The point of that Dress

Colin Horgan on dress and destruction on the Internet
Debbie Armstrong adjusts a two-tone dress in a window display of a shop in Lichfield, England. It's the dress that's beating the Internet black and blue. Or should that be gold and white? Friends and co-workers worldwide are debating the true hues of a royal blue dress with black lace that, to many an eye, transforms in one photograph into gold and white.  (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
#TheDress — as seen in real life in  a shop in Lichfield, England. (Rui Vieira, AP)

What a week.

One could be pardoned forgetting, or missing entirely, the big decision that landed sometime around the middle of it. That is, the FCC ruling on net neutrality that will for the time being allow the internet in the U.S. – and likely, by extension, many other places – to carry on much in the same way it exists currently, as a mostly egalitarian information-delivery system. A decision, in other words, that changed everything by changing nothing at all; that put the internet one step closer to being the same as it always was.

And by the time the week was through, we’d been given some reminder of what that has been. What that is.

There is little left to say about The Dress that hasn’t been said, or that didn’t need to be said in the first place. An online conflagration of the kind sparked by whether it was white and gold, or blue and black, has rarely ignited the internet in the same way. No wonder it spawned so many to explore the whole thing a bit more. What was the point? To prompt a metaphysical discussion? As a strictly binary reminder of our own consciousness? As a ploy to sell dresses?

It was not without its haters. With all that is going on around the world, they asked, how could this simplistic issue of a dress colour captivate so much attention? Had we lost all perspective?

Consider, by comparison, a story earlier in the day of Islamic State militants destroying countless priceless historical statues and works of art in Mosul.

In this still from a video posted by Islamic State, militants destroy artifacts in the Ninevah Museum.
Militants destroy artifacts in the Ninevah Museum in this still from a video posted by Islamic State.


The video had been duly released online for the world to see. The images, while less graphic than others the group produces, were depressing nonetheless. And it was indeed a stark juxtaposition: While we amused ourselves in the irrelevant, intangible and fleeting, arguing the unchangeable (the construction of our individual eyeballs), artifacts pertinent to the unfolding story of our collective civilization were smashed to pieces.

In the fresh light of a new day, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith weighed in on the phenomenon. The post Buzzfeed published on The Dress had by then been visited more than 28 million times. “We’ve never moved away from our roots,” Smith wrote to his staff (and, subsequently, the world). “What has happened instead is that the world has moved toward us.”

Yes, that much at least is true, and perhaps in more ways than he meant.

It has been noted, accurately, that one of the truths of our age is that we strive not for longevity, but rather for maximum influence in the present. Our outlook is not long, but high. We pursue the data spike, and we live within it. It doesn’t matter if anything lasts; the point is only that it is grabs attention. What’s important is this instant. Facebook posts. Twitter blurbs. Words. Images. Each reaffirming that there is no other time but now, forever. Buzzfeed knows this. News networks know this. So, too, does Islamic State.

Which doesn’t mean that the two images — The Dress, and that of the destruction in Mosul — are equally important. In the aftermath of both, we can discuss each one, determine the Why and the How, and we can easily assess that destroying timeless art is unquestionably of greater overall relevance to the world. But the design of both, strictly as images of the internet, is not to prompt questions of the Why and How. They are focused entirely on existing only within the What – that immediate question, What is this? That’s where the maximum impact lies.

And this is the source of the frustration that bubbled up Thursday night, in the midst of The Dress debate. It arises from not recognizing that both images – the meaningful and the ridiculous – operate along the exact same lines of logic: to create a happening. It’s not that we lack all perspective; it’s just that perspective is exactly not the point.

This is the internet we have worked hard to save, the one anyone can use, and the message it carries. It can be neutral in more ways than one.