Digital Empathy, STEAMy tech & ?

From Silicon Valley of the 1990s to social robots of the future: A talk with Fei Liu, 50% user-experience designer, 50% practicing artist based in New York.

Interview with Fei Liu — Jun 21, 2017

Fei Liu, studio visit »Digital Empathy, STEAMy tech & ?«, 2017

How to approach the present of technophile start up culture from the perspective of having been an early netizen of the odd corners of the Internet? How to prepare for the set up of future social robots from the perspective of a designer? And how to deal with the collapsing gap between a scifi future and the present – a gap simultaneously widening for those left out of this future? Thoughts on these questions by New York based artist and designer Fei Liu, who approaches these topics with the digital empathy of a laughing crying emoji.

Judith Engel: Who are you?

Fei Liu: I’d say I am 50% user-experience designer and 50% practicing artist. A data broker would say I’m a married millennial female, with mid-to-average combined student debt from an undergraduate as well as a master’s degree, with no health insurance, car, or house.

JE: What is your attitude as a designer and artist towards the technophile start-up culture of Silicon Valley you grew up with? How do you deal with the 20 year-long heritage of being one of the users who experienced a different net – a space associated with safety, freedom and kind of small community?

FL: I was born in Northern China and grew up in Silicon Valley – spending my youth living in Cupertino, home of Apple’s HQ. The web still felt very safe and small when I started exploring the odd corners of the internet. I wasn’t actually very aware of Apple or IBM at the time even though their headquarters were literally down the street from my old house:


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»The first half of my life was affected by Californian utopianism, and the latter by MIT’s doctrine of ›deploy or die.‹«

Silicon Valley is where a lot of early computation’s idealism originated from, and where antithetical to that, a lot of displacement and uprooting of neighborhoods is also happening. I went to college at UCLA’s Design | Media Arts program, where many influential creators of open-source software mold the curriculum. I moved back to China, a country now rising in the technological ranks, for two years as an adult. I got my MFA at Parsons in New York, then worked in New York-based startups in a region of Manhattan now called »Silicon Alley.« The first half of my life was affected by Californian utopianism, and the latter by MIT’s doctrine of »deploy or die.«

The kind of solutionism heralded by some strains of technological innovation and its out-of-touch-ness with society can be best represented by this emoij ?–to laugh and cry at the same time. I made a game and interactive installation in 2014 which I think allowed people to do that. The Qualified Life turns the experience of interviewing for a startup company into a fully automated and gamified system that entrusts algorithms to determine the qualifications of employment. What’s the relationship between ergonomics and corporate wellness? How do we turn leveraging and monetizing the health of a workforce into something fun?


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But in general, I am the thing that I poke fun of. I also measure myself and my social existence in metrics: social capital, emotional capital, financial capital. Like, if a tree falls in the forest and doesn’t tweet about it, how will anyone know? ?

»We live in the age of ambivalentopia: the age of frictionless, invisible tech that simultaneously liberates and oppresses.«

JE: Your current project »New Mercy Park« is set in a science fiction environment. What is the project about and what role does future orientated, fictional narration play concerning your approach?

FL: I think with a project that tries to address so many facets of technological mediation – disruptive innovation, social robotics, design ethics and code literacy – that only a transmedia storytelling approach can cover everything I want to discuss.
Three takeaways I want to stress: first, that while the gap between a scifi future and the present is collapsing, it is widening for those left out of this future. It’s happening now, and we need design guides to navigate it. Second, that we should all prepare for incoming robot companions – who will be joining us in our workplaces, our homes, and even in our beds – by reverse engineering them in order to learn how they work. Third, we should do this so as to preserve our own humanity. It calls into question, complications of design ethics and human morality: how do we build ethical and moral robots when we struggle to define those values for ourselves?

Fei Liu, studio visit »Digital Empathy, STEAMy tech & ?«, 2017

Coding tutorial as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story

Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or be Programmed is a warning and an encouragement. We fear the implications of a near future dominated by code literacy: being manipulated by algorithms and pushed out of work by robots. In New Mercy Park, this world becomes an environment for learning. The narrative coding tutorial puts the reader in the shoes of a male-sex-robot beta-tester who, through facing some of these dilemmas, learns to deconstruct their robot and recreates him from scratch. The reader learns about fundamental coding principles, the usage of basic sensors and Arduinos.

