February 1, 2019

A distortion of reality

This week, I listened to an episode of Still Processing on reality, and an episode of Decoder Ring about a grifter. During each one, I kept thinking to myself: why do we feel compelled to construct our own realities? Why do we force these constructed realities on others?

They are questions that were particularly salient as I was reading John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, the story of Theranos’ rise and fall. Written like a thrilling fiction novel, Carreyrou’s account is not just compelling, but sobering: often, when we construct a reality for ourselves, we can tear down so many others in the process.

Ostensibly, Elizabeth Holmes didn’t set out to deceive people: she had set out to create a technology that could help others, that would make a huge difference. What was the first step in the path to her decline was not that she couldn’t deliver on her high expectations, but that she constructed a version of reality where she not only could deliver, but where she already had—and then, convinced others to buy into that reality, too.

As Jenna and Wesley said on Still Processing, we now live in an era where people can choose to believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of proof or evidence.” This troubling fact, coupled with the tale of how Theranos’ reality distortion ended up harming people both physically and financially, enforces a deep-seated feeling: that the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives that form our truth, are critically important to how we interact and engage with others.

How do we reconcile the fact that my reality may not match yours? What does it mean when the reality I’ve constructed ends up harming you?

Bad Blood is not really a story of hubris or fraud, but instead of a moment when a desired reality becomes a believed one, and the widespread repercussions that come from forcing a constructed reality—one that has no real grounding in truth—upon others. It’s a thrilling read, but a frightening look at the world we’ve created.

→ Marginalia