AI, Techno-Orientalism and the Mixed Experience
By: Campbell Brown
If you were on TikTok around December, you probably noticed the MyHeritage AI art trend going around. There’s usually a Hozier song playing in the background, and people use AI-generated art to see what they would look like in different decades. I did this last night, and just got my results back. However, the results from the AI art were interesting for several reasons. Some of them will be attached here for reference.
The results reminded me of two discussions my friend Sam and I were having around the time the trend burst into popularity– one on a concept known as ‘techno-orientalism,’ and the other on another tiktok trend asking ‘what era their face belonged to,’ equating certain features to certain periods in time. It made me realize– I don’t really have access to that. We don’t. Sam’s a fellow Wasian (hi!). Being mixed, we’re still an extremely small demographic, but we were denied or suppressed, not allowed to exist, or just simply didn’t exist, even on the small scale we occupy now. Due to this, I can’t say “I have a 70’s face!” and that’s not just because I’m non-white. I’ve seen the photos of my Chinese mom in the 70s/80s with a ridiculous blowout perm. She definitely has a 70’s face in that. But Sam and I just… don’t. We both love the aesthetics of different time periods, but just couldn’t equate ourselves to a decade pre-90s. I don’t think that I can’t fit into a vision of the past because I’m nonwhite: I think that it’s because I’m mixed.
I want to have a discussion about this, so here it goes:
Visions of the Future: AI, Techno-racism, and the Mixed Experience.
Part I: AI racism and techno-orientalism.
First, there’s been a lot of conversation picking up steam recently regarding artificial intelligence, or AI, as well as AI art or bias in the system that can go unchecked due to a lack of minority designers. I’m not the first to cover this, though it still could use a lot more attention: there’s problems with racist facial recognition programs, racist AI judges in beauty contests, soap dispensers that wouldn’t detect a black customers’ hands, the list seems to keep going on and on. Racial bias is often ingrained in AI– nothing is ever that subjective. Unconscious bias from white designers, along with factors like AI art drawing from sources of data they don’t understand (i.e art that depicts the future as a technological, cyberpunk-like city drawing from Asian elements for design inspiration), lead to results such as my depiction.
Next, there’s the idea often referred to as ‘techno orientalism.’This term has a few meanings, but essentially, it’s the common modern phenomenon of the future always being portrayed with Asian elements, or of current Asia being thought of as an exotic, mysterious, technological hub– Tokyo or Beijing or Seoul pictured with flashing lights and high-tech bullet trains that, while not really being that ahead of the U.S, can be glamorized to an odd extent. In this ‘advanced, Asian future,’ Asians are portrayed as part of this society– almost robotic, if not literal robots. Think of movies like Ghost in the Shell, the Matrix, Blade Runner, and Pacific Rim, all inspired in some way or the other by Asian culture- fight scenes, city designs, imagery, character tropes. Techno-Orientalism has a tendency to portray Asians as futuristic.
Attached below is a picture of what I actually look like as well as the AI-generated image. Pictured below is one of me from ‘from the seventies–’ almost entirely white, while the other is one of me from ‘the future,’ where I am depicted with stereotypical Asian features. This reminded me of AI-generated art, including suspiciously Asian cyberpunk cities, representative of the future.
Photo of me
AI-Generated Images of Me in the Past and Future
Essentially, I’m depicted by this AI as white in the past, and Asian in the future (because of techno orientalism). So where do we, as mixed-race individuals, fit in regarding visions of the present?
Part II: Mixed people: where do we fit in?
Sam and I have also had a conversation about not being able to say we have ‘a face that belongs in a certain era,’ like the TikTok trend. I couldn’t exist in the past– I could, but very rarely, and I will most likely never get ‘Renaissance era!’ from people who identify my Asian features along with modernity and futurism.
The 70s-style turned my dark hair blonde. Future-me was a product of untrained AI and techo-orientalist ideas, or racist art. The issue that connects these topics is that the AI-generated art often only recognizes one race or another in differently generated photos– in several of these, I look completely white, in a few, almost fully Asian. It never really recognized my mixed features. Full-blooded POC were segregated or subjugated in the past; they still existed. We… didn’t. Not often. Although I think people are more likely to accept a mixed race future, the AI art was a product of misconceptions and issues regarding systemic racism in STEM.
As STEM advances, we should be conscious of biases. Even biases based on “history” can still exclude people. It makes sense; there isn’t much material to draw on for AI to reflect the mixed experience; no precedent has been set. But we need to be conscious of the ways mixed people have existed– often shunned, taboo, but nonetheless important, in the past. We need to be conscious of how we work towards a better future, one that paints a picture of mixed race folks belonging, even if we have been framed as lying on the ‘out-groups’ of cultures and societies for centuries.
I probably won’t spend 15 dollars on AI generated art again… but here’s to working towards a better future, including inclusive tech.