It went viral in a matter of hours. “White and gold or blue and black? What do you see? What color is the dress? OMG! I don’t understand! This is too much! I can’t believe. Are we still talking about this? Why? Who cares?” That’s where we are now and what we’re seeing on social media. Who cares. Disdainful nonchalance is today’s cool, replacing yesterday’s frenzied, childlike surprise. In an age in which our attention spans rival a gnat’s, moving on is the thing to do, inevitable, de rigueur. It was great fun on the 11 o’clock news last night, and a source of embarrassed impatience for this morning’s news sophisticates. “Get over it people. It’s just not important. It doesn’t matter.” Actually, it does.
For a few incredible hours we were all confronted with what felt like a brilliantly executed parlor trick, delivered via the internet. How could so many of us see something so different from what others around us saw? We knew there had to be a reasonable explanation that would give us understanding and peace so that we could all finally turn out the light, shut off the damn phone and go to sleep. We waited for our scientific parental figures to weigh in. Surely Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Michio Kaku could explain it so we could collectively say aha, I get it now, it’s so simple! And the analyses did come flooding in. We have tweets, posts, links, and articles quoting digital media designers, historians of color perception, towering figures in the fields of color physics and color theory, and neuroscientists who study how the human brain has evolved to process color so that we can make better sense of our surroundings. As we have been informed, the way in which we see the dress results from a complex phenomenon involving light and color perception. Most of us were unaware of this occurrence because we move through our lives largely oblivious to the forces that operate in and around us. There’s too much going on- bills to pay, jobs, school, mortgages, ISIS, ice dams, drought, lost dogs, runaway llamas (well, we did stop for that one, didn’t we)- to slow down and take notice of the remarkable world around us and how we have evolved to survive in it. We are so jaded, and so blasé about our technology-driven cocoons, that we often forget or fail to recognize the spectacular capabilities of our own brains. But a photograph stopped us in our tracks. We are amazed to find that there are stunning variations in the ways in which we perceive color. We didn’t need a PhD after our names to be caught up in the fun and excitement of scientific investigation.
So, why does it matter? New to this party, we were dazzled, confused, intrigued and delighted. But the artists, psychologists, physicists and neuroscientists know the phenomenon for what it is, and their observations and research have already led to breakthroughs we take for granted, and will bring about advancements that will enhance our existence in ways we cannot imagine and don’t take the time to contemplate. The history of scientific advancement, of all human progress, is rife with happenstance and serendipity. But good luck and unexpected solutions require patience, and we live in an age of instant gratification. Every pursuit and field of study must have a readily practical, quantifiable, verifiable benefit. At a time when the drumbeat to starve the humanities to extinction and fund only research that appears lucrative in the short term has grown to deafening, soul-destroying levels, and education and knowledge for their own sakes are held in open contempt by many, what looks like nothing more than a social media-driven entertainment, a mere trifle, is actually a stark and powerful reminder of the joys, possibilities, and necessity of mystery and revelation.
It was never about the dress itself. The single-minded mania that overtook our fractured humanity for a few hours tapped into our most insatiable, primal compulsions as a species: to question, to discover, to understand, to know. That relentless curiosity is why we have come as far as we have (for better and for worse), and it is the only thing that will keep us alive going forward.