This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, “don’t look at that; that is unimportant.” It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?
The world, to be sure, is a complicated and often tragic and often deeply unfair place. It contains famines and genocides and war, births and deaths, Katy Perry and Björk, Big Macs and kale and Bloomin’ Onions, privilege and the lack of it, llamas that are caged and llamas that are free. And we humans—animals who are striving to be so much more—have a big say in the balance between the good and the bad. We should not be glib about any of that. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that, if you find yourself with the ability to use the most transformational communications platform the world has ever known to engage in debates about the color of a dress being sold on Amazon dot com, you are, fundamentally, extremely privileged. And thus in a better position than most to make the world better. Attention is a valuable thing; we have an obligation be selective about where we direct it.
And yet. The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community. Last night, we needed each other—not just to share and joke and laugh, but also to prove to ourselves that we weren’t going completely crazy. “TELL ME WHAT COLOR THIS DRESS IS,” I texted a friend. “OKAY, PHEW,” I texted again, when he saw it as white-and-gold. I also, on the other hand, mock-disowned a significant percentage of the people I love in a haze of #whiteandgold partisanship—but even that kind of faux-fighting has its value. Theorists of play, from Huizinga to Piaget, have pointed out how powerful the infrastructures of games can be. They allow us to explore ideas and bond in a mutually-agreed-upon environment. Jane McGonigal, the game designer and theorist, suggests that the alternate universes provided by video games allow us to think in terms of collaboration and problem-solving. Games’ constraints, she argues, are actually empowering.
And what are memes if not games? They are small; they are low-stakes; they are often silly. (Sorry, #llamadrama.) But they are also communal. They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules. That is not a small thing. That is, in fact, a huge thing—particularly when it comes to the very concerns the attention police like to remind us of. If we have any hope of solving the world’s most systemic and sweeping problems, we will have to come together. Inequality, climate change, injustices both enormous and less so … these will require cooperative action. They will require us to collaborate and compromise and value diversity. The dress makes a pretty good metaphor for all that. Also, it is totally white and gold.
Dave Hickey is basically Dennis Miller – his cocksure obtuseness and endless string of obscure references juxtaposed against some pop item were once entertaining and funny. Now he is just a sad old man using what is left of his wit to ostensibly lampoon some contemporary hipster, but he is really lampooning himself and defending an outmoded, mean and rearguard world view.