STEAMy tech: Build the love you deserve, today

In the world of education and technology, there is a movement towards STEAM, which represents Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, versus a historical focus on just STEM without the A. What I mean when I say STEAMy is that I want to introduce sensuality, emotionality, and provocation into tech education. During my workshop at Solitude about DIY sex robots, I lit a stick of Palo Santo. The sweet coconut smell had always reminded me of proximity and intimacy. As smoke from the wood rose into the air, a participant started to recount an ex-boyfriend – maybe he imbued his robot with some aspect of the former flame.

Fei Liu, studio visit »Digital Empathy, STEAMy tech & ?«, 2017

An Arduino given to Solitude fellows where they were tasked to build basic interactions of their sexual robot companion

Fei Liu, studio visit »Digital Empathy, STEAMy tech & ?«, 2017

The aftermath

JE: When it comes to the topic of doing research to be as well-prepared as possible for future inventions as you mentioned before, your project Humans of Simulated New Yorkcomes to my mind. Can simulations serve as models for preparation rather than models for an unpredictable future?

FL: Humans of Simulated New York is a computer simulation project I worked on with my collaborator Francis Tseng to create an algorithmic modeling of the relationships between different data points in New York citizens’ census data. Simulations are very interesting tools to learn about systems, specifically at wicked problems – issues like global food crises, homelessness, or addiction that are nearly impossible to solve due to their incomplete and contradictory definitions, and complexity and scale. Through this exercise we were able to visualize on a 3D plane, the connections between individuals’ socioeconomic status, and the city’s economy at large. Additionally, we also let people tweak the knobs of the simulation by presenting them with world building options that they could change themselves: what would New York look like if there was only corn left, full robot automation, and a strong zombie virus that infects the population?


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JE: On your website you describe yourself as »a designer, artist, writer and DJ exploring digital empathy, and the narrative potential of interfaces«. Do you consider narrating a potentially critical tool, although storytelling has been increasingly instrumentalized/misused for marketing purposes during the last years?

»Just because stories distort doesn’t mean they distort to the same degree, or are equally unreliable. Earth is flat, or earth is round. You can tell convincing stories about both, and one will take you further away from the truth.«

– Ken Liu

FL: As a designer of consumer products, I’m definitely guilty of having used storytelling to sell something. But, what is co-opted and instrumentalized by marketing and state propaganda departments alike is the ability for stories for bring people together around a common idea.
I run a radio show and podcast, and one of our episodes was about the importance of oral histories in the preservation of generations of knowledge in the historic neighborhood of New York’s Chinatown – a former ghetto that had been created out of exclusionary laws against Chinese immigrants. Now there are efforts internally within the community to encourage an organic flourishing of creative efforts, and to combat gentrification from the outside. Storytelling, used here, is a way to understand the community and to bridge gaps.

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Scifi writer and former tax lawyer Ken Liu says in a Quill or Be Quilled episode that, »just because stories distort doesn’t mean they distort to the same degree, or are equally unreliable. Earth is flat, or earth is round. You can tell convincing stories about both, and one will take you further away from the truth.« The fake stories and unreliable narrators are useful too. They give you a frame from which to investigate the other side: the story they’re not telling you. All this being said, we need more than stories to understand the world.

JE: What is the meaning of digital empathy, has it something to do with you mentioning that we are way too rational when it comes to technology?

FL: Since the time of writing, the word »empathy« has really come to reach critical mass and peak saturation – another thing to join the ranks of media and marketing co-option. I think what I meant by »digital empathy« is that digital artwork can be relational. It has great potential to connect people and open up avenues for discussion. It’s a little bit different to being irrational, which I think is important as a counterweight to today’s highly managed and self-cybernetic systems. Rationalism, like science and technology has colonizing, hegemonic, and disruptive affects that are maybe not immediately visible or as deadly as gunpowder and cannons but can still alter history.

JE: In which way is your artistic practice different from your design practice? What are advantages and disadvantages of these disciplines?

FL: For me, what I make is art because it doesn’t serve an immediate practical purpose, even though it is functional. It is design because I create an experience trying to anticipate and accommodate for how people will react to it. I don’t think of my audience as an audience – they’re users of my wares: soft, hard, performative, social, networked. They’re actively constructing the experience with, and sometimes for, me.

»I think what I meant by ›digital empathy‹ is that digital artwork can be relational.«

In the context of post-election America, it’s important to ask what sort of contribution to society we can make with our creative practices. I think a relational approach to technology can become a vehicle for dialogue and critique that can span across disciplines, generations, race and class lines. Many of us in the creative fields might have this feeling. What can we do with it?

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