Maker of artifacts from a forgotten future.
I’m Ryan Norbauer.
I am—and have been for well over a decade—deeply involved in a bizarre online and real-world subculture built around absurdly lavish computer keyboards. It has, improbably, become the singular preoccupation of my adult life.
Since the inception of what I affectionately call my "nerd atelier" nearly a decade ago, I have built and shipped a staggering number of these seemingly outmoded contrivances to clients all over the planet, from Argentina to Mongolia and many points in between. Such is the ardor of keyboard enthusiasts that I have (to my unending astonishment) scarcely been able to keep up with demand for my designs, with clients eagerly and patiently waiting for models with production lead times exceeding a year—and with some bespoke items running into the tens of thousands of dollars.
It is, let us say, a sufficiently curious phenomenon as to warrant a deeper examination.
The world as it is
I sometimes like to think of my work as being primarily about obsessive engineering and a quest for physical perfection. To be sure, there is that. But, in truth, what animates my involvement in keyboards is at least as much to do with art and sentimentality as technical refinement.
Like many builders, designers, and engineers, I am often unsatisfied with the world as it is. In fact, I think the trade in luxury objects in particular (for those of us making and owning them alike) is precisely about the pursuit of aesthetic transcendence as an escape from the manifold frustrations and disappointments of everyday life.
Christopher Ryan, one of my favorite thinkers, observes in Civilized to Death that "a watch tells the time; a $20,000 Rolex tells people you’ve got issues." To his credit, I don’t think Mr. Ryan understands how expensive Rolexes can truly be, but nevertheless: he has a point. Virginia Postrel, in her excellent book about visual escapism, The Power of Glamour, puts it this way: glamour operates, she observes, "when it can tap preexisting discontent. ... Glamour reveals emotional truths. It shows us what we find lacking in real life."
To the extent that these observations are correct, what kind of world-weary discontent could motivate one to seek refuge in the purity of hyper-engineered electro-capacitive switches, tactile rubber domes, or keyboard acoustic dampening systems? What is it about an expensive input device that looks like a 1980s idea of a keyboard from 2050 that could turn it into an emotional oasis of glamour and blissful escape for so many enthusiasts across the globe?
I grew up at the end of an era that was almost breathlessly preoccupied with the idea of The Future. I, for my part, was enchanted by it more than most.
When I was in junior high school, coming of age in culturally isolated rural West Virginia, I was one of the few lucky students in my class with access to a computer and a dialup connection. Being able to reach beyond my meager surroundings to talk to and see the rest of the world set my imagination alight. I keenly anticipated the whole earth one day being fully "wired" (in the parlance of that era—incidentally also the name of a magazine that gave voice to this worldview). The Internet was, as we all seemed sure, going to usher in a more peaceful and enlightened world, with more leisure and material comfort for everyone. It was going to give voice to previously unheard minority views and create an unprecedented culture of free speech and global dialogue. It was going to foster equality by situating us in a "virtual world" where the old distinctions of identity and background would dissolve. It was going to break down the barriers of class and nation, bringing humans together around shared interests and ideas, transcending the limitations of physical space and allowing us both to feel and foster the warmth of human connection over vast distances. Massive computing power was going to help mankind reach for the stars, while here on earth peace and prosperity would reign. It was a beautiful dream.
It's easy to forget how extraordinary it is that all of those things actually sort of happened, if only because none of them quite played out exactly as we had envisaged—or with the same felicitous consequences that once seemed inevitable.
What we got
As with so many things (if I may borrow from Hemingway), the transition happened gradually, and then suddenly. Perhaps it was this long, relatively slow, initial trajectory that made it so easy to miss, but 2020 more than anything finally fully reified what were once our most fantastical visions of the future of technology. Shunning real-world social interactions amidst the unknown risks of a new pandemic, we sat in the comfort of our homes, tapping the dynamic controls on our fantastically powerful touch-sensitive pocket-computers, and an ad-hoc network of contactless couriers set instantly into motion to supply our every fancy: from freshly-made food to bespoke footwear. From work to leisure, it became a matter of course to meet in simulated online spaces without regard to geography, time zone, or lower-body apparel. We found ourselves able to watch every movie ever made according to momentary whim, in the middle of nowhere. And, yes, virtually all human knowledge was by this time stored and conveyed by computers running communally-written open-source software. We have stumbled finally into the ultimate delegitimation of meatspace that once seemed so appealing, the total dominion of the digital, an era of truly remote work for many, and the near complete virtualization of human social interaction. My futuristic childhood fantasies have, in a sense, come true.
