The Explosion of BeSpoke Realities: Making Sense of Our Reality Distortions
"I hallucinate when you call my name..." - Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia, Hallucinate
As a large group, we've fractured into an array of what DiResta calls bespoke realities; imaginative worlds disconnected from reality. They let us escape from reality while staying in it.
Politics is the most obvious way to convey this idea, as most of us can agree that the Democrats and Republicans, particularly the more extreme sides of them, live in completely different worlds, explaining reality through the stories they tell themselves.
"In today's era of hyperpartisan politics, fragmented media, and low trust institutions - in which social network groups have become a primary social structure - we've entered the realm of bespoke realities. People have become enmeshed in cult-like online communities that operate with their own media, facts, authority figures, and norms." - Which side of history? by James P. Steyer
Stories are like a spell. They are so powerful and influential that we don't often know how they're shaping and guiding us. Living in a fantasy world, when we play, is rather harmless. But when we choose to live in a fantasy and it affects us and the people around us, it becomes a dangerous game.
Even if our intentions are not to harm people, or they're to help others, living in the dream world has real-life negative consequences, even if it's simply out of neglect. Often, this can be a way for us to protect ourselves from the tragedy of our own life.
So we can improve reality and minimize manmade tragedy, we need true stories that align with reality, not deny it. We need stories that empower us to face the tragic and complex nature of our lives. But we often want to hold on to our fantasy, instead.
"Many of the things in life that inflict the greatest injury, grief, or pain, stem from the fact that we suffer from illusions. We are not true to one another as facts, seeing each other as we really are; we are only true to our misconceived ideas of one another. According to our thinking, everything is either delightful and good, or it is evil, malicious, and cowardly." - Oswald Chambers, The Teaching of Disillusionment
Embracing our disillusionment is the key to mitigating the risks of these illusions, but that's no easy task when the reality we inhabit is inherently tragic.
Before we explore the risks of our bespoke realities, let's dive deeper into this post-truth era idea coined, in this context, by Renee DiResta.
What Are Bespoke Realities?
“As DiResta writes in her upcoming book, “Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies Into Reality,” “Bespoke realities are made for — and by — the individual.” Americans experience a “choose-your-own-adventure epistemology: some news outlet somewhere has written the story you want to believe, some influencer is touting the diet you want to live by or demonizing the group you also hate.”... and it refers to the effects of what DiResta calls a “Cambrian explosion of bubble realities,” communities “that operate with their own norms, media, trusted authorities and frameworks of facts.”’ - David French, Welcome to our New "Bespoke Realities'
"Luther and the Vatican also clashed over the Truth, but today’s information ecosystem dynamics differ in scale, scope, and speed. Unlike the residents of Luther’s Wittenberg, readers today aren’t just contending with divergent pamphlets. They’re contending with a deluge of hyperpartisan content, tailored precisely to preexisting beliefs, compounded by nearly-instantaneous viral social media transmission and a news cycle that lasts less than a day. This portends a societal transformation: our information ecosystem no longer assists us in reaching consensus. In fact, it structurally discourages it, and instead facilitates a dissensus of bespoke pseudo-realities." - Renee DiResta, Mediating Consent
Bespoke realities are a way for us to conform reality to ourselves, versus ourselves to reality. According to Chat GPT, Bespoke refers to something custom-made or tailored to a specific individual's needs or specifications.
To make sense of reality, we need a perspective, and with perspective comes filters. Which facts we seek out or ignore in tandem with how we process those facts that we let in. Our narratives bridge us and reality as we navigate it; not always in helpful ways. And, these stories transmit the values that matter most.
The word Bespoke means tailor-made, so Bespoke realities are overlays of reality that are tailor-made based on what people want. This idea has been further opened up by technology, the internet, social media, and now augmented and virtual reality.
Augmented reality is going to mean bespoke realities.— Balaji (@balajis) October 21, 2022
See whoever you want on the face of a dollar bill. Play games with people that no one else can see. Learn from static objects, and see hidden signs.
All possible for some time, but will accelerate when glasses arrive. pic.twitter.com/AkYtWtQ3MD
Staying in our illusions is now further enabled by groups that worship these various illusions. Bespoke narratives are not entirely foreign to humanity, but as Diresta mentions, technology has amplified how they've metastasized in scale, speed, and scope. Community is a key component of these, often superstitious, illusions. We share our illusions with others. The more the merrier, in some cases. Thus, Bespoke realities that once existed before, have been democratized. Through technology, everyone gets to participate in ways that were not accessible before.
Peter Thiel shares some historical insight, that I think applies to this idea too.
"Questions of virtue and the true religion henceforth would be decided by each sovereign. The sovereigns would agree to disagree. Inexorably, questions of virtue and religion became private questions; polite and respectable individuals learned not to talk about them too much, because they could lead to nothing but unproductive conflicts. " - Peter Thiel, The Straussian Moment
The explosion of bespoke realities seems to be grounded in the autonomous self idea, where we've all made ourselves the ultimate authority; the ultimate storyteller. Reality is what we make it, so they say. Now, we have a pantheon of gods, and we are those gods; the sovereigns determining the way of our virtual stories. Reality is distinctly different than an illusion, but because they're enabled, a Bespoke reality is one that we embrace as reality itself.
