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Lena, Fabio, and the Mess of Computer Science April 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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The book Brotopia opens with a description of Lena, the November 1972 Playboy centerfold whose photo by chance was used in early research into image processing algorithms at USC.  Over time, that singular cropped image became a technical standard to measure the output of graphics algorithms.  Even today it is used in academic research to point out details of the value of alternative algorithms.

But today this image is also controversial.  Some complain that it serves to objectify women in computer science.  Others say it is simply a technical standard in the field.  A woman mathematics professor applied similar graphics algorithms to Fabio in an attempt to bring some balance to the discussion.

In the 8th grade (around the time of Lena), my middle school (Hopewell Junior High School) partitioned off boys to Shop class, and girls to Home Ec.  Perhaps one boy a year asked for Home Ec class, but it could only be taken by boys as a free elective, and was viewed as an oddity.  During my time there, to my knowledge no girl asked to be in Shop class.

Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time, but today such a segregation is troubling.  And even in 2015, a high school computer science class used Lena to show off their work with graphics algorithms, to mixed reviews.

There are many serious problems with the cult of the young white male in tech today.  As we continue to engage this demographic with not-so-subtle inducements to their libidos, we also enable them to see themselves as the Masters of the (Tech) Universe.  That worked out so well for the financial trading firms in the market failures of the 1980s and 2000s, didn’t it?

Does the same dynamic also make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously in tech?  I think that it is part of the problem, but by no means the only part.  Women in tech are like people in any field – they want to do their jobs, and not have to have cultural and frat boy behaviors that make it that much more difficult to do so.

I’ve been fortunate to know many smart and capable women throughout my life.  I had a girlfriend in college who was simply brilliant in mathematics and chemistry (in contrast, I was not brilliant at anything at that point in my life).  She may have been one of the inspirations that led me to continue plugging away at mathematics until I managed a limited amount of success at it.  Others try to do their best under circumstances that they shouldn’t have to put up with.

So let’s give everyone the same chance, without blatant and subtle behaviors that demean them and make them feel less than what they are.  We don’t today.  Case in point, Uber, which under Travis Kalanick was the best-known but by no means the only offender.  I hope we can improve, but despair that we can’t.

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