Last night, during a writing break, I looked at the internet, and this dress was all over it. All over Facebook, Jezebel, Gawker, Buzzfeed. People were already writing articles about how they didn’t care about the dress, that it was an ugly dress that no one should be talking about. But no one was talking about the dress because it was pretty. They were talking about it because no one could decide what color it was. To some people (like me), the dress was clearly blue with black lace accents. To other people, it was obviously white with gold lace. A handful of people saw other colors: lavender, brown, green.
Then I saw the people decrying the waste of energy of debating the dress’s color. “With all the injustice going on in the world right now, if you are discussing that fucking dress you are an asshole and please unfriend me.” That kind of thing. I agree that this kind of internet babble, the way the internet makes a thing out of everything (I guess meme is the right word), is annoying. But to my mind, the dress picture is really interesting, and not only that, it’s really important.
- It’s important for science and philosophy. It gives insight, a concrete example of how our perceptions do not reflect some true external reality, how our interactions with the world are shaped and often limited by our senses and how our brain interprets them. My favorite part about this particular example is how most people cannot will themselves to see the dress in any other way than how they originally see it. Most optical illusions are only noticeable as such because we can see them differently: when we look at those dots individually, they are stationary, but when we look at the pattern as a whole, it appears to be moving as though animated. With the dress picture, some people only see it as blue and black, and others only see it as white and gold. The illusion isn’t even evident unless you have another person to discuss the picture with (which begs the question of how many other such pictures exist without having been noticed). I showed the images to people at Peet’s coffee last night, and they were most frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t see the other color combination, even if they tried. This is what freaks people out—the inability to see what others see, to alter their own perceptions. I noticed myself looking at the black sections, trying to figure out how they might be gold. It seemed so baffling, since I didn’t see any gold tones in the black, and then I realized: that’s the point. Of course I don’t see the gold color. My brain isn’t showing me that. My brain is showing me black, and my friend’s brain is showing him gold. I’m sorry if you think it’s petty, but that is fucking amazing.
- It’s important for social justice. The ACLU noticed this importance and tweeted about it, and ended up taking a lot of shit for it, which they probably expected. Someone called it “the worst forced analogy I’ve seen in a while.” I don’t think the analogy is forced at all. There are innate differences between people. There are socially conditioned differences between people. These differences affect how we perceive the world. Therefore, to get a full understanding of reality, we need to pay attention to other people’s perceptions as well as our own. We also need to understand that our perceptions may be wrong, and other people’s may be right. I noticed so many people discussing the color disparity with the assumption that their own perception was correct. Of course, some of this was joking, but I saw a lot of serious comments from people trying to explain how the other side could be misinterpreting the image, along the lines of, “I think some people are noticing the blue tint in the white sections and darkening that tint to convince themselves that those areas are actually blue.” This shows how our brains work: of course our perceptions are accurate and other people’s are false. In order to create a just society, we need to learn to question our own perceptions and value the perceptions of others.
- It’s important for teaching. It’s a pretty common teaching practice to introduce units about prejudice and stereotyping by showing the class optical illusions. The illusions show students that what seems evidently true to them is actually influenced by their expectations and assumptions. The Academy for College Excellence, a program for at-risk students, does an exercise called What You See is Not What You Get, showing optical illusions to help the students open their minds to new experiences and viewpoints. For these students (emancipated foster youth, former gang-involved students, students with disabilities) who have been traumatized and hurt in the past, the illusions are an important lesson in how to respect each other and feel safe sharing their different views and experiences. Illusions turn out to be pretty radical lessons for a lot of people, providing an experiential understanding of how we limit ourselves when we stick rigidly to our own viewpoint without entertaining others.
I guess this all means that I need to respect the viewpoints of those people who think this dress debate is the most annoying thing to ever happen on the internet. I can agree: people proudly declaring themselves “team blue/black” or “team white/gold” is pretty annoying, and turning it into a debate misses the point entirely. But I think there is a point, at least I see one, and that’s why I’ll be showing this picture to my classes next week, to see what we can learn from it.