If not for the internet...

Many fascinating nuggets of history would perhaps have been lost to us if we did not have our not-so-old world wide web.
Last Updated 20 November 2021, 20:15 IST

One of the most interesting things about living in a small town is discovering bits of history where you thought none existed. The pandemic has forced me to move back to my hometown, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. As a city, Kanpur has a rich colonial history and was an eventful place during 1857.

Last week, I listened to the Kanpur and Lucknow episode of the Musafir Stories (an excellent podcast). I learned about 'Baron Carlo Marochetti Road', or as it is known today in the city, 'Doodhwali Gali'. The Baron Marochetti Road is named after an Italian-French sculptor who was responsible for sculpting the Cawnpore Memorial. This monument represents the loss of 73 women and 124 children in July 1857.

While at one point the monument was visited more often than the Taj Mahal, few people know about it and its relevance today, and this includes those who have lived in Kanpur all their lives. There was a real danger that the monument and what it symbolises may have been lost to history if not for the excellent research possibility and the magic of the internet.

Racial bias

The world is littered with examples such as these, whose relevance may be lost to history if not for the internet. One of the best illustrations of this is the role of race, furniture, and chocolates in photography. Few people might know about racial bias in photography, and for those who do, it might be hard to recall every time a new flagship phone is launched with an upgraded camera system and an odd-shaped bump at the back.

Around the 1950s, Kodak was a dominant player in the photography market. In those days, people used to click photos and would need to develop films using the help of a technician. One of the functions of processing those photos was calibrating skin tones, lights, and shadows during the printing process. The developing film technology required was called a ‘Shirley Card’.

Shirley was a white woman with brown hair and was an employee of Kodak. So when you sent your photos to be developed, technicians would use Shirley’s image as the measuring stick against which they calibrated colours. This led to pictures of people of colour being either under or overexposed. It was near impossible to get the skin tone of people right.

The topic was understandably a sensitive one for people of colour. However, according to Concordia University Professor Lorna Roth, it took pressure from chocolate and furniture companies (which often had brown-coloured products) for Kodak to address the issue and not the frustrations of darker-skinned people.

Kodak later released multiracial Shirley cards, including a black model, an Asian model, and a Latina model, to attempt to correct the bias. However, the company had more competition by then, and not everyone took to the new standards as digital photography began to rise.

As new phones come out every few months, we see better camera systems able to reflect darker skin tones more accurately. Google even claimed that the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro had the world’s most inclusive camera that is more accurately able to highlight the nuances of darker skin tones.

The Shirley card was a seemingly innocuous step in Kodak’s photo development process, but its effects on colour balancing and how darker skin people were presented in photos took years to correct. Had a person of colour been the subject of the Shirley card, the history of photography might have evolved in a completely different manner.

The writer is a policy analyst working on emerging technologies. He tweets @thesethist

Tech-Tonic is a monthly look-in at all the happenings around the digital world, both big and small.

(Published 20 November 2021, 19:41 IST)

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