How to create things people want: Beware of your own mimetic desires

"We borrow our desires from others." -- Rene Girard

How do we know what we want? The greatest philosophers of every age have pondered this question. Philosopher Rene Girard says we borrow our desires from others. There are natural desires (that of hunger, thirst, desire for shelter) -- and then there are others -- material and immaterial, that ultimately spring from other people. Desire is mimetic. We emulate and acquire as our own the things that other people desire. These desires come as product of our experiences up until this point in our lives. 

The most dominant force that dictates what people want is from our society, as filtered through media. How could it not? We spend hours upon hours, most of our waking lives wading in the ideas of others, beamed into our heads via coax cable from our wall. What is considered right, fair, admirable, and great -- these value judgments are passed by media ten thousand times a day. Yesterday, Michael Phelps made Olympic history by winning his 19th Olympic medal, the most of any Olympian in the history of the games. His success was celebrated, but not without Bob Costas giving Phelps a hard time about how he wasn't winning more in 2012 -- that he wasn't dominant anymore. Why didn't you work harder, Michael? The disappointment of a disapproving father, sublimated through a TV personality on national stage. We are programmed by the media we consume.

In the same telecast yesterday, Bob Costas asked the Fabulous Five (Team USA's Women's Gymnastics Team that just won gold in London) what their first Olympic memories were. Across the board, the teenagers described watching videos of the 2004 Olympics and desperately wanting to be the Olympians they watched on the screen. This is mimetic desire realized on a grand scale.

No matter how grand or banal our mimetic desires, however -- we are not irretrievably doomed to play them out.

Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

STEVE JOBS

In other words, our values don't necessarily have to be from the outside. It's no mistake that the person who said that also went on to create the most valuable, world-changing products in human history. We are programmed by our upbringing, our schools, and our media to desire certain things. If unexamined, we will pursue these desires -- borrowed, mimetic desires -- for our entire lives. We will live by other people's standards and define our happiness against it. 

If we don't take responsibility for our own desires, then we can never truly speak in our own voice. Ultimately, to create something new, a founder must be able to take ownership and be first to express an idea or viewpoint. To be first means to assert something that is not commonly known yet. No public opinion poll or survey will ever yield tomorrow's Google or Dropbox, which were, as Peter Thiel describes, secrets that were initially known only to few. To point it out is not enough -- one most believe so fully in a thing such as to build it

Be aware of the external nature of your desire. Take ownership of what is yours. And finally, build. In a society driven by mimetic desire, we can either be the imitators, or we can build the future. 

Craig Venter just might save the planet

Craig Venter created the shotgun method of DNA sequencing, massively jumpstarting the way we think about genomics today. He kept going. In 2010, his team managed to create a completely synthetic life -- from a man-made genome. They created DNA sequences, implanted it into a cell, and that cell turned itself into this new life form. Many thought it could not be done. 

In a recent Wired interview, he explains what he's really trying to do with synthetic life

Venter: We’re trying to harness photosynthesis. A key part of photosynthesis is what happens when the sun goes down. Cells convert CO2 into sugar and fat molecules. And they store the fat to burn as energy to get them through the night—the same way we store fat, only that’s just to get us through TV shows. We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.

Goetz: A massive industrial scale.

Venter: We envision facilities the size of San Francisco. And 10 or 15 of those in this country. We need sunlight, seawater, and non-agricultural land, but you need a lot of photons to drive this. You need a lot of surface area of sunlight to do that. It’s a great use for Arizona. Lots of sunlight there.

Imagine it, huge farms of synthetic bacteria converting our CO2 emissions back into usable energy! It truly would be the exact opposite of our industrial exhausts. Sounds like something right out of a quest in the video game Fallout 3. 

Venter closes his interview with an ominous warning to society. Science remains important, and will continue to be the source of our survival:

We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs—sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.

More at Wired.

Save Padmapper! Craigslist is wrong to shut them down. An open letter to Craig

I just found out a few moments ago that Craigslist has sent a cease and desist to one of the most valuable sites for apartment renters on the planet, Padmapper. Here's my open letter to them:

Dear Jim and Craig,

Thank you for all you've done for the online community in creating Craigslist and shepherding it through so much. I was saddened to learn Craigslist recently sent a cease and desist to Padmapper, which is a severe punishment indeed.