A Bespoke Suit Is Like A Second Skin: Insights From A Tailor
"I’ve actually done a decent amount of research into the history of the word as it relates to tailoring. The term bespoke comes from the word “bespeak” which means to “speak for something”.
In the tailoring industry, that referred to the cloth or fabric in a tailoring shop. If the tailor said something was “bespoke” it meant that the cloth was “spoken for”, meaning it had already been claimed or purchased by a customer.
Now, bespoke tailoring is considered the highest end of the tailoring spectrum. It means someone crafted a suit, specifically made for you, mostly by hand. Starting with your measurements, the pattern drawn for your body, cloth selection, multiple fittings, hand sewing, etc. It is considered the Rolls Royce of tailoring.
The term has become widely overused in the menswear industry because of one current dictionary definition of the word. “Dealing in or producing custom-made articles.” By that definition, it doesn’t have to be any of the things I stated before. The term “custom-made” leaves it open to interpretation. It could be made in a factory by machines, but because some level of customization was provided it can be considered “custom”…which then leads people to the “bespoke” definition."- Rod Boldt
"From a tailoring perspective, think of it like the saying “all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.”'All bespoke suits are custom, but not all custom suits are bespoke.'"
"Three very different experiences. Generic or “off the rack” is a standard fit that doesn’t really fit anyone correctly. It can be uncomfortable and require a lot of tailoring to fit you. A step up from that at “made-to-measure”, you get 80% of the fit you’re looking for, but at 20% of the cost of bespoke. It’s the Mercedes-Benz of clothing. Bespoke is like wearing a second skin. It’s made to precisely fit you and only you, but comes at a hefty investment."
That’s an interesting dynamic as it relates to bespoke realities. If a bespoke reality is a “second skin”, it could be hard to distinguish it from our actual skin. Perhaps this is a way to distinguish how deeply we've embraced the illusion (and also why some can easily wear a bespoke reality while others chafe at it). On one end is someone who knows it's an illusion and on the other side is someone who knows no difference between their illusion and reality.
Cypher: I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."
Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich, you know someone important, like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want Mr. Reagan.
There is also an interesting dynamic with bespoke as it relates to power and money. To have a bespoke reality crafted requires power and money to make that illusion seem like my reality. With enough power and money, my empire can grow rather large and include a large number of people. This allows me to escape any number of facts and truth; or to shortcut my pathway to what I desire.
It's these Bespoke realities that take on a much bigger shape now, because of technology than they did in the past. It stems from the Genesis account of creation with Adam and Eve. In light of their moral failure, they run away, cover themselves, and hide in the trees. They're creating the first bespoke reality to protect themselves from the actual, and tragic, reality before them. With BeSpoke realities, we now have control, easing our anxiety that we lack control. These bespoke realities could be fractures inside of us, distorting how we see reality; like those beer goggles we wore in high school.
I'm working my way through the TV show, The Wire. I captured this quote from an episode in season 2, spoken by D'Angelo Barksdale, in regards to the Great Gatsby, moments before he is murdered. He's exploring the idea of coming to terms with reality.
"He's saying that the past is always with us, and where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it, all this sh*t matters. I mean, that's what I thought he meant.Like at the end of the book, you know, boats and tides and all. It's like you can change up, right, you can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story. But, what came first is who you really are and what happened before is what really happened. And it don't matter that some fool say he different cuz the only thing that make you different is what you really do, what you really go through. Like, ya know, like all them books in his library. He frontin with all them books, but if you pull one down off the shelf, ain't none of the pages ever been opened. He got all them books, and he ain't read near one of 'em. Gatsby, he was who he was, and he did what he did. And cuz he wasn't ready to get real with the story, that sh*t caught up to him. I think, anyway."
The Island Story: Visualizing Bespoke Realities & The Traps We Inhabit
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." - Philip K. Dick
Years ago, I wrote a parable called the Island Story about my journey into the abyss and back after the challenge of moving across the country from Arizona to Atlanta, and launching a new life outside my prior community and support system. I did not use the word bespoke in the story or know the idea when creating it, but the Island Story perfectly captures the dynamic.
You can read the entire written version of the story here, but the gist of the story is that a survivor on an island leaves the island to find the mainland. He goes through four stages, first as the survivor, then the dreamer, the visionary, and finally the achiever.
At each stage, he's distracted by four characters that come along; the shark, the clownfish, the turtle, and the swordfish falling into a different trap for each stage. The first trap is the riptide of confusion, then the reef of avoidance, the caves of abandonment, and finally the abyss of destruction. In each of these places, the character lives in and creates an alternative reality to live inside, as a way to escape the harsh trap's reality the character now finds themself inside.
