The Dress, or You're Probably Missing The Point of Yesterday

I’m disappointed in a lot of you.

No, not the ones of you who spent yesterday chasing llamas and arguing about whether the dress was white and gold or blue and black.

I’m disappointed in those of you—especially the storytellers and designers amongst you—who declared that they thought the dress thing was stupid.

The dress debate was amazing. It was—and is, for those parts of Facebook that are just discovering it now—an incredible illustration of the limits of human perception. Who would have thought that a badly white-balanced photo could cause such consternation?

The science behind why some of us saw white/gold and some saw blue/black is fascinating. The reason why some of us—like myself—started off white/gold and changed is maybe even moreso.

Because what we saw with debates around The Dress was a microcosm of how our society works. This perceptual problem is reflected in every political debate we have: from Patricia Arquette’s Oscar comments to the climate change debate on the floor of the Senate.

Our brains are always working overtime trying to make sense of the information out there in the world. When ambiguous information comes in our dutiful guardian takes its best shot at assessing the true state of the facts based on context and past experience.

What was really amazing to see was how worked up everyone got when someone corrected their perception. I know I felt that tug too. For a while I thought all Blue/Black people were crazy, and that we should round them up. Luckily I fought that impulse and pushed through. Not so that I could see Blue/Black, but because I wanted to know what was really going on.

Seeing the other photo of the dress certainly helped clear up what was going on.

That other photo is a perfect metaphor: I had to seek another perspective—literally—in order to make sense of what was happening.

If it can take that much effort to perceive the fundamental reality underneath a simple (accidental) optical illusion why does anyone think that something as complex as racism, gender equality, or climate change can be easily understood?

There were so many of people shouting online yesterday—and admittedly a lot of that could have been joking, I hope it was—at the people who saw things the other way. As if shouting one’s position was enough to get people to see the world differently.

That’s the real joke that’s on us.

And it’s why I’m disappointed in my storyteller’s and designers who are dismissing this or just seeing it from a technical standpoint. The lesson of The Dress isn’t just about how we see things, or fail to see things, it’s about how perceptions shape our actions which then spill out and create the world we live in.

We have a tool to illustrate that now, and that gives me a kind of hope for the world I haven’t felt in a long, long time.