In places like Fiji, the rate of colorblindness is close to zero because seeing color has been so important that those who didn’t have it died off. African black men have only developed half the frequency of colorblindness as Caucasian men.
Seeing colors doesn’t matter as much in the grayer climes of agriculture, much less the industrialized world. Men can now buy ripe bananas in a supermarket. Because the mutation for colorblindness is so frequent—it’s the most common congenital disorder in humans, even among females—the number of colorblind people in the world keeps rising. In other words, colorblindness could become the new normal in the distant future.
I met Tony Dykes, the CEO of EnChroma, in Times Square on a gray, rainy day, our eyes hidden behind his glasses’ 100 reflective coatings.
I wondered whether Dykes’ vision of the future was any less radical than Neitz’s. Both wanted colors to explode through our consciousness, grabbing our attention in ways never experienced before. Both of them wanted the pulsating techno-color of Times Square to follow us everywhere. I described to Dykes what I saw through the glasses: deeper oranges, crisper brake lights on cars, and fluorescent yellows that popped. I asked him if that is what a normal person sees.
Dykes, a former lawyer and an able salesman, answered quickly. “It’s not something where it’s immediate,” he said. “You’re just getting the information for the first time.”
Was there any objective way, then, to judge whether the glasses were really working? “We also do a lot of qualitative testing with people, at this point thousands of people, so we are quite confident that they work,” Dykes said.
Maybe the glasses were working. Maybe exchanging the colors I was accustomed to for real colors just wasn’t as great an experience as I’d been expecting. Dykes asked if I could tell the difference between the gray shoelaces and the pink “N” on the side of my sneakers. “The ‘N’ is shiny,” I said. “So I don’t know if I can tell they’re different by the colors or because of the iridescence.”
Although I’d never confused my shoelace with my shoe before, I realized then that, until he had told me, I didn’t know the “N” was pink.
Over the following weeks I wore my glasses every chance I got. I stopped at street vendors to gaze at satin-red tulips on olive-green stems. During smoke breaks my friends asked me whether the car that passed by looked persimmon or plum.
As I ran through the park one afternoon, it started to rain. The drops smeared the lenses so I couldn’t see the ashen clouds in the sky. It was a day indistinguishable from most of the colorless days of my childhood in Seattle, a city which now seemed terribly apt to have grown up in.
I got an email that day from Professor Neitz. The DNA results of the saliva sample I sent him had been confirmed: I am totally lacking red pigments. This is considered to be the worst of the 13 types of colorblindness. I see 990,000 fewer colors than normal people. This could explain why the glasses didn’t work: I didn’t see enough colors for the glasses to effectively enhance them.
“Ten thousand is still a lot of colors,” he consoled me. “However, you would be an excellent candidate for gene therapy if it was ever cleared for humans. Then you could really find out what you are missing.”
This piece first appeared in 219 Magazine.