How a Nude “Playboy” Photo Became a Fixture in the Tech World

And why it's probably time to retire it

lena
This conservatively cropped Playboy centerfold found itself at the center of tech.
Dwight Hooker/Playboy
By Kayla Kibbe / December 3, 2019 11:08 am

A handful of former Playboy Playmates have achieved lasting fame post-pictorial. While some have written bestsellers or starred in short-lived reality series, one notable Playboy alum has made her mark in tech.

A photo of Miss November 1972, aka Lena Söderberg, has been a staple in tech testing for decades since a team of engineers at the University of Southern California’s Signal and Image Processing Institute used the centerfold shot to test a new piece of image-compression software.

The image, as Corinne Purtill recently noted in the Medium publication OneZero, has persisted in labs even as technology has changed. And in more recent years, many have begun to question the appropriateness of Lena’s enduring place in the tech world, including Lena herself. 

“Once upon a time, I was the centerfold of Playboy,” says the former model in the new documentary Losing Lena. “But I retired from modeling a long time ago. It’s time I retired from tech, too.”

The short documentary examining the broader implications of the Lena image in the fraught world of tech and gender had its North American premiere last month, but it’s far from the first time the image has fallen under scrutiny.

The movement to remove the questionable image from the lab dates back at least two decades, when David Munson, editor in chief of the journal IEEE Transactions on Image Processing, encouraged researchers to use a different image back in 1996. Today, as Purtill noted, several journals no longer accept papers that use the Lena image.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Lena’s been scrubbed from the field entirely. In 2015, then-high schooler Maddie Zug penned an op-ed for the Washington Post detailing her experience being instructed to use the Lena image for a coding assignment in a mostly-male artificial intelligence class.

Of course, the conversation surrounding the Lena image isn’t really about Lena, or her Playboy pictorial, at all. “The image is a good hook,” said Zug after the film’s premiere. “But the real story here is about diversity and inclusion.”

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