What does an Italian Renaissance philosopher and a skimpily-dressed hacker with 800cc breast implants in China have in common?
They both believe in the use of sex to sell education.
Marsilio Ficino was an influential educator and scholar employed by the great Renaissance patron and statesman Lorenzo de Medici.
One of Ficino’s educational theories was that we should not hesitate to sex as an tool to entice people by their senses, before attempting to provoke an intellectual response in them to make them buy humankind’s highest ideals, like piety, virtue, intelligence and scholarship.
In Naomi Wu’s (not her real name) case, her online persona ‘SexyCyborg’ is there to sell the powerful idea that women, regardless of who they are and what they look like, can be just as proficient in tech as the next man.
To those not in-the-know, Wu is something of an icon in the Maker movement, a subculture where people invent, design and tinker with DIY projects using technology as a base.
Videos of her DIY projects – which includes items such as 3D-printed underlit skirts, LED eyelashes and platform heels complete with hacking tools and a lock-picking set – rack up hundreds of thousand of views on YouTube and Imgur.
And Wu does these all with her bombshell looks and skimpy clothing, a look that she calls “effective” to get her message out on her FAQ page.
“While guys were interested, I’d always associate it as being something for girls, not guys, so naturally felt it fit with promoting technical proficiency,” the 25-year-old Wu told Asian Correspondent.
The message is simple: Here are the new tech tools. Master them. Get well-paying jobs that need these skills. If someone that looks like me can do it, so can you.
Wu’s message is set against the backdrop of Chinese women’s dismal rate of representation in the country’s tech industry. While there is a growing number of women entrepreneurs, only 10 percent of new tech ventures have women founders, according to an estimation by Ling Zihan, who founded TechBase, China’s first tech accelerator for women.
And while these figures are distressing and Wu does her best to promote STEM jobs to women, the Shenzhen-based developer says her overall goal with her videos is not to fix these figures. At least, not yet.
“Overall I think my goal is a bit less ambitious – I want women to have greater technical proficiency”.
Wu has a point. While it’s urgent for more women to have more representation in STEM fields, this lack of tech know-how is hurting women at home too, perhaps even more as domestic abusers increasingly use digital tools to hurt their victims.
Surveys show that nearly half of abusive partners use spyware or other electronic surveillance tools to harass or stalk their victims – a trend that does not escape Chinese women as they suffer from lesser technical proficiency to combat this.
“They are at the mercy of tech in their daily lives,” Wu says.
One example is Wu’s friend, who lost customers when the bar she owns ran into problems with its broadband router as her friend did not know how to fix it.
“I was able to teach her how within 10 minutes, but this habit of handing tech off to the nearest person with a penis- this is a problem, it makes us vulnerable,” Wu said.
“If you cannot control your tech in this day and age, you do not really have agency.”
Not everyone agrees with Wu’s methods, however. While she’s been upfront that her appearance is mainly to drive traffic, critics say she is “attention whoring” and that her posts only distract learners with her boobs than provide useful information.
The jury is still out on whether SexyCyborg’s ways will empower and educate a new generation of women to be just as good in tech as the next guy. But the numbers don’t lie – for good or worse, Wu’s videos pull a large audience, probably more than any other women in STEM have ever achieved.
Wu openly admits the attention she gets can at times be undeserving, considering there are women far more talented than she is in tech. But the harsh truth, Wu says, is that they’re not getting the attention they deserve, regardless of how much and how hard they are trying to make a difference.