#TheDress and the Rise of Attention-Policing

An optical illusion may lead us to question the nature of reality, but it shouldn't make us question each other.

It caused Taylor Swift to feel “confused and scared.” It caused a rupture in the Kardashian-West household that might never be repaired. It caused Chris Murphy, a Democratic representative from Connecticut, to come out and say, “I know three things: 1) the ACA works; 2) climate change is real; 2) [sic] that dress is gold and white.” It caused the rest of us to question our sanity and our friends and the nature of reality.

The basic problem with The Dress—having gone viral on BuzzFeed last night, it has already come to stand in for all dresses, Platonically—is this: Some people see it as blue and black. Others see it as white and gold. And each side is, like, 1,000 percent sure that they see the dress as it is, in reality—so sure that the conversations about the dress have tended to play out as ALL-CAPS ASSERTIONS OF OBJECTIVE TRUTH because OMG YOU GUYS IT’S WHITE AND GOLD AND IF YOU CAN’T SEE THAT THEN I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOU. (And also as ALL-CAPS DECLARATIONS of a slightly more modest variety: "I swear to you its no hoax," Swiked, who wrote the Tumblr post that launched a thousand existential doubts, promised. "I saw the dress in real life, it’s blue and black. Some people just see this pic as white and gold. I DONT HAVE ANY ANSWERS BUT I NEED THEM.")

Here is what The Dress, as depicted across the Internet, looks like:

The original dress, from the original Tumblr post (swiked/Tumblr)

The visual/moral/existential discrepancies—ceci n’est pas une robe—are most likely traceable to the play of light on the pigment rhodopsin, found in the rods of the human eye, and also to the glorious dynamism of the human sensory experience, though maybe also to a hoax of Santa and/or Söze proportions, and possibly also to a rupture in the space-time continuum that can be mended only by Matthew McConaughey's dimples. Regardless. The Rorschach dress—the dress that, as so many news outlets have reminded us, has "broken the Internet"—has brought us together; it has divided us; it has caused us to question the physical world and our place within it and hinted that perception is relative and also that while facts may be sacred they are also uncomfortably unsteady. Maybe the left shark was actually yellow, and what is yellow anyway, I mean like how would you describe yellow to a blind person, and have you ever really looked at your hand, like really looked, and HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE WHAT I SEE and maybe The Matrix was onto something and I AM SORRY BUT IT IS SO OBVIOUSLY WHITE AND GOLD and either way we will all die alone.

So, yeah. You can read the dress—sorry, #thedress—as a metaphor: for our knee-jerk impulse toward partisanship (#TEAMBLUEANDBLACK), for the dynamic nature of observable reality (#TEAMWHITEANDGOLD), for the Internet’s ability to prove Walt Whitman right yet again, for its ability to prove Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrong yet again, for the fundamental challenge of consensus-building in American democracy, for Plato’s caves and Russell’s turtles and Bill Murray’s groundhog. What I want to focus on, though, is a little sliver of all that: a particular strain of commentary that arose during the explosion of conversation about #thedress. Here is a representative tweet, from God (well, @TheTweetofGod) himself:

This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, "don’t look at that; that is unimportant." It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?

The world, to be sure, is a complicated and often tragic and often deeply unfair place. It contains famines and genocides and war, births and deaths, Katy Perry and Björk, Big Macs and kale and Bloomin' Onions, privilege and the lack of it, llamas that are caged and llamas that are free. And we humans—animals who are striving to be so much more—have a big say in the balance between the good and the bad. We should not be glib about any of that. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that, if you find yourself with the ability to use the most transformational communications platform the world has ever known to engage in debates about the color of a dress being sold on Amazon dot com, you are, fundamentally, extremely privileged. And thus in a better position than most to make the world better. Attention is a valuable thing; we have an obligation to be selective about where we direct it.

And yet. The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community. Last night, we needed each other—not just to share and joke and laugh, but also to prove to ourselves that we weren’t going completely crazy. “TELL ME WHAT COLOR THIS DRESS IS,” I texted a friend. “OKAY, PHEW,” I texted again, when he saw it as white-and-gold. I also, on the other hand, mock-disowned a significant percentage of the people I love in a haze of #whiteandgold partisanship—but even that kind of faux-fighting has its value. Theorists of play, from Huizinga to Piaget, have pointed out how powerful the infrastructures of games can be. They allow us to explore ideas and bond in a mutually-agreed-upon environment. Jane McGonigal, the game designer and theorist, suggests that the alternate universes provided by video games allow us to think in terms of collaboration and problem-solving. Games’ constraints, she argues, are actually empowering.

And what are memes if not games? They are small; they are low-stakes; they are often silly. (Sorry, #llamadrama.) But they are also communal. They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules. That is not a small thing. That is, in fact, a huge thing—particularly when it comes to the very concerns the attention police like to remind us of. If we have any hope of solving the world’s most systemic and sweeping problems, we will have to come together. Inequality, climate change, injustices both enormous and less so … these will require cooperative action. They will require us to collaborate and compromise and value diversity. The dress makes a pretty good metaphor for all that. Also, it is totally white and gold.