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Color reproduction and determinism

July 24, 2001

A public radio commentary

I think the most common image of technology is a great whirlwind of innovation that sweeps through our lives, creating blessings and havoc. This view is easy to hold in this day and age when there is a headline every day with some new breakthrough, but it is only half true, and because of this, dangerous.

Its error lies in treating a technological breakthrough or object as culturally neutral. In reality the technical aspects cannot be separated from their social context. The values and world views, the intelligence and stupidity, the biases and vested interests of those who design a technology are embedded in the technology itself. You can see this every time you go to a movie.

On screen the colors appear to be a representation of reality, but are not at all. They were optimized to best reproduce Caucasian skin tones. This came about because it's impossible to faithfully reproduce colors on film and to do it cheaply. Instead, engineers developed ways to simulate a full color picture using three colors - blue, red and yellow. But these three colors cannot create a full spectrum of pure color.

For example, if you use them to create white, it is tinged with magenta. You can restore full whiteness by fiddling with the mix of the three primary colors, but only at the cost of distorting all other tones.

To find the best color balance, the engineers developing film stocks used a series of prints of a young woman. They varied the color balance in the prints from too red or yellow to too blue, and from too green to too pink. They submitted these to judges, who chose the best reproduction. They rejected the print that matched the real colors in the woman's face, and choose as best, the prints where she was quite pale. Thus they optimized film for very light Caucasian skin over all other skin tones.

This isn't to suggest any kind of crude conspiracy, but to draw attention to the fact that an inventor's own cultural values become embedded in all technological objects. What is the use in seeing how we embed values and choices in technology? That is, in seeing that it isn't some outside force bearing down on us with its own logic.

If we don't see this embedding, we risk becoming passive and developing a dangerous apathy. It focuses our minds on how to adapt to technology, not on how to shape it. And so removes a vital aspect of how we live from our public discourse. This creates a pressing need for us as citizens to understand deeply how technology comes about. Not just simply to grasp the impressive world of technology, but to exercise the civic duty of shaping those forces that form our lives so intimately, deeply, and lastingly.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises