27 votes

Can data die? Why one of the internet's oldest images lives on without its subject's consent

12 comments

  1. [4]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    This post showing up here and now is quite the coincidence for me. I just finished reading Emily Chang's Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, and the book opens with the history...

    This post showing up here and now is quite the coincidence for me. I just finished reading Emily Chang's Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, and the book opens with the history of the Lena image and uses it as a stand-in for the tech industry's treatment of women:

    In the mid-1990s, the editor of one trade journal, David Munson, received many requests asking him to ban Lena’s image from the publication. Instead, he wrote an editorial encouraging engineers to use other images. Another industry leader, Jeff Seideman, however, campaigned to keep Lena in circulation, arguing that, far from being sexist, the image memorialized one of the most important events in the history of electronic imaging. “When you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore; it’s just pixels,” Seideman told the Atlantic in 2016, unwittingly highlighting the problem Needell and others were trying to point out. The dehumanization of women through digitized and overly sexualized images that could fly across computer networks was the danger.

    When I asked [William Pratt, lead researcher of the team who originally chose the Lena image] why he had never shared his role in Lena’s story, he told me I was the first reporter to ask him about it. He seemed nonplussed when I pressed him about the controversy that still surrounds the choice of this test photo. “I haven’t paid attention to [the controversy] at all,” he said. “It didn’t make any sense to me . . . We didn’t even think about those things at all when we were doing this. It was just natural that we would use a good-quality image, and some of the best images were in Playboy. It was not sexist.”

    Besides, no one could have been offended, he told me, because there were no women in the classroom at the time.

    As an isolated incident, the lab’s use of a Playboy centerfold is not especially upsetting. There was no nudity in the cropped version researchers used—just a pretty face, a bare shoulder, and a silly hat. Pratt’s students were guilty of, at worst, an ignorant and juvenile decision. However, more than four decades after its initial selection, the prolific use of Lena’s photo can be seen as a harbinger of behavior within the tech industry that is far less innocent. In Silicon Valley today, women are second-class citizens and most men are blind to it. The tragedy is, it didn’t have to be this way. The exclusion of women from this critical industry was not inevitable. In many ways, the industry sabotaged itself and its own pipeline of bright female talent.

    This was the first I had ever heard of the image.

    Also, this is nothing more than a petty complaint, but I find it frustrating that the Losing Lena documentary, which is focused on the topic of data-removal, is hosted only on the, presumably, very data-hungry Facebook Watch platform.

    5 votes
    1. [3]
      skybrian
      Link Parent
      I became familiar with the image because it was used as an example in early computer graphics papers. At the time, if I thought about it at all, I probably assumed it was a stock photo, like the...

      I became familiar with the image because it was used as an example in early computer graphics papers. At the time, if I thought about it at all, I probably assumed it was a stock photo, like the photos of good-looking strangers in Kodak advertisements. I didn't find out the history, that it was originally from Playboy and cropped, until a lot later. (Racy!) Most likely, new papers used it because older papers did and good quality scanners weren't common yet.

      I can give you a couple of other examples of "famous" computer graphics datasets. There is a teapot in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. They used a teapot because it was a relatively complex shape (at the time), but it's just a teapot. As 3D computer graphics got more capable and the teapot was no longer a challenge, researchers switched to the Stanford Bunny.

      Nowadays, ImageNet is a famous dataset of over 14 million images that's used by machine learning researchers. It seems that researchers are only marginally more respectful of copyrights?

      Does ImageNet own the images? Can I download the images?

      No, ImageNet does not own the copyright of the images. ImageNet only compiles an accurate list of web images for each synset of WordNet. For researchers and educators who wish to use the images for non-commercial research and/or educational purposes, we can provide access through our site under certain conditions and terms. For details click here.


      It seems like there are two issues here. The first is copyright infringement, which is rampant on the Internet. I would bet that many people who are concerned about Lenna have also shared memes with people in them without a thought about whether those people consented to be a meme. Stopping meme sharing, or even getting consensus that it is a problem, would be pretty difficult. (For one thing, you have all the people who say DRM is evil. But without some sort of computer assistance, making a big dent in infringement seems hopeless.)

      The second is a vague complaint about it being objectifying, which I'm not sure how to think about.

      For example, it's common for a camera review site to demonstrate a camera using photos of a good-looking model to demonstrate camera quality. (Presumably with their consent.) Occasionally I've wondered about the strangers who posed for those photos. Are they a friend or co-worker of the camera reviewer, or did they hire someone just for the shoot? Is wondering about them being less objectifying than if I was just comparing zoomed-in image details to see which camera is better?

      It seems kind of wild that there are articles and even a movie about this particular image, versus the zillions of other images out there on the Internet. Fame leads to more fame, I guess.

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        kfwyre
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I’ve definitely seen that teapot before — multiple times, I think — but I can’t put my finger on where! My instinct is videogames? It’s definitely pinging for me though, and I had no idea it was...

        I’ve definitely seen that teapot before — multiple times, I think — but I can’t put my finger on where! My instinct is videogames? It’s definitely pinging for me though, and I had no idea it was significant until now.

