WANTING: THE POWER OF MIMETIC DESIRE IN EVERYDAY LIFE
by Luke Burgis
Girard discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic (mi-met-ik) or imitative, not intrinsic. Humans learn—through imitation—to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged.
It means learning something new about your own past that explains how your identity has been shaped and why certain people and things have exerted more influence over you than others. It means coming to grips with a force that permeates human relationships—relationships which you are, at this moment, involved in. You can never be a neutral observer of mimetic desire.
An unbelieved truth is often more dangerous than a lie. The lie in this case is the idea that I want things entirely on my own, uninfluenced by others, that I’m the sovereign king of deciding what is wantable and what is not. The truth is that my desires are derivative, mediated by others, and that I’m part of an ecology of desire that is bigger than I can fully understand. By embracing the lie of my independent desires, I deceive only myself. But by rejecting the truth, I deny the consequences that my desires have for other people and theirs for me. It turns out the things we want matter far more than we know.
He uncovered something perplexing, something which seemed to be present in nearly all of the most compelling novels ever written: characters in these novels rely on other characters to show them what is worth wanting. They don’t spontaneously desire anything. Instead, their desires are formed by interacting with other characters who alter their goals and their behavior—most of all, their desires. Girard’s discovery was like the Newtonian revolution in physics, in which the forces governing the movement of objects can only be understood in a relational context. Desire, like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them.
The characters in the great novels are so realistic because they want things the way that we do—not spontaneously, not out of an inner chamber of authentic desire, not randomly, but through the imitation of someone else: their secret model.
Desire, as Girard used the word, does not mean the drive for food or sex or shelter or security. Those things are better called needs—they’re hardwired into our bodies. Biological needs don’t rely on imitation. If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that water is desirable. But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the human universe of desire. And knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need.
Gravity causes people to fall physically to the ground. Mimetic desire causes people to fall in or out of love, or debt, or friendships, or business partnerships. Or it may subject them to the degrading slavery of being merely a product of their milieu.
Girard opening the very first session of his class Literature, Myth, and Prophecy with these words: “Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.”
The biblical story of Cain and Abel is about Cain killing his brother, Abel, after his ritual sacrifice pleased God less than Abel’s. They both wanted the same thing—to win favor with God—which brought them into direct conflict with each other. In Girard’s view, the root of most violence is mimetic desire.
Thiel left the corporate world and co-founded Confinity with Max Levchin in 1998. He began to use his knowledge of mimetic theory to help him manage both the business and his life. When competitive rivalries flared up within his company, he gave each employee clearly defined and independent tasks so they didn’t compete with one another for the same responsibilities. This is important in a start-up environment where roles are often fluid. A company in which people are evaluated based on clear performance objectives—not their performance relative to one another—minimizes mimetic rivalries.
Models of desire are what make Facebook such a potent drug. Before Facebook, a person’s models came from a small set of people: friends, family, work, magazines, and maybe TV. After Facebook, everyone in the world is a potential model.
When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model, they can never truly escape that model because doing so would mean destroying their own reason for being.
The more that people are forced to be the same—the more pressure they feel to think and feel and want the same things—the more intensely they fight to differentiate themselves. And this is dangerous. Many cultures have had a myth in which twins commit violence against each other. There are at least five separate stories of sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis alone: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Stories of sibling rivalry are universal because they’re true—the more people are alike, the more likely they are to feel threatened. While technology is bringing the world closer together (Facebook’s stated mission), it is bringing our desires closer together and amplifying conflict. We are free to resist, but the mimetic forces are accelerating so quickly that we are close to becoming shackled.
In the days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta and his companions were carousing in south Florida bars and binge-playing video games. “Who asks about the souls of these men?” wondered Girard in his last book, Battling to the End.14 The Manichean division of the world into “evil” and “not evil” people never satisfied him. He saw the dynamics of mimetic rivalry at work in the rise of terrorism and class conflict. People don’t fight because they want different things; they fight because mimetic desire causes them to want the same things. The terrorists would not have been driven to destroy symbols of the West’s wealth and culture if, at some deep level, they had not secretly desired some of the same things. That’s why the Florida bars and video game–playing are an important piece of the puzzle. The mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) remains just that: mysterious. But mimetic theory reveals something important about it. The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other. We should choose our enemies wisely, because we become like them.
Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology is the person or thing that caused us to want something in the first place. Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things. Models transfigure objects before our eyes. You walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you. But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer a shirt on a rack. It’s the shirt that your friend Molly chose—the Molly who, by the way, is an assistant costume designer on major films. The moment she starts ogling the shirt, she sets it apart. It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds ago, before she started wanting it. “O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!” says Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s hell to know we have chosen anything by another’s eyes. But we do it all the time: we choose brands, schools, and dishes at a restaurant by them.
The Bible contains a story about the Romantic Lie at the dawn of humanity. Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree—until the serpent modeled it. The serpent suggested a desire. That’s what models do. Suddenly, a fruit that had not aroused any particular desire became the most desirable fruit in the universe. Instantaneously. The fruit appeared irresistible because—and only after—it was modeled as a forbidden good.
sometimes even from a glance of the eyes. We do the same thing. Meltzoff explains: “A mother looks at something. A baby takes that as a signal that the mother desires the object, or is at least paying attention to it because it must be important. The baby looks at the mother’s face, then at the object. She tries to understand the relationship between her mother and the object.” It’s not long before a baby can follow not just her mother’s eyes but even the intentions behind her actions.
Desire is our primordial concern. Long before people can articulate why they want something, they start wanting it. The motivational speaker Simon Sinek advises organizations and people to “start with why” (the title of one of his books), finding and communicating one’s purpose before anything else. But that is usually a post hoc rationalization of whatever it is we already wanted. Desire is the better place to start.
This natural and healthy concern in children about what other people want seems to morph in adulthood into an unhealthy concern about what other people want. It grows into mimesis. Adults do expertly what babies do clumsily. After all, each of us is a highly developed baby. Rather than learning what other people want so that we can help them get it, we secretly compete with them to possess it.
We’re so sensitive to imitation that we notice the slightest deviance from what we could call acceptable imitation. If we receive a response to an email or text that doesn’t sufficiently tone-match, we can go into a mini-crisis (Does she not like me? Does he think he’s superior to me? Did I do something wrong?). Communication practically runs on mimesis. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, sixty-two students were assigned to negotiate with other students. Those who mirrored others’ posture and speech reached a settlement 67 percent of the time, while those who didn’t reached a settlement 12.5 percent of the time.13
He gave the illusion of autonomy—because that’s how people think desire works. Models are most powerful when they are hidden. If you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own.
It was as if her lack of desire for him affected the strength of his desire for her. What’s more, the interest that other men showed in her affected him. They were modeling her desirability to him. Through her withdrawal from him, she was modeling it, too. “I suddenly realized that she was both object and mediator for me—some kind of model,” Girard remembered. People don’t only model the desire for third parties or objects; they can also model the desire for themselves. Playing hard to get is a tried-and-true method to drive people crazy, but few ever ask why. Mimetic desire provides a clue. We are fascinated with models because they show us something worth wanting that is just beyond our reach—including their affection.
Or consider a sophomore in high school who posts a selfie to Instagram. She’s beaming next to her new boyfriend at a sushi restaurant. Immediately, her ex—who broke up with her only a few weeks ago, confident in his decision, and whom she hasn’t heard from since—starts texting her, confessing his love. “You don’t know what you want,” she tells him. “Make up your mind!” She’s right: he didn’t know what he wanted until he saw her with another guy—a senior, his older brother’s age, who is going to the University of North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. Her renewed desirability has nothing to do with how she looks in her Instagram photo; it’s a product of her being wanted by another man—and not just any man, but one who possesses all of the characteristics that her ex-boyfriend would like to have.
Elite colleges don’t keep their admissions rates low because they have to; they keep them low to protect the value of their brands.
The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game. If a news organization can convince its viewers that its programming is neutral, it disables their defense mechanisms. Big Tech companies do something similar. They present their technology as agnostic—as just a “platform.” And that’s true, so long as we evaluate it in a materialistic way, as bits and bytes. Yet, on a human level, social media companies have built engines of desire.
Desire is not a function of data. It’s a function of other people’s desires. What stock market analysts referred to as “mass psychosis” was not so psychotic after all. It was the phenomenon of mimetic desire that Girard had discovered more than fifty years earlier. In both bubbles and crashes, models are multiplied. Desire spreads at a speed so great we can’t wrap out rational brains around it. We might consider taking a different, more human, perspective. “Conformity is a powerful force that can counteract gravity for longer than skeptics expect,” writes Wall Street Journal finance columnist Jason Zweig. “Bubbles are neither rational nor irrational; they are profoundly human, and they will always be with us.”
