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The dress of many colours: is it blue and black or white and gold?

A recent debate on the colour of a dress has broken the internet. But is it all just a visual illusion? 

The infamous dress, in all its variety. Photo: swiked/Tumblr

The internet went Armageddon last night over the colour of an (let’s face it) ugly dress which Tumblr user swiked uploaded. The disagreement in colours divided the social media world: is it blue and black or white and gold or something in between?

Photo: swiked/Tumblr

(By the way, it’s clearly blue and black.)

When things start to question our existence we turn to science to tell us things are going to be ok. Let’s turn to how our brains translate colour through our retinas:

Visible light can be broken down into various wavelengths which correspond to different perceivable colours. This all depends on what colour(s) the object is reflecting. This reflective light enters through the eye lens and hits a light sensitive layer of tissue called retina in the back of the eye where a cascade of neural messages are sent to the visual cortex – the part of the brain that processes visual information. However, the quality of light that penetrates into our retina plays a big part.

Luminance is the intensity of light emitted from a surface per unit area of light travelling in a given direction. So the brain has to work out how much of the luminance (or lack thereof) is caused by the colour of the square and how much is caused by the shadows. “In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white and gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective),” said Cedar Riener, an associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in a BuzzFeed interview.

An example is the famous Adelson checkerboard optical illusion, in which square A and square B are same shade of grey: 

 

 

So why do different people’s brains interpret light differently? Humans have evolved to see in the daylight. Typical daylight extends from blue-white at noon to pinkish-red at dawn. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies colour at vision at Wellesley College told Wired: “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis. So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”

Conway also suggests that the white-gold or blue-black bias could be linked to whether we prefer daylight or night time. So those who perceive the dress as white-gold might be interpreting it as though it's in blue natural lighting, and those who perceive it as blue-black might be interpreting it as though it's in yellow artificial lighting. “I bet night owls are more likely to see it as blue-black,” Conway says.

Based on correct white-balancing, we can confirm that the dress is blue and black (sorry white and gold die-hards), but ultimately, visual perception is in the eye of the brain holder.

Luckily for the New Statesman, Ed Miliband established Labour's position on the blue-black and white-gold spectrum: 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.