Racism in technology – cameras

Keywords: technology, photography, Shirley cards

One of the difficulties of recognizing systemic racism is that it can be very subtle and deeply ingrained – even in technology. One reason people may be reluctant to acknowledge systemic forms of racism is that they are not always a consequence of conscious efforts. (Some are, but not all.)  But just because something wasn’t consciously done doesn’t mean it didn’t have racially based origins or doesn’t have ongoing racist consequences. Consider this excerpt from a N.Y. Times article on realistic looking faces created by AI.

“… cameras — the eyes of facial-recognition systems — are not as good at capturing people with dark skin; that unfortunate standard dates to the early days of film development, when photos were calibrated to best show the faces of light-skinned people. The consequences can be severe. In January, a Black man in Detroit named Robert Williams was arrested for a crime he did not commit because of an incorrect facial-recognition match.”

No one consciously said, “Hey, let’s make cameras work better with white people.” It was a consequence of the dominance of white people both in terms of population and societal position. The use by Kodak of Shirley for photo calibration was a product of white women being a norm. From the days of slavery, blacks have had less input into societal norms than whites. This is an example of how discrimination creeps into our society and our technology without our even knowing it.

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