Is this a dress thing? #thedress

For those who missed it, the Internet recently went crazy over llamas and a dress. (If this is the only thing that survives our civilisation, boy, is that sentence going to confuse future anthropologists.) Llamas are cool (there ain’t no karma drama with a llama) so I’m going to talk about the dress. This dress (with handy RGB codes thrown in, from a Wired article I’m about to link to):

A picture of a dress taken in a way that confounds human colour sense.

Not even going to try to describe the colour.

When I first saw it, and I saw it early on, the poster was asking what colour it was because she’d taken a picture in the store of a blue and black dress and, yet, in the picture she took, it sometimes looked white and gold and it sometimes looked blue and black. The dress itself is not what I’m discussing here today.

Let’s get something out of the way. Here’s the Wired article to explain why two different humans can see this dress as two different colours and be right. Okay? The fact is that the dress that the picture is of is a blue and black dress (which is currently selling like hot cakes, by the way) but the picture itself is, accidentally, a picture that can be interpreted in different ways because of how our visual perception system works.

This isn’t a hoax. There aren’t two images (or more). This isn’t some elaborate Alternative Reality Game prank.

But the reaction to the dress itself was staggering. In between other things, I plunged into a variety of different social fora to observe the reaction. (Other people also noticed this and have written great articles, including this one in The Atlantic. Thanks for the link, Marc!) The reactions included:

  1. Genuine bewilderment on the part of people who had already seen both on the same device at nearly adjacent times and were wondering if they were going mad.
  2. Fierce tribalism from the “white and gold” and “black and blue” camps, within families, across social groups as people were convinced that the other people were wrong.
  3. People who were sure that it was some sort of elaborate hoax with two images. (No doubt, Big Dress was trying to cover something up.)
  4. Bordering-on-smug explanations from people who believed that seeing it a certain way indicated that they had superior “something or other”, where you can put day vision/night vision/visual acuity/colour sense/dressmaking skill/pixel awareness/photoshop knowledge.
  5. People who thought it was interesting and wondered what was happening.
  6. Attention policing from people who wanted all of social media to stop talking about the dress because we should be talking about (insert one or more) llamas, Leonard Nimoy (RIP, LLAP, \\//) or the disturbingly short lifespan of Russian politicians.

The issue to take away, and the reason I’ve put this on my education blog, is that we have just had an incredibly important lesson in human behavioural patterns. The (angry) team formation. The presumption that someone is trying to make us feel stupid, playing a prank on us. The inability to recognise that the human perceptual system is, before we put any actual cognitive biases in place, incredibly and profoundly affected by the processing shortcuts our perpetual systems take to give us a view of the world.

I want to add a new question to all of our on-line discussion: is this a dress thing?

There are matters that are not the province of simple perceptual confusion. Human rights, equality, murder, are only three things that do not fall into the realm of “I don’t quite see what you see”. Some things become true if we hold the belief – if you believe that students from background X won’t do well then, weirdly enough, then they don’t do well. But there are areas in education when people can see the same things but interpret them in different ways because of contextual differences. Education researchers are well aware that a great deal of what we see and remember about school is often not how we learned but how we were taught. Someone who claims that traditional one-to-many lecturing, as the only approach, worked for them, when prodded, will often talk about the hours spent in the library or with study groups to develop their understanding.

When you work in education research, you get used to people effectively calling you a liar to your face because a great deal of our research says that what we have been doing is actually not a very good way to proceed. But when we talk about improving things, we are not saying that current practitioners suck, we are saying that we believe that we have evidence and practice to help everyone to get better in creating and being part of learning environments. However, many people feel threatened by the promise of better, because it means that they have to accept that their current practice is, therefore, capable of improvement and this is not a great climate in which to think, even to yourself, “maybe I should have been doing better”. Fear. Frustration. Concern over the future. Worry about being in a job. Constant threats to education. It’s no wonder that the two sides who could be helping each other, educational researchers and educational practitioners, can look at the same situation and take away both a promise of a better future and a threat to their livelihood. This is, most profoundly, a dress thing in the majority of cases. In this case, the perceptual system of the researchers has been influenced by research on effective practice, collaboration, cognitive biases and the operation of memory and cognitive systems. Experiment after experiment, with mountains of very cautious, patient and serious analysis to see what can and can’t be learnt from what has been done. This shows the world in a different colour palette and I will go out on a limb and say that there are additional colours in their palette, not just different shades of existing elements. The perceptual system of other people is shaped by their environment and how they have perceived their workplace, students, student behaviour and the personalisation and cognitive aspects that go with this. But the human mind takes shortcuts. Makes assumptions. Has biasses. Fills in gaps to match the existing model and ignores other data. We know about this because research has been done on all of this, too.

You look at the same thing and the way your mind works shapes how you perceive it. Someone else sees it differently, You can’t understand each other. It’s worth asking, before we deploy crushing retorts in electronic media, “is this a dress thing?”

