In the pantheon of scene-stealers, The Dress was hardly a shoo-in; no Kim Kardashian (barely) inside it, no swan wrapped around it, full coverage of all conventionally-accepted erogenous zones. On an Internet increasingly aware of its own viral cues (cuddly mammals, outlandish foodstuffs, passionate but illiterate sorority rush documents) every indicator would have suggested it was bound for obscurity. 

Nevertheless, The Dress is trending on Facebook, #1 on Buzzfeed, and has achieved what most Internet memes can only dream of (better luck next time, llamas on the lam!); a backlash to the backlash. 

By now, the basics are well-established: something about science, and light, and other 9th grade science concepts that remain as confounding to this writer now as they were then. Whatever the cause, the consequences are shattering: homes divided, couples torn asunder, and office-workers forming opposing packs to amass and hoard all the good office snacks, even the ones with people’s names on them in the fridge.

And, as all good memes do, The Dress has now endured the chrysalis of being something your Mom confusedly texts you about (“What is this dress picture everywhere? Did you buy this dress? Did you send it to me?? I don’t know if I like it for you.”) to come out the other side as a fully-formed Statement On Our Times.   

This isn’t quite as batso as it sounds. Actually, if you look beyond the Taylor Swift Instagram and the color-coded llamas and the colorful articulations of spousal conflict on Facebook,  a meaningful argument can be made about The Dress as an allegory for our era; an entire population, presented with the exact same image, receives it in two radically different ways.  If this were an Aaron Sorkin show the audience would all be rolling their eyes right now about amateurish symbolism and saying things like “Ugh, why not just have it be a donkey and an elephant if you’re going to be that obvious about it, Aaron?” 

But it’s true! The fact is that online America has been brought to a standstill not only by our different views, but also by a) our inability to process the idea that there’s an alternative, equally valid perspective out there, and b) our red-in-tooth-and-claw appetite for ceaseless conflict over same. Pundits of America, there’s a lesson here somewhere. 

That said, was the resonance of The Dress as a metaphor for our political era the original driver of its viral spread?? Would that we lived in that kind of world. A more likely factor was undoubtedly the primal, cold-shower shock of running into science, as it were, out there in the wild.

In the (extremely privileged) world where the Internet is a given and space tourism inevitable, science can sometimes feel primarily commercial, cordoned off by Apple’s Infinite Loop and beamed back to us in parcels, $1.99’s worth at a time.  Today’s science is managed, it’s sold, and its incremental gains are often incomprehensible to laymen not in possession of a Ph. D. As such, there’s a certain elemental thrill to seeing ‘science in action,’ especially in something as intimate and fundamental as eyesight; it’s a sharp shot across the bow that, try as we might, we’re never really the ones driving the bus.

 

Katherine Taylor is a writer in New York.