In a world designed for the majority…
“When the YouTube iOS app was first released, about 10 per cent of users were somehow uploading their videos upside-down. Engineers were puzzled until they took a closer look – they had inadvertently designed the app for right-handed users only. Phones are rotated 180 degrees in left-handed users’ hands, and because the team was predominantly right-handed, this flaw missed internal testing (Google). This unconscious bias is prevalent in much of the technology we use right now.”
This was the introduction to a daily newsletter I get in my inbox. Being left-handed, one of the members of the 10 per cent minority in a world of right-handers, I was fascinated by this information, also a bit annoyed with myself that I hadn’t heard of it before. Imagine, if as a leftie, I didn’t know this, how would a right-handed person understand the challenges for a leftie in a world designed for the right-handed majority. A few examples that come to mind: scissors, spiral notebooks, right-handed desks, can openers to name a few…
The newsletter went on to introduce an article on the history of photography that favoured lighter skin tones over darker ones following the recent news that Google and Snapchat both recently announced that they are redesigning their cameras to be more inclusive to individuals who have darker skin.
In a nutshell, the first model to pose for camera calibration in photo labs was a woman named Shirley Page, which meant, all colour calibration after that, done with cards nicknames “Shirley cards”, were set to calibrate lighter skin, labelled as ‘normal.’
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Kodak started testing cards with black women.
Until prominent magazines such as the British Vogue hired black photographers though, such as Misan Harriman, the first black man to shoot a cover of British Vogue in the magazine’s 104-year history, you may have noticed even the biggest names in photography getting the lighting and editing of black skin woefully wrong despite getting booking after booking from some of the top brands in the world to photograph their campaigns with black models in images that didn’t do them any justice.
Back on the tech side of visual, the article brings up the criticism Snapchat faced back in 2016 for “whitewashed” filters making people of darker complexions look lighter before moving onto Google Photos facing backlash in 2015 for labelling black people as “gorillas.” It turns out, instead of addressing the issue by fixing the AI, the company simply removed gorillas from their recognition software. The author points out that less than 1 per cent of Google’s technical workforce is black.
It makes you wonder if having black people in positions of power and influence could have avoided the faux pas altogether, much like having left-handers on Google testing team might have avoided the YouTube upload issue by discovering it before it went live. Unconscious bias is a funny thing – all major white-owned and managed companies can jump on the Black Lives Matter and Pride bandwagons but until there are people in senior positions to call out the bias – unconscious or not – and the BS when they see it, no amount of unconscious bias training will ease the impact on millions of people these decisions taken in higher circles cause. Because, no matter the amount of unconscious bias training, sometimes all it takes is a single person of a handedness, ethnic, racial or sexual minority to point out the fault lines in a world designed for the majority.