The problem we have is exactly as we saw from the dress: how we address the situation where both sides are convinced that they are right and, from a perceptual and contextual standpoint, they are. We are now in the “post Dress” phase where people are saying things like “Oh God, that dress thing. I never got the big deal” whether they got it or not (because the fad is over and disowning an old fad is as faddish as a fad) and, more reflectively, “Why did people get so angry about this?”

At no point was arguing about the dress colour going to change what people saw until a certain element in their perceptual system changed what it was doing and then, often to their surprise and horror, they saw the other dress! (It’s a bit H.P. Lovecraft, really.) So we then had to work out how we could see the same thing and both be right, then talk about what the colour of the dress that was represented by that image was. I guarantee that there are people out in the world still who are convinced that there is a secret white and gold dress out there and that they were shown a picture of that. Once you accept the existence of these people, you start to realise why so many Internet arguments end up descending into the ALL CAPS EXCHANGE OF BALLISTIC SENTENCES as not accepting that what we personally perceive as being the truth could not be universally perceived is one of the biggest causes of argument. And we’ve all done it. Me, included. But I try to stop myself before I do it too often, or at all.

We have just had a small and bloodless war across the Internet. Two teams have seized the same flag and had a fierce conflict based on the fact that the other team just doesn’t get how wrong they are. We don’t want people to be bewildered about which way to go. We don’t want to stay at loggerheads and avoid discussion. We don’t want to baffle people into thinking that they’re being fooled or be condescending.

What we want is for people to recognise when they might be looking at what is, mostly, a perceptual problem and then go “Oh” and see if they can reestablish context. It won’t always work. Some people choose to argue in bad faith. Some people just have a bee in their bonnet about some things.

“Is this a dress thing?”

In amongst the llamas and the Vulcans and the assassination of Russian politicians, something that was probably almost as important happened. We all learned that we can be both wrong and right in our perception but it is the way that we handle the situation that truly determines whether we’re handling the situation in the wrong or right way. I’ve decided to take a two week break from Facebook to let all of the latent anger that this stirred up die down, because I think we’re going to see this venting for some time.

Maybe you disagree with what I’ve written. That’s fine but, first, ask yourself “Is this a dress thing?”

Live long and prosper.


Your Mission, Should You…

The ALTA meeting of the last two days has been really interesting. My role as an ALTA Fellow has been much better defined after a lot of discussions between the Fellows, the executive and the membership of ALTA. Effectively, if you’re at a University in Australia and reading this, and you’re interested in finding out about what’s going on in our planning for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Learning and Teaching, contact me and I’ll come out to talk to your school, faculty or University. I’m concentrating on engagement and dissemination – trying to bring the diverse groups in ICT education in Australia (38 organisations, 686 separate ICT-related programs) into a more cohesive group so that we can achieve great things.

To say that this is going to be exciting is an understatement. To omit the words ‘challenging’ and ‘slightly frightening’ would also be an understatement. But I always love a slightly frightening and exciting challenge – that’s why I eat durian.

ICT education in Australia does not have the best image at the moment. That information is already out there. A lot of people have no idea what we even mean by ICT. But let’s be inclusive. It’s Computer Science, Computing, Information Systems, Information Science, Communications Science, Information Technology… everything else where we would be stronger standing together than apart.

There are important questions to be answered. Are we a profession or professions? Are we like engineering (core competencies with school-based variation) or more like science (core concepts and very different disciplines)? How do we improve the way that people see us? How do we make 13 year olds realise that they are suited for our profession – and that our profession is more than typing on a keyboard?

How do we change the world’s perception so that the first picture that people put on an article about computing does not feature someone who is supposed to be perceived as unattractive, socially inept, badly dressed and generally socially unacceptable?

If you are at an Australian University and want to talk about this, get in touch with me. My e-mail address is available by looking for my name at The University of Adelaide – sorry, spambots. If you’re from overseas and would like to offer suggestions or ask questions, our community can be global and, in many respects, it should be global. I learn so much from my brief meetings with overseas experts. As an example, I’ll link you off to Mark Guzdial’s blog here because he’s a good writer, an inspiring academic and educator, and he links to lots of other interesting stuff. I welcome the chance to work with other people whenever I can because, yes, my focus is Australia but my primary focus is “Excellence in ICT education”. That’s a global concern. My dream is that we get so many students interested in this that we look at ways to link up and get synergies for dealing with the vast numbers that we have.

The world is running on computers, generates vast quantities of data, and needs our profession more than ever. Its time to accept the mission and try to raise educational standards, perceptions and expectations across the bar so that ICT Education (or whatever we end up calling it) becomes associated with the terms ‘world-leading’, ‘innovative’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘successful’. And our students don’t have to hide between their brave adoption of semi-pejorative isolating terms or put up with people being proud that they don’t know anything about computers, as if that knowledge is something to be ashamed of.

We need change. Helping to make that happen is now part of my mission. I’m looking for people to help me.