Art & Design professor aims to make technology more personable


When most people think of a cyborg, they may think of a half-human, half-machine hybrid akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator.”

Sophia Brueckner would argue a bit differently about what being a cyborg means, as she considers herself to be one.

“To me, being a cyborg doesn’t just mean biohacking or body modification. There are other ways we become part human and part machine,” said the assistant professor of art and design, and of information.

“One time, I painted all of my childhood computers from memory, and the paintings unintentionally looked just like the old computer games I used to play. It was uncanny. Those games and the software I consumed growing up structured my memories and how I think.

“I can’t separate who I am from the technologies that shaped me, and that’s when I realized I was a cyborg. We are all cyborgs, but most of us don’t realize it.”

Photo of Sophia Brueckner, assistant professor of art and design, and of information
Sophia Brueckner, assistant professor of art and design and of information, refers to herself as a cyborg. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Having grown up with computers since the age of 2, Brueckner has a very different outlook on how technology shapes people and might be used for good. Last year, she encouraged people to regard technology with a “critically optimistic” outlook in a TEDx talk.

“Especially recently, technologists tend to focus on efficiency, and making communication more efficient is not the same as making it more meaningful. By making it so easy to connect, connection has become drastically stripped of meaning. What would happen if we designed technology with the goal of making our lives more meaningful rather than more efficient?”

As a faculty member at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, Brueckner brings her sensitivity to technology’s effects and her focus on envisioning alternative futures to her students through a class called “Sci-Fi Prototyping.” Brueckner’s students build prototypes inspired by science fiction books, stories and films, and consider what might happen when their designs grow in scale in the near and far future.

Brueckner draws inspiration from science fiction novels to develop her own technology — most notably, her Empathy Box. Inspired by a novel by Philip K. Dick, Brueckner’s device seeks to bring more meaning to connections through technology.

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“The Empathy Box is a reaction against existing social media and how I think it is affecting our relationships negatively,” she said.

“I was trying to experiment with an alternative social network, one that had no names, no numbers and no pictures. It’s a social interface that exists through a physical device allowing you to connect with many anonymous people through touch and emotion alone. It is meant to build your sense of empathy and connectedness with strangers.”

Brueckner utilizes her diverse background in art and design as well as engineering to make technology more personable.

“Each of these disciplines works in a different way and uses a different vocabulary. My challenge is to apply what I’ve learned to build bridges between these disciplines through both my research and teaching.”

Q & A

What memorable moment in the classroom stands out?

Recently, I showed my sci-fi students the “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive,” which portrays a dystopian future where people’s lives are taken over by social media. So many of my students made comments along the lines of “I can’t imagine how that would not happen. It’s going to happen.” … This level of pessimism is as dangerous as the equally common naive optimism.

What can’t you live without?

Books. I read very fast and finish a book every few days.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

My favorite place on campus is the new digital fabrication studio I worked to build at Stamps. It’s where both my students and I realize our ideas.

What inspires you?

This might be kind of surprising for someone whose work is all about technology and the future, but I live in a pre-Civil-War-era farmhouse out in the woods with limited internet and cell phone service. It gives me some distance and a useful perspective on how I want to structure my relationship with technology and also a more palpable sense of time and history, which really helps with long-term, extrapolative thinking.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading “Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin, a Chinese sci-fi author, because in August I am traveling to Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of China, to research technology and manufacturing there.

Who had the greatest influence upon your career path?

I would say my grandfather, because he recognized and encouraged my talent for science and math as well as art. … I think this is a big reason I never saw art and design as something distant or separate from STEM disciplines though others frustratingly often do.


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