For something which permeates our lives to the extent that life without it now seems unthinkable, it’s surprising how much we don’t know about the internet. For example, very few of us, it seems, are aware of the role a Swedish Playboy model played in the history and development of the Net. Enlightening the world to that role, and issuing a clarion call for change, are the objectives of a new documentary titled Losing Lena.
The story of Losing Lena begins in 1972, when Lena was Miss November. The next year, boffins at the University of Southern California, developing algorithms to turn photos into digital bits, decided Lena’s picture would work fine as a test image. Their work led to the creation of the jpeg, and Lena became the image seen around the world, in journals, on websites, and in the studies of generations of tech students.
The movie takes a look at what it says about the industry, and about the world, that a Playboy centrefold has remained the standard test image for nearly half a century, taught to young men and women for decades. As the industry strives to open itself up to greater diversity and aims for real equality, can the persistence of Lena’s image be reconciled with that goal?
Losing Lena examines the question of biases, conscious and unconscious, in science and technology, and pushes clearly for change. Director Kyra Bartley is quick to stress that the film is not meant to accuse or lay blame. “Far from being a finger-pointing exercise, the film encourages people to engage with these ideas as part of a broader conversation on diversity”. Look at it as a jumping-off point: as Lena can be seen as symbolic of the prejudices of the past, Losing Lena uses her to represent a shift in the conversation.
Ally Watson, founder of Code Like a Girl, the organisation set up to promote women’s participation in STEM, says, “The role of Lena’s image in tech’s history is representative of so many of our industry’s shortcomings.” Those behind Losing Lena see the campaign to consign the use of Lena’s image to the past as a small but vital step to changing the way the tech industry thinks about women.
As for Lena herself, she says, “I retired from modelling a long time ago. It’s time I retired from tech, too. We can make a simple change today that creates a lasting change for tomorrow. Let’s commit to losing me.” We’ve been looking at her for so long: it seems only fair we start listening to her.
Losing Lena has been released on Facebook.