We are generally fascinated with people who have a different relationship to desire, real or perceived. When people don’t seem to care what other people want or don’t want the same things, they seem otherworldly. They appear less affected by mimesis—anti-mimetic, even. And that’s fascinating, because most of us aren’t.
It’s as if everyone is saying, “Imitate me—but not too much,” because while everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.
That’s because rivalry is a function of proximity. When people are separated from us by enough time, space, money, or status, there is no way to compete seriously with them for the same opportunities. We don’t view models in Celebristan as threatening because they probably don’t care enough about us to adopt our desires as their own. There is another world, though, where most of us live the majority of our lives. We’ll call it Freshmanistan. People are in close contact and unspoken rivalry is common. Tiny differences are amplified. Models who live in Freshmanistan occupy the same social space as their imitators. We’re easily affected by what other people in Freshmanistan say or do or desire. It’s like being in our freshman year of high school, having to jostle for position and differentiate ourselves from a bunch of other people who are in the same situation. Competition is not only possible, it is the norm. And the similarity between the people competing makes the competition peculiar.
Girard believed that all true desire—the post-instinctual kind—is metaphysical. People are always in search of something that goes beyond the material world. If someone falls under the influence of a model who mediates the desire for a handbag, it’s not the handbag they are after. It’s the imagined newness of being they think it will bring. “Desire is not of this world,” Girard has said, “… it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.”
Reflexivity in markets is partly what leads to market crashes and bubbles. Investors perceive there might be a crash, so they behave in a way that precipitates the crash.
People worry about what other people will think before they say something—which affects what they say. In other words, our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity. This principle affects public and personal discourse. The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term “spiral of silence” in 1974 to refer to a phenomenon that we see often today: people’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.
Why do all hipsters look alike, and why does nobody identify themselves as one? The answer is mirrored imitation. Mirrors distort reality. They flip the sides on which things appear: your right hand appears on the left side in the mirror, and your left hand appears as if it’s on the right side. The mirror image is, in some sense, an image of opposites. Mirrored imitation, then, is imitation that does the opposite of whatever a rival does. It is reflexive to a rival by doing something different from what the rival models. When mimetic rivals are caught in a double bind, obsessed with each other, they go to any length to differentiate themselves. Their rival is a model for what not to desire. For a hipster, the rival is popular culture—he eschews anything popular and embraces what he believes to be eclectic, but he does so according to new models. According to Girard, “the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.”
When one of the two parties to a rivalry renounces the rivalry, it defuses the other party’s desire. In a mimetic rivalry, objects take on value because the rival wants them. If the rival suddenly stops wanting something, so do we.
We imitate not for the sake of imitation itself but for the sake of differentiating ourselves—to try to forge an identity relative to other people.
Mimetic desire tends to move in one of two cycles. Cycle 1 is the negative cycle, in which mimetic desire leads to rivalry and conflict. This cycle runs on the false belief that other people have something that we don’t have and that there isn’t room for fulfillment of both their desires and ours. It comes from a mindset of scarcity, of fear, of anger. Cycle 2 is the positive cycle in which mimetic desire unites people in a shared desire for some common good. It comes from a mindset of abundance and mutual giving. This type of cycle transforms the world. People want something that they couldn’t imagine wanting before—and they help others go further, too.
Giro’s business flywheel, according to Collins, worked like this: “Invent great products; get elite athletes to use them; inspire Weekend Warriors to mimic their heroes; attract mainstream customers; and build brand power as more and more athletes use the products. But then, to maintain the ‘cool’ factor, set high prices and channel profits back into creating the next generation of great products that elite athletes want to use.”
Aristotle invented the word “entelechy” to refer to a thing that has its own principle of development within it, a vital force that propels it forward to become fully what it is.
