Emily Chang is a journalist and weekly anchor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and the author of “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.” Recently, she penned an article there about an old (in tech terms) digital artifact by the name of Lena Soderberg. Lena first became famous in November 1972 when, as Lenna Sjooblom, she was featured as a centerfold in Playboy magazine. That spread might have been the end of it but for the fact that researchers at the Univ. of Southern California computer lab were busy trying to digitize physical photographs into what would eventually become the JPEG (or .jpg) format we all know from Internet images today.
According to the lab’s co-founder, William Pratt, now 80, the group chose Lena’s portrait from a copy of Playboy brought to the lab by a student. The team needed to test their photo-digitization algorithms on suitable photos for compressing large image files so they could be digitally transferred between devices.
Apparently their search led them to Lena, the 21 year old Swedish centerfold. Go figure.
Lena ended up becoming famous in early engineering circles, and some refer to her as “the first lady of the Internet.” Others see her as Silicon Valley’s original sin – the larger point of Ms. Chang’s article – but that’s a topic for another post.
Apparently, Lena’s photo was attractive from a technical perspective because the photo included, according to Pratt, “lots of high frequency detail that is difficult to code.” That would include apparently her boots, boa and feathered hat.
According to Ms. Chang, for the next 45 years, Lena’s photo (seen at the top of this post), featuring her face and bare shoulder, served as “the benchmark for image processing quality for the teams working on Apple Inc.’s iPhone camera, Google Images, and pretty much every other tech product having anything to do with photos.”
To this day engineers joke that if you want your image compression algorithm to make the grade, it had better perform well on Lena.
So to a lot of male engineers, Lena thus became an amusing historical footnote. But to their female peers, it was seen as “just alienating.” And it has a lot to do with some of the inborn gender biases that permeate the tech industry to this day, where the majority of employees are still male.
That’s a much longer extract from Emily Chang’s essay that we’ll try to sum up in a succeeding post. Stay tuned…