The Biases In Your Camera

Selfie

The saying goes that “a picture tells a thousand stories”. But nothing is ever that simple.

At the basic level a camera simply records whatever is in its field of vision. The choices made by people, such as who was shown and from what angle, very often determined whether or not the story being told with those images was accurate and honest.

However, even the choices made by humans after the fact don’t offer the full picture of how photographs can be prejudiced.

Sarah Lewis, an assistant professor at Harvard University whose work “looks at how the right to be recognized justly in a democracy has been tied to the impact of images and representation in the public realm”, says that racial and cultural biases can go beyond the selections made by editors. They are also embedded in the technology itself.

Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market. For example, developing color-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card. When you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colors.

Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the color-balancing of digital technology. In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions.

Modern digital cameras, which are essentially light gathering computers, have made photography more flexible and adaptable to different situations. But those computers are programmed by people. Digital photography still carries some “algorithmic bias” carried over from film.

Digital photography has led to some advancements. There are now dual skin-tone color-balancing capabilities and also an image-stabilization feature — eliminating the natural shaking that occurs when we hold the camera by hand and reducing the need for a flash. Yet, this solution creates other problems. If the light source is artificial, digital technology will still struggle with darker skin. It is a merry-go round of problems leading to solutions leading to problems.

You see it whenever dark skin is invisible to facial recognition software. The same technology that misrecognizes individuals is also used in services for loan decisions and job interview searches.

Lewis says some high profile people in the film and television industry are working on the problem. Hopefully their solutions will be quickly incorporated into the cameras that most people use everyday.

She closes her essay with this very appropriate thought.

Race changed sight in America. This is what my grandfather knew. This is what we experience. There is no need for our photographic technology to foster it.

Digital photography is just one, possibly less obvious, example of why we need a basic awareness of the algorithms running our digital devices. Especially an understanding that they are written by humans. People who weave their biases into the code. Sometimes without realizing it; but also sometimes with purpose.


The photo at the top shows a friend using her smartphone to capture the group. Selfies is just one of the capabilities that was more difficult in the previous century when we shot film.

Picture Post – At The Zoo

Many years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang “It’s all happening at the zoo”.1 Maybe not, but the Smithsonian National Zoo is a wonderful place to hang out on a beautiful spring morning.2

Here are some photos I made during a recent visit, an opportunity to work with a new long lens. If you’re interested in more, the gallery with all my zoo pictures is here.

The jaguars don’t normally hang around the front of their enclosure so a long lens is needed to get good photos of them.

It’s also fun to make pictures of the humans at the zoo. Love to know what this little boy was thinking about me making his photo while his mother was looking at the shots she just took.

Always gotta look down (and up) as well as at the animals to find interesting shots.

During my visits, it’s rare to find the pandas outside, in full view, and without a crowd. This was one of them.


1. It’s called “At The Zoo”. Good song. Find it on your favorite streaming service.

2. At least until the tour busses arrive. :)

Free Comes With a Cost

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This article, with the provocative title Google’s got our kids, is about a year old, but the message is still one that every educator needs to understand. Especially if you’ve turned your classroom over to Google’s Classroom.

The author, a teacher who uses Google products with her students, makes the point that, although GSuite for Education and their other free or super-cheap products can be beneficial to schools and teachers, we also need to remember that the company has motives that are different from “normal” education vendors.

Unlike textbook publishers, Google has a “very strong interest not only in training the workforce of the future in G Suite, but also in forming positive and powerful brand associations in the minds of its littlest consumers”. Most of those kids sitting in front of a Chromebook running Google’s browser are too young to understand brand marketing.

Google’s “Be Internet Awesome” curriculum is another great example of the company selling itself to kids, specifically delivering the “message that Google is a trustworthy arbiter of online safety and privacy”.

The irony of a curriculum that teaches kids how to safeguard their privacy online yet is produced by a company known for its less-than-transparent use of personal data is a little on the nose, but the explicit lessons in Be Internet Awesome are too basic to be objectionable.

Pragmatic as the content is, it also transmits implicit lessons about the Google brand, whose brand colors, icons, and font are slathered over everything from student handouts to classroom posters to, for some reason, paper doll patterns for making your very own Internaut.

