The short documentary Losing Lena is a dense but educational film that examines how women were pushed out of the tech industry.
The film thoroughly explains how women — who were thoroughly involved in the tech industry during its beginnings — were excluded and kept out of the field through hiring programs, tech software and also by the ingraining of what the film calls the “anti-social, mostly white male nerd” as the signifier of an intelligent tech whisperer and creator.
Ironically streaming on Facebook Watch — a platform that struggles with its own diversity inequality problems — the documentary succeeds in describing how “the digital divide” in gender disparity happened in tech through the creation of the JPEG image file format.
Labelled as “tech’s original sin,” Lena Forsen posed as Miss November 1972 for the centrefold of Playboy magazine. This image inadvertently became the standard image for computer scientists working on image processing algorithms.
The documentary explains how a group of engineers working at the University of Southern California in 1973 were testing the image processing algorithms that would lead to the creation of the JPEG. One of the magazines laying around the lab — though the documentary never elaborates why a Playboy magazine was in a university computer lab to begin with — was a 1972 issue of Playboy with Forsen’s centrefold in it. One of the computer scientists said, “Why don’t we use the photo in the centrefold?” and the rest is history. The use of Forsen’s image snowballed.
The photo was cropped and quickly became the standard for computer scientists, revolutionizing the digital world.
Forsen’s image went on to appear in tens of thousands of educational resources and books. The image remains the most used test image in the world.
The documentary mainly features university students and women working in tech elaborating on their experiences in the industry and being subjected to the image of Forsen for the first time — Forsen’s image is a symbol that tech is not a welcome “space for both men and women.”
Maddie Zug, then a computer science student at Pomona College, Calif., describes how she first became acquainted with the image of Forsen in a high school class — a classroom predominantly comprised of boys. She describes how the teacher instructed them not to Google the full image, but the boys did and began to make sexual jokes.
“Women were made to be this joke in the context of this class where I was supposed to be learning as an equal,” Zug says in the film.
The documentary also addresses why tech innovations are often stalled because of gender disparity, citing voice recognition software as an example — voice recognition systems needed to be recalibrated because they couldn’t recognize female voices, simply because these systems were created, calibrated and designed with the voices of male tech engineers.
Though slightly overwhelming, as devastating facts about gender inequality in tech caused by “tech bro culture” are unleashed upon the viewer with only a handful of short pauses to absorb the information, the film is a wonderful crash course in why the tech field needs to become diversified, not just in gender. The combined skills, voices and perspectives of all abilities and cultures are needed for continued technological democratization and innovation.
Losing Lena is currently streaming for free on Facebook Watch.