She’s been called the world’s sexiest hacker and she lives up to the reputation. Naomi Wu, also known as SexyCyborg, is a 23-year-old from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen whose do-it-yourself videos have made her an online phenomenon.
They are largely meant to inspire young women to go into technology, to code and to promote China as a hub for creative technology.
As she walks into a virtual reality gaming cafe in downtown Shenzhen, wearing high leather boots, stay-up stockings, a pink miniskirt and tight top, she turns a fair number of heads.
“When people see me in these clothes, they think I’m just a bimbo,” Wu says. “When they then realize that I do coding and tech stuff and make these videos, they go, ‘Wow! If she can do it, how hard can it be?’ She beams, and takes a sip from a cup of tea with a thick layer of cheese on top – a popular local drink.
They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, Imgur, Reddit and elsewhere, earning her the title of cyberpunk icon. She earns a living as a freelance web developer with a passion for making, a subculture of technology tinkering and hacking, with a healthy do-it-yourself attitude.
After shooting zombies in one of the cafe’s VR simulators, we talk about how Wu joined the maker community and why she wants to inspire more women to go into technology.
How did you get interested in technology?
Initially? Money. I never had much interest in technology growing up. I was more of an English-language geek than a tech geek. When I needed to earn a living, I found out that with my English skills I could learn coding online. Those coding videos have some overlap with hardware and from there my passion grew. Now tech is pretty much all I’m interested in.
What do you hope to accomplish with your video projects?
It can be frustrating when I hear people on international tech sites talk about China. They say all we can do is copy, and stuff like that. That is, of course, always an issue, but we’re all working hard to improve and be more innovative. I like to show off some simple projects to demonstrate that we have a creative culture here and that we are not all clones and robots. We have interesting, eccentric people just like any other country.
You’ve said you want to encourage women to go into tech. Is that politically motivated?
No. I don’t really have any interest in politics. One of the issues with the tech community is that it presents a very limited idea of what a technical woman is and looks like. It’s obviously not someone like me. Lots of girls see those women and say, ‘That’s not me, I’m not that kind of girl.’ I’ve said it and I hear it all that time. I want to inspire girls to be individualistic and look and act the way they feel like, and not feel they have to comply with the stereotypic image of a tech woman.
You’ve been called the world’s sexiest hacker. Why do you use this approach?
Ha. I’ve never said I’m the world’s sexiest hacker. That was a silly newspaper article. As for being a hacker, I can use a command line like any competent web developer and follow a Kali Linux tutorial. I’m no more a hacker than a handyman is a burglar. They use similar skills and tools, but not with the same purpose. As for my clothes, it’s not an outfit. If the weather is warm, I normally wear even fewer clothes in real life than I do for my projects. For me, it’s just natural.
One thing that I would like to have is good-quality magnetic implants. I’d use them for keeping thigh-high stockings up, and stringless bikinis, and holding wearables in place without a strap
What reactions do you get?
Overwhelmingly positive in China. The intersection between beautiful women and creativity goes back thousands of years here. There’s no conflict in being a sexy girl and doing creative things. People here see that I’m just trying to make people smile and they understand that I make Shenzhen look modern, tolerant and creative. I feel safe here. Besides, I enjoy the attention.
As for people in the West, my clothes and appearance consistently seem to be more important than anything else. Some say I look like a whore or a slut. I don’t really mind if they want me to dress more conservatively for a certain event or a magazine article, but that’s just not how I normally dress. I just want to wear the clothes that make me happy and build interesting tech things. Many people in the Western tech community can’t handle that and I’m tired of trying to accommodate them.
What interesting tech trends are you seeing?
In the 3D printing community we are starting to see more women from a crafting and cosplay background. These women, who are already familiar with prop making, digital sewing machines and vinyl cutters, are now starting to use 3D printers. A lot of the men who buy 3D printers don’t really have a use for them. For them, it’s just a cool tech toy. They often end up just downloading Yoda heads and calibration prints without a clear use. Women are less interested in playing with the printers and are more project-focused, be it for gifts or holiday decorations. We’re starting to see not just young cosplay women, but moms and homemakers without any technical background doing detailed YouTube tutorials on fairly advanced CAD software.
You call yourself SexyCyborg. Would you get implants to become an actual cyborg?
I carry around 1,600cc of breast implants and it took me three painful surgeries to get there. A chip in a little glass capsule is not exactly a big deal for me. It’s just a question of utility. I have friends who have implanted NFC chips, which is fun but not very practical. One thing that I would like to have is good-quality magnetic implants. I’d use them for keeping thigh-high stockings up, and stringless bikinis, and holding wearables in place without a strap.
Who are your inspirations?
I have two major sources of inspiration, both female makers. First, Simone Giertz (www.simonegiertz.com) who makes “shitty robots.” She actually started posting her robot projects online a while after I did my stuff. Hers were just much better. I follow her on Twitter, but have always been too shy to start up a conversation. I think she’s amazing.
Also, Limor “ladyada” Fried has been a huge help. I don’t have any business relationship with her company, but they have always been very generous with reposting my projects and videos and answering questions. As far as inclusion goes of all makers, Limor and Adafruit are 100% the real deal and I’ll always be grateful for everything they’ve done.