Brett Robinson

It is ancient in internet terms, but do you remember the debate over “the dress”? An image of a dress went viral on Facebook back in 2015 and sparked an online debate about whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold.

The Washington Post called it the “drama that divided the planet” (2015 was a much simpler time than 2020). It turns out the competing views over the color of the dress came down to poor lighting and the tricks our eyes can play on us, but the story belies a deeper point. If the internet can play tricks on our senses, what is it doing to the interior senses like judgment?

Before the blue dress, there was “The Green Book,” a grammar textbook that C.S. Lewis describes in his famous philosophical book, “The Abolition of Man.” “The Green Book” relates the story of two tourists looking at a waterfall. One calls it “sublime” and the other calls it “pretty.”

The authors of the textbook explain this difference away by suggesting that the words are just expressions of the tourists’ feelings. That is to say, neither of the tourists is saying anything important about the waterfall, they are just conveying their feelings. One person’s pretty is another person’s sublime.

Lewis wonders if a person can really have sublime feelings. He explains that being in the presence of the sublime should actually lead to humble feelings. According to “The Green Book,” language does not give us access to reality, it only captures our feelings. Lewis disagrees.

A proper grammar is one that links language to creation, even when our experience of creation reaches beyond the material world and touches something sublime and even transcendent.

We are experiencing a new grammar in the digital age. The problem is no longer just poorly written textbooks but the daily experience of filtering much of our reality through the giant textbook of the internet. Our ability to make judgments is hindered by the fact that we are looking at shadows of reality online and not having a direct experience of it.

When one person online says a dress is blue and another says it’s white, we have to allow for the fact that both of them may be right. In the end, they are arguing over a digital projection of the dress and projecting their own biases onto it.

As a result, communication breaks down. Our ability to have a collective experience of anything, a sublime waterfall or a beautiful dress, is diminished when viewed through our digital window to the world.

The problem with this type of education is not that it actively promotes relativism — that there is no objective truth and that everyone is entitled to their own truth — but that it does so in the mode of a silly meme about a dress.

While millions of internet users have a frivolous argument about the “real” color of the dress, the lingering effect of the whole affair is to plant the assumption that the world is illusory and that seeing is no longer believing. The dress was a relatively innocent precursor to our current state of affairs where deep fakes, fake news and all manner of misinformation has become the norm.

The media we consume online are illusory, a stream of dreamlike images that amuse and bewitch us. Without leaving one’s desk or armchair, the fever dream of catastrophic news, hilarious memes and disembodied podcast voices leaves the viewer both stimulated and exhausted.

It’s easy to compare to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in which chained prisoners believe that the dancing shadows on the wall in front of them are the fullness of reality because they are unable to see the real people and objects behind them who are casting the shadows.

As we move deeper into Advent toward Christmas, it is worth remembering the shepherds’ expressions of awe and joy at Christ’s birth. Were they just expressing subjective feelings or were they having a collective experience of humility and gratitude in the presence of the Word made flesh?

That debate, like the one over the dress, is a matter of perception. Those who have faith have eyes to see the truth.

***

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.