo aviary, which is wispy but swarmishly powerful, like the birds within it. Clank clank clank. And the radiators looked like Babbage heatsinks (computional turbines attached to every fin)). What would 60s steampunk be? I think the age of Empire was characterised by bureaucracy, but of an ecological kind. The British Empire would infiltrate with its rules and its values, a weed that would bind the soil, and conquer countries from within. A network ahead of its time, like the contemporay booms in the railway (early 1900s), electricity and electric lighting (early 1890s) and the telegraph (1880s). It fully understood the value of distributed, rule-based but contextual operation. Flexible cellular automata, sweeping the wealth back to London.

The late 1950s and 1960s were different. This was an era of early cybernetics: command and control. Centralisation, nationalisation. They had the idea that big control was done centrally and only the tweaking delegated (can you imagine this happening in the real Empire? India being controlled from Westminster?). In a way, they were right: they had colossal power at their fingertips. New materials meant bridges as long as they could imagine, buildings in any shape they desired. Well, new materials being concrete. The South Bank Centre: designed, then poured. A 1960s steampunk would see a tattered culture rising out of the left-behinds of an ornate past that had a terrible temper. On the one hand they would be factual and rational, using their valve-driven computers to manipulate and influence. London would be the nerve centre of the new Empire, a nexus. Puppeteers. But another culture would exist within them, almost in contradiction. The new freedoms of the 1960s would also be there. And the control-structure would simply ignore the pleasure-loving anarchy. In its rationality it would control the trains, the housing, food, distribution, traffic, the whole of civilisation's infrastructure, a tuned machine. And the people would be care-free within it, wielding power unrestrained, running programs on the Camden computational monoliths, and piping the results to the provinces. Free energy, and free love: the River Thames as a giant construction line, superfreighters feeding in cargo of raw material at the estuary, and the assembly and manufacture taking place successively upstream, doing the will of the people, spitting out exoskeletons, telepresent-robots, teledildos, scooters for the national monorail, whatever. Whatever's needed for the night's party, or the spying, or the drama. Whatever, as long as it doesn't interfere with the delivery of milk. And Parliament would have moved to St Pancras.