C. S. Lewis called this invisible system the inner ring. It means that no matter where a person is in life, no matter how wealthy or popular a person is, there is always a desire to be on the inside of a certain ring and a terror of being left on the outside of it. “This desire [to be in the inner ring] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action,” Lewis said. “It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement.… As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want.”27 Zappos dismantled any visible signs of an outer ring. They forgot about the inner one. Hierarchical Values Tony’s project to make downtown Las Vegas an entrepreneurial hub and happy community was a noble one, in principle. Its downfall was an impoverished view of human nature. CEOs, teachers, policymakers, and others responsible for shaping an environment should understand how decisions affect people’s desires. As a city planner needs to consider the effect of parks and murals and bike paths on everything from traffic to crime, so a good leader needs to consider the impact of their decisions on human ecology—the web of relationships that affect human life and development. No aspect of human ecology is more overlooked than mimetic desire. Early on at one of my companies, I made the mistake of forming a way-too-serious flag football team that competed in a city league, not realizing that it divided our young start-up into factions. Having fun and freely associating outside of work was not a problem. The problem was that I, the CEO, was the one who organized and led the effort. At that stage of our company (there were only about ten of us), the idea and organization needed to come from someone other than me for it not to feel like a top-down imposition of cultural expectations. My football fanaticism inflamed a few rivalries and bent desires toward small-spirited goals rather than great ones.
A hierarchy of values is an antidote to mimetic conformity. If all values are treated as equal, then the one that wins out—especially at a time of crisis—is the one that is most mimetic.
Girard saw a close connection between mimetic desire and violence. “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance,” he said in his book The One by Whom Scandal Comes. “These interlocking episodes resemble each other, quite obviously, because they all imitate each other.”2 How do these cycles of vengeance start? Mimetic desire. “More and more, it seems to me,” wrote Girard in the same book, “modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”3 These small, interpersonal conflicts are a microcosm of the instability that threatens the entire world. And before the world: our families, cities, institutions.
The word pharmakós is related to the English word “pharmacy.” In ancient Greece, the pharmakós was someone initially seen as a poison to the community. The people believed that they had to destroy or expel this person to protect themselves. The elimination of the pharmakós was the remedy to the problem. In this sense, the pharmakós was both the poison and the cure.
In real life, scapegoats are usually singled out due to some combination of the following: they have extreme personalities or neurodiversity (such as autism) or physical abnormalities that make them noticeable; they’re on the margins of society in terms of status or markets (they are outside the system, like the Amish or people who have chosen to live off the grid); they’re considered deviants in some way (their behavior falls outside societal norms, whether related to lifestyle, sexuality, or style of communication); they’re unable to fight back (this applies even to rulers or kings—when it is all against one, even the most powerful person is impotent); or they appear as if by magic without society knowing where they came from or how they got there, which makes them easy to blame as the cause of social unrest (climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York to speak at the United Nations on a zero-carbon yacht marks her as a potential scapegoat). All scapegoats have the power to unite people and defuse mimetic conflict. A scapegoat doesn’t have traditional power; a scapegoat has unifying power. A prisoner on death row possesses power that not even the state governor has. For a family or community in crisis, it can seem like only the death of that prisoner will bring them the kind of healing they seek. The prisoner, then, possesses a quasi-supernatural quality that no one else can stand in for. Only he can heal.
“A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt,” wrote Girard in his final book, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. “Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one.”
As mentioned earlier, one of Jenny Holzer’s billboards in Times Square pleaded: “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT.” It drew attention because it was a sign of contradiction. Through its stark contrast with its surroundings, Holzer’s art drew communal attention to its message. And through it, people were drawn toward a more honest examination of themselves. The message led not to rivalry and blame and violence but to self-reflection and maybe even transformation. Consumer culture did not have to have the last word.
Some trends in goal setting: don’t make goals vague, grandiose, or trivial; make sure they’re SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based)2; make them FAST (another acronym: frequent, ambitious, specific, and transparent)3; have good OKRs (objectives and key results)4; put them in writing; share them with others for accountability. Goal setting has become very complicated. If someone tried to take all the latest tactics into account, it would be a wonder if they managed to set any goals at all.
The ultimate way to test desires—especially major life choices such as whether to marry someone or whether to quit your job and start a company—is to practice this same exercise but to do it while imagining yourself on your deathbed. Which choice leaves you more consoled? Which choice causes you more agitation? Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, noted, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” The deathbed is where unfulfilling desires are exposed. Transport yourself there now rather than waiting until later, when it might be too late.