        And yeah, as for the issues you brought up, I don’t think we’ll “solve” copyright infringement online (assuming it’s even a problem in the first place). Sharing, modifying, and reappropriating content are so fundamental to internet culture and structure that we’d essentially have to fundamentally rework things from the ground up and reacculturate users to get anywhere on that front. It feels like this might be slowly changing recently, but for nearly all of the time I’ve been online, one of the easiest ways to get something spread around online is to tell people they can’t or shouldn’t share it. I still remember people copying that DVD encryption key to every site under the sun as an act of social justice, for example.

        As for your second point about objectification, I don’t want to speak too definitively on it, as this one’s far out of my lane, speaking as both a) a guy and b) someone with no experience in the tech industry.

        With a grain of salt on mandatory offer, my read of the Lena image (which is based solely of the linked article and it’s mention in Brotopia) is that the image itself isn’t the issue so much as it is a measurement of the issue. When one of the most prominent and well-known woman in the industry isn’t an actual woman but an image of one, that says something about valuing women primarily at an aesthetic and functional level (i.e. how Lena’s image helped develop image processing algorithms). Furthermore, when Lena is in spaces where she is the only woman or even one of a small handful, it acts as a measurement of a lack of women in the field. The problem isn’t Lena herself but what her status says about the status of women in the industry at large.

        These two issues can both exist independent of intention, and they can reinforce each other. A culture which objectifies women can fail to prioritize their hiring or even drive them out when they are hired, and a culture which lacks women can lack the perspectives and social experiences that would reduce their objectification. This is one of the main complaints within Brotopia, which goes into the issue well beyond the Lena image itself (which is only a minor jumping off point for the beginning of the book).

        That said, some people do take issue with Lena herself, and I don’t think that’s an invalid read either. I don’t think women in tech should have to be continually reminded, in everyday professional settings, of their own objectification in the form of pornography. Once you know the backstory of the photo, it’s hard to unknow, and if Lena really is omnipresent, then she becomes a continual reminder. If her image is what’s giving a Hooters-type overtone to what should otherwise be a family-type restaurant, then I can see why some people would be uncomfortable and would want to reevaluate Lena’s role, prominence, and necessity moving forward.

        But again, take all of this with a big grain of salt. You worked in the industry yourself and have direct experience with the image in question, while I’m just looking at this through a window, peering in curiously from the outside.

        3 votes
        1. skybrian
          Link Parent
          I see that the teapot has a Wikipedia page, as does the Lena image. I’m not a real computer graphics expert. I took a course in college, skim academic papers sometimes, and went to SIGGRAPH once...

          I see that the teapot has a Wikipedia page, as does the Lena image.

          I’m not a real computer graphics expert. I took a course in college, skim academic papers sometimes, and went to SIGGRAPH once back in the dotcom era. It’s enough to recognize some of the in-jokes.

          I don’t believe there is any serious reason to use an old 512x512 test image anymore. In newer papers that are about portrait image processing, there is typically a grid of photos of people with a variety of hair styles and skin tones, showing each original photo and what it looks like after processing with various effects.

          It doesn’t seem to be the custom to say in the paper where the images came from or who those people are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes they are pictures of the researchers themselves? They look like they might be grad students or professors.

          3 votes
  2. [5]
    skybrian
    Link
    The image appears in this article too. I wonder if they asked for consent, or assumed it’s fair use?

    The image appears in this article too. I wonder if they asked for consent, or assumed it’s fair use?

    3 votes
    1. [5]
      Comment deleted by author
      Link Parent
      1. [3]
        Wulfsta
        Link Parent
        … how else would you describe what an image on a computer is?

        … how else would you describe what an image on a computer is?

        6 votes
        1. Greg
          Link Parent
          Initially I thought they meant it was a bunch of coloured div elements or similar, one per pixel, but looking at the page it's actually a single canvas element - which ironically gave me "Save...

          Initially I thought they meant it was a bunch of coloured div elements or similar, one per pixel, but looking at the page it's actually a single canvas element - which ironically gave me "Save image as..." as the first option when I right clicked to inspect it.

          I see the intent there: it's harder to link from elsewhere, pick up by crawlers, etc. but if obfuscation was the goal I think they could've gone a step further, and if preventing reuse was the goal then maybe a watermark would've worked better.

          More broadly I get the impression that context matters here, and that talking about the choice of image and its implications is both legally and ethically reasonable in a way that using it as a placeholder isn't. Given that you pretty much can't remove something from the internet, much as we might wish otherwise, the slight obfuscation seems more of a symbolic gesture than anything else.

          6 votes
        2. eladnarra
          Link Parent
          Yeah that's a rather odd thing to say - any raster image is a collection of colored pixels. Maybe they mean that it's pixelated?

          Yeah that's a rather odd thing to say - any raster image is a collection of colored pixels. Maybe they mean that it's pixelated?

          3 votes
      2. skybrian
        Link Parent
        Ah, thanks! Missed that.

        Ah, thanks! Missed that.

        1 vote
  3. [2]
    corleone
    Link
    This site looks good but I don't find it very practical.

    This site looks good but I don't find it very practical.

    4 votes
    1. clone1
      Link Parent
      Yeah it looked cool and it was nice that they could sync the graph with the text, but it wasn't comfortable to read at all.

      Yeah it looked cool and it was nice that they could sync the graph with the text, but it wasn't comfortable to read at all.

      3 votes
  4. UntouchedWagons
    Link
    Good lord I hate the design of that site. Thank goodness for reader view.

    Good lord I hate the design of that site. Thank goodness for reader view.

    3 votes