I doubt the students, or most of their teachers, get the irony.

In the end, the author admits that Google provides some useful tools, and that even the Be Internet Awesome curriculum “speaks to a real need schools have to prepare students for life in a digital world”.

However, we must understand that that these “free” resources still come with a cost.

The issue isn’t that Google has nothing of value to offer schools — clearly, it has — but rather at what price are we buying it. If it’s too steep we might want to recall lessons from our own educations, not about how to be savvy, polished consumers of technology, but about how to be citizens.


The image is from the Kalamazoo Public Library Flickr account, and is used under a Creative Commons License. Look closely at the screen. The student is viewing a message from a coding activity that incorporates characters from the game Angry Birds. Another example of brand marketing in a “free” educational product.

Are Screens Really “Bad” For Kids?

Kids are spending too much time with digital screens.

At least they are according to some high profile studies, scary media stories about a tech backlash among “technologists” themselves, and many, many surveys of parents and teachers.

But what if they’re wrong?

In an interesting new book, “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World”, Jordan Shapiro, a professor of philosophy and senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, argues that kids interacting with screens is just all part of growing up in a new age.

Shapiro draws on his understanding of history and centuries of philosophical thought to say that kids who spend hours engaged with devices are simply learning about and adapting to the world around them. It seems different from parents came of age but really is not.

Grown-ups are disoriented because, at first glance, today’s screen media seem personal and private. When kids are watching YouTube videos or playing video games, it feels like the devices are pulling them away from the family and into a cocoon. But also, in a paradoxical twist, the screens function like portals that transport kids out of the house, beyond the perfect picket fence, and into a vast public dystopian virtual reality. Hence, parents are confused. They don’t know whether their kids are too detached or too exposed. All they know for sure is that traditional home life feels out of order; things aren’t neat and organized.

This anxiety is understandable. But remember that new technologies will always beget new routines. Your job as a parent is not to stop unfamiliar tools from disrupting your nostalgic image of the ideal childhood, nor to preserve the impeccable tidiness of the Victorian era’s home/work split. Instead, it’s to prepare your kids to live an ethical, meaningful, and fulfilled life in an ever – changing world.

Shapiro is not saying that parents (and teachers) should just hand devices to the kids and walk away. Instead he offers some historical context of family life when dealing with other technologies and makes the case that parents can still guide their children without heavy-handed restrictions.

He simply wants parents to take a closer look at what is going on when kids are interacting with those screens and guide them in their use of devices, video games, social media, and the rest of the digital world. “Just say no” doesn’t work here either.

This is just a small part of what Shapiro discusses in the book, and you may very well disagree with some of his conclusions. However, his thoughts on the matter are something every adult who interacts with children should read and consider.

The Chaos of Facebook

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It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook has been in the news a lot in the past three or four years, and not in a good way. In the US, we’ve seen a long parade of issues just regarding Facebook and it’s part in the 2016 elections.

But Facebook is a global company. We are not alone in the their executives putting profits before the welfare of their “members”.

For part of that international perspective regarding Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, watch this talk from the recently completed TED Conference. It’s presented by a UK reporter who went back to her hometown in the southern part of Wales to learn how Facebook had impacted the 2016 Brexit vote.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.

But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.

She ends her talk with a passionate challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”, many of whom were likely in that TED audience.

Because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.

And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you. And it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right or “Leave” or “Remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is.

I would argue that our own 2016 election also demonstrates that broken democracy.

If you can stand a deeper dive behind the more recent problems at Facebook, read the long but excellent cover story in the May issue of Wired.1 The reporter covers what they call “15 months of fresh hell” inside the company, based on interviews with “65 current and former employees”.

It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

As I said, the story is long and is difficult to summarize in one post. But the TL;DR is that the leadership of Facebook either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or they’re afraid to make substantial changes that will hurt growth and profits.

It’s excellent reporting and worth an hour of your time to read the whole thing.


The graphic is from the animated header of the Wired story. Seems an appropriate illustration given the chaos being sown by Facebook.

1. Wired Magazine offers some of the smartest reporting available on tech and its impact on society. It’s worth a few bucks to subscribe.