Yes I AM Writing About that Dress, and Yes It IS Important

dressLast 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

photo credit: http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112073818575/guys-please-help-me-is-this-dress-white-and

9 thoughts on “Yes I AM Writing About that Dress, and Yes It IS Important

  1. I think everything stated here is well put and honestly the social commentary is important in this day and age. However, I think this article has put too much emphasis on accepting other people’s perceptions. First, there is only one Truth and to suggest otherwise, opens up the stage for unbridled deception in this world. It is true that people may not agree, but usually it’s not that they both might be right, just in their own way, it’s because overwhelmingly both parties are equally wrong (I am making a strong assumption that we are talking about objective arguments, like the color of a dress). That’s what we have trouble excepting about out nature, and this attitude undermines this. Humans are in a constant state of denial, ignorance, and an inability to either accept or perceive the world accurately. This is why conflict arises, not because we both have our own truth, that is all equally valid. How we see things doesn’t change reality, this is why conspiracies are so abhorrent when they come to light. As for the dress, of course it is only one set of colors. First, the photo is completely destroyed by over exposure, and when viewed on different devices, the colors will show with variation. Beyond this, the human eye does attempt to readjust color balance to make things familiar, and in this way shifting occurs (http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1492:_Dress_Color). Again it all depends on what monitor, and what the surrounding imagery the eye sees. This is the truth. The reason for the conflict, is because we are using simple language out of ignorance to discuss visual optics. Both parties are wrong, the correct answer is that the dress is a light shade of blue RGB 135, 154, 189 (blue), with muddy grey/brown stripes RGB 113, 94, 58 (orange) , brought out by shadowing, highlights, over exposure and display environments of a blue and black dress. If we all stood in front of the dress, we’d all agree to what color it was. The picture in it’s self is a form of deception, distortion and misrepresentation, and represents how poorly our minds have been informed in this world. Some where in the world, there is a woman laughing at us, because she know the truth about her dress, the rest of us have had our perceptions manipulated and fed a fabricated representation of reality, and so instead of admitting the source of the conflict, we all agree that our distorted beliefs are all equally true.

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  2. Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree that all viewpoints are not equally valid and that the goal of considering other perspectives isn’t to just decide that everything is relative, but to come closer to an understanding of the truth, which may adhere more closely to one particular viewpoint or lie within some synthesis of multiple viewpoints. I make an effort to consider viewpoints that seem really alien to me, and sometimes I see ways that they are stronger than my own original viewpoint. But of course, in many cases I end up ultimately still disagreeing. And in an empirical field like science, it’s particularly important to bear in mind that the goal is to find the best possible knowledge, not to respect all viewpoints regardless of their validity.

    To me, the dress picture doesn’t seem like a deception so much as an opportunity to see how our perceptions of color differ, perhaps widely at times, from one another, which leads us to learn more about vision and color perception work (and within that discovery lies a truth that is more interesting than what the actual color of the dress is).

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  3. Awesome. I’m going to use the dress to talk to my class next week. well-balanced and crisply stated post. Thanks. Oh, I’ll see you at the Church and we’ll kick each other in the leg later today?

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  4. Great discussion, Karin (the dress, not the 14-second move, but now I’m curious about that too). Anyway, your take on the dress debate illustrates how you are a born teacher, finding teachable moments in the daily beat of our lives. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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    1. This is enlightening. I hadn’t made the connection between how autistic people experience the world and how the dress controversy gives us a taste of those experiences.

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