Yesterday the internet collectively lost its damn mind over a picture of a dress. On the same day the FCC made a landmark decision over Net Neutrality, Russia threatened to cut gas to Europe, and an American atheist blogger was hacked to death with machetes in Bangladesh … we’re mostly talking about a dress. Also, llamas. But mostly the dress. Here’s why I love it.
Many of my own friends posted “Who freaking cares? The dress is ugly” (paraphrased). And my (awesome) nerdy science peeps pushed up their metaphorical glasses to explain exactly why some people saw white-and-gold and others saw blue-and-black. But to me the argument is far more important than the explanation.
I’ve always been fascinated by ambiguity. One of my favorite novels of all time is The Turn of the Screw, largely because it tells one story—yet if you ask people what the story is you’ll get at least two different answers. It’s subject to interpretation. You should read it yourself (for free) and tell me what you think in the comments. (Or watch Black Swan and tell me if Natalie Portman becomes a magic ballet birdwoman or is just batshit crazy.) I love stories that look completely different depending on point of view—even if mystic warriors in a galaxy far, far away use that as a bullshit excuse to lie to young farmboys.
What most of us have a hard time understanding is the difference between perception and reality. We also don’t grok that our own brains work against us having a more complete look at our world because of just how damn influenced we are. And that’s just talking about things like cultural bias and the power of narrative. None of us care to think about how unreliable our senses are, how much we don’t tend to notice, how imperfect our memory is, or how much our moral compass tends to waver.
One reason I love The Matrix is kick-ass action and Keanu Reeves dodging bullets. But the deeper reason is that it tells us not to trust the world on two different levels.
While the whole robots-using-humans-as-batteries is patently silly, it was a great excuse to remind everyone that “reality” is really “stimulus from the outside world interpreted by our brains.” We’re groping around in the dark using the tools we have to figure out reality, but we shouldn’t necessarily trust what we see. (Stuffy nose? That delicious-looking piece of fudge could be poop.) That’s why we can spend hours staring at simple optical illusions that are designed to exploit our brains’ perception shortcuts.
On a larger level, The Matrix says, “You’re part of a system that’s telling you how to live your life each and every to day to the benefit of that system and not necessarily you.” It’s why the heroes were young law-breaking hackers turned digital kung-fu-badasses, because they were already breaking out of the system. (Dear NSA: I’m not advocating law-breaking or anarchy, just making a point.) I personally believe it’s very healthy to take a step back and a hard look around and ask WHY. It’s why I think critical thinking is even more important a part of education than math and science, but it seems to be gradually shrinking because those in charge of the education (public or private) have a far more vested interest in creating more drones. However, I’m the first to admit that may be a bias on my part.
So why is #TheDress a good thing? While I don’t think it will spark a revolution or a mass realization that we’re all tribal cave-people deep down with built-in prejudices and all too ready to accept a spoon-fed version of the world that’s thrust into our eager metaphorical mouths, maybe—just maybe—it’s a chink in the armor of our collective biases. Approximately a gazillion people realized in one day that we can look at the exact same picture of a freaking dress and not agree on what we’re seeing. Maybe some minds will be expanded. Perhaps if folks can realize that if the dress can be gold and white and black and blue with everyone being right and no one being wrong, then maybe there is more than one way to look at other stuff, too.
The dress is ugly. Arguing about it is stupid. But beneath the dress is an idea that’s powerful and important.
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