Thursday, December 06, 2007

What's in a Name?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title....
-- Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene 2

I work in a heavily male-dominated field. Few people are crazy enough to get a Ph.D. in computer science, and a minority of those who are that crazy are women. The applied math area has more women than other computer science fields, but that's not saying a lot.

Because of the male-dominated nature of the field, there are overlooked areas of bias. For example, Lenna, the picture that everyone in the image processing field uses to test their image processing algorithms, is from Playboy. Sure, it's just a cropped piece of the full-page spread and we don't get to see anything work-unsafe, but just the same, this seminal picture originated in a magazine that reinforces the objectification and commoditization of women.

There are plenty of other "politically-incorrect" standards in computer science, too. A process that accepts messages from any other process is known as promiscuous. An algorithm that involves one process assigning work to other processes is known as a master-slave algorithm (although thankfully, master-slave is being replaced by manager-worker).

Why should I care about the picture of Lenna? I'm not being objectified. Why should I care about so-called promiscuous processes? After all, I don't sleep around. And why would I (a white woman) or even anyone who's African-American give two hoots about calling an algorithm a master-slave algorithm? After all, none of us are in bonds.

The reason is because Juliet was wrong. Names do matter. If there were a machine that could perform an objective measurement of sweetness of scent, then sure, a rose would always have the same number of sweetness units, no matter if we called it a rose or a skunk.

But it's not machines that are determining the sweetness! It's people, and if they have preconceived notions about the object they are about to smell, they won't measure the sweetness the same way.

For example, if I come up to you with two paper bags and I say, "smell this rose" and begin moving one of the bags towards your face, you will react very differently than if I say, "smell this dirty diaper" and move the other bag towards your face. Even if both bags really contain roses, you will probably turn your head and try to avoid smelling the one labeled "dirty diaper." And if both bags actually contain dirty diapers, you will be unpleasantly surprised when taking a whiff if it was the bag that I had claimed held a rose.

Similarly, our preconceived notions about others will impact the way in which we view them. We are all marinated in the brine of modern-day society, so even if we don't hold the prevailing beliefs about women and minorities, we are aware of them, and they can distract us from thinking about others or even ourselves in an objective way.

So even if we do not believe that women are sex objects, Lenna reminds us that they are. And even if we believe that having multiple sex partners has the same moral value whether it's done by men or women, the term promiscuous, which is applied overwhelmingly to women, reminds us of that double standard. And even if we believe in the value of all people regardless of their skin color, master-slave terminology reminds us of the fact that some people in this country were once forced to work against their wills and were considered inferior, based on their skin color.

I wish that Juliet's youthful idealism could prevail. I used to think that she was right, but I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I can only hope that as our society advances, all people will be viewed as human, independent of their gender, color, ancestry, religion, class, etc.


rachel said...

My friend Arwen told me that in experiments where two cakes are identical except that one is colored brown (with coloring, not with chocolate), people will taste the brown one as "chocolate", and claim it tastes different, even though it doesn't. So yeah, the brain interprets according to preconceived notions, even when the senses are telling it differently.

Pete said...

I agree with you on Lenna. However, I think that master-slave definitions are the source of negligible discrimination, and are rather descriptive terms. Should someone come up with new terms for male-female adapters and connections because minds might wonder and think of something else that would reinforce some non-objectivity?

Sara said...

here is a different image of a woman that was used in a physics experiment

(they used quantum cryptography to transmit a picture of the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient statuette)

EcoGeoFemme said...

This is such a great post.

Jen said...

I applaud your thoughtful analysis of the issues you discuss. Bravo!

If only there was more of a widespread understanding with respect to the damage such activities you describe do, despite the often subtle nature at which they are employed in everyday rhetoric.

I am not arguing for 'blind' or zealous political correctness in which members of society tread lightly with their dialogue as if walking on egg shells with the impressive fear of saying the wrong thing. Instead, I argue that recognizing that offending others is simply often a result of ignorance and/or lack of self-awareness.

In the event an individual makes a statement fully aware of his/her intention and desires to have a negative impact with such words, (perhaps to spite another), or to use words/images without ANY consideration whatsoever to their impact is regrettable on the part of the speaker.

The verbal sticks and stones are not to be underestimated, or have I overstated my case?

(Also, I find this to be one of the better blogs out there in cyberland in terms of its written content).

Rebecca said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

Pete, master-slave and promiscuous are both descriptive, so I'm sure that's why they were first used to describe algorithms. I doubt that the people who coined those terms had discrimination on their minds. (And I doubt that the guy who first used the Lenna picture was trying to be mean, either. It was just a picture with a lot of good qualities for testing image processing algorithms, that he happened to have on hand.)

But here's the thing: there are people who are offended by the master-slave terminology, because it does evoke the violation of human rights through forced labor. So why not use manager-worker, which is just as descriptive, but has a connotation that is more positive?

As Jen rightly points out, this isn't about walking on eggshells or remaining silent; this is about taking responsibility for your own actions and ceasing to use terms that are not nice, especially when an equally descriptive and less offensive one exists, because it's the right thing to do.

Rachel said...

See, I can't hear master-slave without thinking of Mr. Slave, or more of an S&M bondage scenario.

Which says more about MY brain than anything.