And yet where my introverted and awkward boyhood self would look to these outcomes with only trembling delectation, adult me finds himself in a state of profound, worried ambivalence. Recent years have seen an asymmetric expansion of all the things that have given so much of us a sense of unease about the evolution of technology over the past decade. Trends that had been slowly coalescing resources and authority around a few centers of power have reached an inflection point. Global connectivity and technical efficiencies at massive scale have greatly amplified winner-take-all effects in matters of culture, economy, and politics. And the hypnotic power of algorithmically-selected clickbait yanks everywhere at our emotional and attentional marionette strings. We find ourselves in a world that seems less like the nexus of countercultural decentralization that the computer revolution foretold and rather more like a Blade Runner dystopia—a planet run by a few wacky oligarchs and murderous megalomaniac politicians with an interest in using technology to manufacture consensus, control narratives, and consolidate power upward. This all while they now marshal the data and computational tools to peer into our souls, knowing us better than we know ourselves.
We were promised a grassroots global bazaar; what we got was a creepy panopticon, purpose-built for authoritarians and monopolists. Instead of an egalitarian global community of man, we got the glow of a screen in an empty room, social media status anxiety, and AI companions mining our loneliness and vulnerabilities for better ad targeting. We have assassination drones, but flying cars are nowhere to be found.
The world as it might be
The elusive world of our fantasies, soft in focus and ever beautiful, often connects us with the things that have compelled us since we were young—deep needs that endure as the poignantly felt, if secret, longings of our adult days. This is where our values live. I believe it is what makes each of us who we are.
It took me a long time to understand why I am so drawn to the escapism of retro-futurist aesthetics and techno-nostalgia, with their implicit promises of a better future. But it was even longer for me to accept the unsettling truth that the very fact that I find them so glamorous signifies that, almost by definition, they linger in the realm of the unreal.
Keyboards in particular, as instruments of written communication over great distances, are artifacts that physically embody the ideas of human connection and free thought that were at the core of my youthful hopes. And thus to me—and I believe many others who feel this way about them—there is a special meaningful magic to the nostalgic look, tactility, and sound of luxury keyboards. Recalling as they do the high-end equipment and deliberate manufacturing of the 20th century, vintage-style keyboards summon a time when computers represented something very different than they do today.
Escapist artistic creations, including (or perhaps especially) those of luxury brands, are—at their best—all about facilitating dreams. Of course, through the unfeeling lens of economic efficiency, whimsical products of this kind make no sense. They are irrational, gratuitous, a needless frivolity that doesn't scale. And this is why, in my view, they are also one of the few ways in which the fruits of the modern world can be turned back to remediate some of its many aesthetic indignities. It is of course a suspect and motivated belief on my part, but I truly feel that an infusion of sentimentality and deliberate economic impracticality into our commercial lives may be one of the few ways we can push back against the dismal hyper-corporatized, centralized, ruthlessly optimized, MBA-ified, and aesthetically homogenized market in which we now find ourselves.
"Glamour," Postrel writes, "is an illusion 'known to be false but felt to be true' which focuses and intensifies a preexisting but previously inchoate yearning. ... It presents an edited version of reality [where] there are no bills on the new granite countertops, no blisters rubbed by the elegant shoes, no cumbersome cords on the stylish lamps, ... no sacrifices on the path of progress." I know that, for better or worse, this is the business that I'm in. I'd rather it weren't necessary—that the wound for which my work is a salve didn't exist in the first place. But so it is with all acts of creation. And, insofar as nightmares can't yet be banished, I'll settle for making dreams.
Perhaps you can begin to understand, then, why I have consecrated my life to a thing so seemingly decadent and superfluous. Ultimately, it's because I still love computing, and I want to believe that the old utopian vision dreamed up by a few starry-eyed misfit idealists of the 20th century can somehow yet be made real. In the conviction that keeping our dreams alive can orient us toward our values, I seek only to carve a few modest patterns of beauty and hope into a world that feels so often to be in want of both.
If for some odd reason you're curious, you can learn a bit more about me on my personal website. Lest it weren't already obvious, suffice it to say I'm a hard-core weirdo. 🤙🏻