I don’t have a clear memory of our first encounter. I don’t recall a moment where our eyes met across a crowded list of downloadable test files and I chose you over the Mandrill, or anything like that.
You’ve just always been there, floating in the middle distance, impassive but encouraging— you can do it, Ash — as I toiled in darkness, endlessly repeating runs of broken code, tweaking and gnawing at it until it did my bidding. You’d be obscured by glitches, have your colours distorted, or disappear entirely, forcing me to hunt through haystacks of code looking for that one needle, until I found it — and then there you’d be, burning through the fog of confusion like the sun, a sign that I was home.
Almost every moment of achievement in our software (a show creation platform) was marked somehow by a test image containing your face — the first time we implemented a blur effect, simulated projector beams on stage surfaces in the visualiser, achieved DMX control of video modules, added colour space processing, got complex composite modes working; the list goes on.
Now I find myself wishing I’d kept all those screenshots — it would be an entertaining record of the adventures we had together, proof of your significance in my artistic and professional life. We could set it to the title track of Friends.
In a very real sense, you’re family to me; more than that, you became a talisman, an icon, a deity of sorts. So much so that when we finally shipped our software to real users, we added a copy of your image to the release package, and built your image into the default test grids that came with it. And so you entered the working lives of our users, graced a thousand stages, and joined their families as well.
When I first encountered feminist criticism of lena.jpg, my initial reaction was defensive — hey, that’s my patron saint you’re talking about ! Sure, the origins of the image were more profane than sacred : but wasn’t it something you freely chose to do, and wasn’t its later significance something you felt proud of, albeit in a muted way ? In a visual culture exploding with far more blatant sexual provocation, were we really meant to be offended by a bare shoulder ? In focusing on the symbol, weren’t we distracting attention away from more material forms of discrimination and exploitation of women in tech, like wage inequality and sexual harassment ? And anyway, can’t symbols transcend their origins and take on new meanings ? Must we be forever defined by our pasts ?
In 2015, we flirted for a moment with the idea of removing the image from our software, but it felt wrong. It felt like we were denying you; that we were admitting that our relationship with you was shameful in some way; that nuance and humour were threatening to become casualties of the battle of the sexes; that we were bowing to the pitchforks. Without you, the software was like an empty room — just blank machinery. Some part of its soul depended on you.
Faced with pulling the trigger and consigning you to the dustbin of history, we found ourselves rebelling. Instead, we thought, why not balance the scales and introduce a little male objectification ?
And then one day, there he was, in a Seinfeld re-run on a tiny television in the corner of a tiny Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona (we were helping make the Super Bowl halftime show): George.
Since his introduction, george.jpg has become an underground ethno-techno-cultural phenomenon in his own right, appearing fleetingly on impossibly huge surfaces in improbable locations — from airports in the middle east and pagodas in the far east, to casinos in Vegas and historic buildings in Moscow; even on one occasion making it into a magazine article. In fact, lena.jpg and george.jpg were pretty much useless as test images — far too low-resolution, with narrow colour gamuts and compression artefacts everywhere — but they became sigils, shared and recognised only by the community that formed around the software and the shows.
We had slain the humourless dragon of Political Correctness with a giant Camille-Paglia-style wink. Clever us.
Or so I thought.
But then #metoo happened. And then this happened :
So now we’ve arrived at a point where the arguments of the past don’t carry any weight any more.
We want to attract the brightest talent, regardless of gender or gender identification, race, sexual orientation, class, age, culture, accent, religion, or political leanings. We give a fuck about diversity, not as a virtue-signalling end in itself, but because it’s just better — a broader palette of approaches, styles and perspectives leads to better products and services, better strategy, and a more vibrant and dynamic working culture. Our company, and the city that birthed it, is living proof of that.
We want to send a message that we’re alive to the fact that the playing field isn’t level, and we want to address that. And we want to honour the courage of the women we admire in our industry, who have overcome discrimination (and a lot worse) to succeed.
But really, the bottom line is simply this :
If you don’t want us to use your image, we will respect your wish.
So for our next release, lena.jpg will be replaced by ada.jpg : Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, and general all-round badass.
We’ll still consider you as our patron saint in our hearts – but we hope you’ll accept this gesture as true to your spirit and intention.
So long, and thanks for all the moments !