In a fair society, punishments like this are handed down for bad action. Padmapper has not engaged in this whatsoever. Please consider allowing Padmapper to continue to live. It is one of the top essential tools for anyone who is looking for a place to live. 

As a fan and user of both sites, I urge you to reconsider your decision. 

Yours sincerely,

Garry Tan

Do your part -- send your own letter (stay civil and articulate!) --

jim@craigslist.org – Jim Buckmaster, CEO
craig@craigslist.org – Craig Newmark, Founder

Facebook should build a phone: Henry Blodget will be proven wrong just like iPhone naysayers before him

Is Facebook capable of building a phone? Almost certainly. Should they? Yes. That's why Henry Blodget is so wrong about how Facebook shouldn't build a phone. It reminds me of a 2007 article by Matthew Lynn for Bloomberg, declaring that the Apple iPhone would fail as a late, defensive move

I am one of the biggest fans of Apple, and the iPhone and iPad are by far the best computing experiences I've ever had. But I'm not particularly happy about the current state of computing. Great user experience comes at a cost, but the cost these days is higher than I care for. The trains run great in a totalitarian state, but is that worth the loss of developer freedom?

Blodget says that building hardware is hard -- but if we remember correctly, Apple was a disaster of a place just 12 years ago, floundering at hardware, software, and most everything else. In 2000, the idea that an American technology firm would be the most dominant electronics brand in the world in 2012 was absurd. Apple built its abilities from a place of great weakness -- really near death.

Facebook's biggest asset is its ability to hire and attract the best talent in the world. This was also what Apple has executed on perfectly since its return to prominence. At both places, there is a strong hacker culture and a true belief that what they're doing is the most important, society-changing work in the world. 

The "ability to build hardware" is not some esoteric magic. It is a knowhow embedded in the brains of smart engineers -- engineers who have skills so valuable that they are mobile and they will seek places where they can have maximum impact. Great products are built by talented human beings who will go where they know they can change the world. Outside of startups and a few great companies like Apple or Facebook, there are few places where "change the world" is really something you can wake up to. 

The stakes for tomorrow's computing paradigm is incredibly high. I, for one, hope Facebook does have a phone in the works, and a damn good one too. They've got a visionary founder who is young and in charge and can ship great technology. They're one of the only companies who have the capital, talent, and capability to do it. 

How a train ride helped Mixpanel get into YC

I'm so proud of Suhail, Tim, and the team at Mixpanel -- they just announced their $10 million Series A funding with #1 VC firm Andreessen Horowitz

Back in 2009, I had just moved back to San Francisco and we had just raised our angel round for Posterous. We worked out of our bedrooms in SOMA in San Francisco. A friend of mine, Dan Haubert of Ticketstumbler (R.I.P. Dan) had introduced me to a pair of young hackers out of Arizona State, Suhail Doshi and Tim Trefen. 

They were in town for their YC interview. We met up at the Creamery across from the SF Caltrain for coffee, and I tried to impart whatever wisdom we had about how to get through the process. Good ole' Creamery...

What was supposed to be just an hour meeting turned into a couple of hours, as we talked at length about their vision for analytics done right. Suhail had worked with Max Levchin and the Slide team, and that's where he realized how data-driven decisions could make or break a product. 

I ended up having to jet out of there, since I was headed down to Mountain View by Caltrain. We decided to head over together, since that would give us more time to go over the pitch. They were headed to Mountain View for their interview at YC Headquarters.

On the train, I had the idea of implementing Mixpanel analytics for tracking what people did on the homepage. It was as simple as it is today -- drop one line of javascript on the page. I'd like to say it took just a minute, but it actually took about ten. Embarrasingly, I forgot a semicolon someplace in the Javascript function call! 

When Suhail and Tim walked into the YC offices for their interview with the partners, they were able to say Mixpanel was so easy to implement it happened on the trainride down from San Francisco -- and that you could see realtime data from the Posterous homepage right that moment, just minutes after implementing it. 

Proud to be one of the early datapoints in the now 7 billion Mixpanel has tracked. And many more to come.