What the survivor fails to realize is that there is no mainland and it was all a mirage he was chasing from the beginning. The end of the journey is a rapid descent into the bottom of the abyss. I won't spoil the ending of this short story. You can read it here.
In reflecting on the story and the idea of Bespoke realities, I took the graphic of the layers in the story and overlayed the bespoke idea on top of it to create the following graphic, visualizing the bespoke realities, all of which are connected to reality (the island) in some [delicate] way.
The island story is a progression of going out into the abyss. We are fleeing truth, and attempting to shape the elements around us to become our reality. We attempt to form reality around what we want, instead of the other way around.
Bespoke realities give us places to go so that we can NOT go back to reality (life is a tragedy) or so we can slow down our move to the abyss (ultimate tragedy). In our journey, we perpetuate the tragedy.
But like drinking salt water, the process leads us to become more and more detached and delusional the further from reality we get. And if we refuse to be disillusioned, we risk harming ourselves and so many others.
"The easiest way to radicalize someone is to permanently warp their view of reality." - Mike Caulfield, Head of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Digital Polarization Initiative
The Risk & Consequences of Our Bespoke Realities
We love stories, heroes, and villains. They inspire us. They also ensnare us.
"This sense of [existential worldview] siege demands a bespoke reality. Every victim needs an aggressor; every aggressor has a tool of oppression. And in the event that these do not exist they must be invented." - Museums, Equality and Social Justice, Edited by Richard Sandell and Eithne Nightingale
When these Bespoke realities clash with reality, these narratives actually make life more problematic for people. Sometimes the consequences fall on others, and this is the worst scenario; we get the benefits of our narrative while the others pay the consequences. Who wants to let go of that narrative; that model of reality with those benefits (think slavery in American history for example)?
Reality hinges on, what is true. But understanding what is true is based on the worldview of which we see people, groups, and facts. All truth requires the perspective of an agent. What we need is a true narrative, that overlays the reality we inhabit — instead of distorting it.
And, this deception starts small and grows outwardly.
"And sin is more than doing bad things, it describes how we easily deceive ourselves and spin illusions to redefine our bad decisions as good ones.” -Tim Mackie, Sin Involves More Than You Might Think (We'll Explain)
In the show, The Last of Us, there is a small fungus that takes over and controls people eventually consuming most of the human population. It's inspired by this horrific real-life fungus that does the same to unsuspecting ants.
This delusion manifests in religion, as well as outside of it.
“Many a gross Pharisee is a mighty moralist and he believes himself sincere with it. The deadliest Pharisaism is not hypocrisy, it is the unconscious Pharisaism of unreality.” - Dr. ForSyth
It plays out on social media, exasperating the worst parts of us.
"I'm afraid we're setting up virtual perceptual environments and communication environments that aren't well matched to the underlying reality, which means they are delusional. And the delusional direction of Twitter is in the direction of enabling psychopathic behavior." - Jordan Peterson, 408. Jordan Peterson & Sam Harris Try to Find Something They Agree On
And if that's not enough, the biggest risk we face is that we open ourselves up to the exploitation of institutionalized evil; totalitarianism. This is the abyss.
"Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for to- together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist." - Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Facts are sought, discovered, tested, and sustained based on a meta-story. When that story collapses, all the facts scatter across the floor. Totalitarianism is a unique form of evil that manifests because of the global scale and progression of society. It’s the hijacking of the societal host towards evil ends, like the fungus from Last of Us. And the draw of Totalitarianism's story is powerful.
We're Gonna Need a Bigger Story
“We cannot live without meaning, an ultimate meaning. We can’t live without seeing ourselves as part of a larger narrative in which we are somehow indispensable players.” - Rebekah Valerius, Postmodern Realities Episode 210 Bespoke Religiosity and the Rise of the Nones: a review of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World
Stories are powerful mechanisms and we get easily pulled into them. We're currently fleeing into a confluence of BeSpoke Realities as we face the larger complex reality of our country and the globally interconnected world. Bespoke realities, tempt us with escape, but leave us with consequences. One key question of our time is not what beliefs we hold, but whether or not what one believes is actually true.
"Every Lie We Tell Incurs a Debt to the Truth." - Valery Legasov. Chernobyl
Our stories are too small, and they’re breaking apart. The stronger the false story, the stronger the true story we need to overcome. And we need a story that is stronger than the allure of totalitarianism or we may find ourselves enthralled in it once again. What's our solution?
"Is there any way that one of these rival [stories] might prevail over the others?…One possible answer was supplied by Dante: that moral narrative prevails … which is able to include its rivals within itself, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its own story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes.” - Alasdair Macintyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, pp.80-81
We need a bigger and stronger story. What's needed, if we're to have hope for a better future ahead, is a robust story that addresses both our reason for escaping reality and provides a way back to it.
- Decaying Civilization: A Brief Sketch of What is Wrong With Our (Western) Society
- Navigate The News in a Polarized World: Breaking the Chains of Cynical & Blind Loyalty
- Why Should We Care About What's True In A Post-Truth World?
- Doing This One Thing With Catfish Will Change Your Life For The Better
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