The term “sour grapes” was popularized in one of Aesop’s fables. A fox sees a beautiful cluster of ripe grapes hanging from a high branch. The grapes look ready to burst with juice. His mouth begins watering. He tries to jump up and grab them, but he falls short. He tries again and again, but the grapes are always just out of reach. Finally, he sits down and concludes that the grapes must be sour and aren’t worth the effort anyway. He walks away scornfully. By calling the grapes “sour,” the fox invented a narrative in his mind to ease the pain of loss. If you accept this notion uncritically, then you might believe that one can’t legitimately despise rich people without first being rich, or scorn Ivy League schools without having gained admission to one, or reject the desire for three Michelin stars without first having earned them. To do so would be self-deception, resentment, weakness. Don’t believe that a person has to buy into and play a mimetic game and win before they can opt out of it with a clear conscience. If you decline an invitation to be on the reality TV show The Bachelor, rejecting it as a silly charade, does that mean that it’s sour grapes? Could you only criticize the show after you’ve won? Of course not. “Don’t knock it till you try it” is a sophomoric argument. Girard recognized that resentment is real—and that it happens primarily in the world of internal mediation (Freshmanistan), when we are inside a system of desire without social or critical distance from it.15 But only the worst kind of cynic believes that every renunciation necessarily has something to do with resentment.
Empathy is the ability to share in another person’s experience—but without imitating them (their speech, their beliefs, their actions, their feelings) and without identifying with them to the point that one’s own individuality and self-possession are lost. In this sense, empathy is anti-mimetic. Empathy could mean smiling and giving a cold bottle of water to people collecting signatures for a petition you would never sign—because it’s a sweltering day and you know what it’s like to be that hot, and you also know what it feels like to be that passionate about something you care about. It would not entail empty platitudes or white-lie niceties that we often say to people with whom we disagree; rather, it means finding a shared point of humanity through which to connect without sacrificing our integrity in the process. Empathy disrupts negative cycles of mimesis. A person who is able to empathize can enter into the experience of another person and share her thoughts and feelings without necessarily sharing her desires.
The distinction between thick and thin desires can’t easily be made based on feelings alone. Desires feel very strong when we’re young—to make a lot of money, date a person with certain physical attributes, or become famous. The feelings are often more intense the thinner a desire is. As we get older, many of our adolescent feelings of intense desire fade away. It’s not because we realize that some of the things we wanted are no longer attainable. It’s because we have more pattern recognition ability and so can recognize the kinds of desires that leave us unfulfilled. As a result, most people do learn to cultivate thicker desires as they age.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now … to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality. —Ursula K. Le Guin
“The goal of early childhood education should be to cultivate the child’s own desire to learn,” Montessori wrote in The Montessori Method. And elsewhere: “We must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child.”9 The desire to grow into mature adults—not the desire to earn A’s or win Little League games or get a sticker for good behavior—is each child’s primary and most important project, the thing each of them secretly cares most deeply about.
If truth is not confronted courageously, communicated effectively, and acted upon quickly, a company will never be able to adhere to reality and respond appropriately to it. The health of any human project that relies on the ability to adapt depends on the speed at which truth travels. That holds for a classroom, a family, and a country.
The passionate pursuit of truth is anti-mimetic because it strives to reach objective values, not mimetic values. Leaders who embrace and model the pursuit of truth—and who increase its speed within the organization—inoculate themselves from some of the more volatile movements of mimesis that masquerade as truth. Want a test? Try reading newspapers at least a week out of date. The mimetic fluff is easier to spot.
In Lean Startup lingo, the first version of a product is called a minimum viable product (or MVP). The MVP is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”18 (In the language of desire, the MVP corresponds to the minimal viable desires of customers.) After the MVP, you engage in continuous learning and improvement. The Lean Startup methodology has benefits. It saves idealistic entrepreneurs from heartache. It prevents wasted time and money, gets products to market faster, and opens up emergent possibilities for growth. That’s all good to a certain extent. An entrepreneur who does not give people things they want won’t be in business for long. But the Lean Startup technique is a model of entrepreneurship fundamentally based on immanent desire. It’s politics by polling, in which a candidate does whatever the polls tell them to do. This is not leading, but following. Sometimes it’s plain cowardice.
Engineering desires in robots or in humans raises serious questions about humanity’s future. Historian Yuval Noah Harari ends his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind with these words: “But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires, too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?,’ but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.” The question “What do we want to want?” is unsettling partly because, in a world of engineered desires, we have to wonder who is doing the engineering. But also because the question implies that
it’s possible to want to want something, yet not be capable of wanting it.
NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway thinks that each of the Big Four tech companies taps into a deep-seated need in humanity.8 Google is like a deity that answers our questions (read: prayers); Facebook satisfies our need for love and belonging; Amazon fulfills the need for security, allowing us instantaneous access to goods in abundance (the company was there for us during COVID-19) to ensure our survival; and Apple appeals to our sex drive and the associated need for status, signaling one’s attractiveness as a mate by associating with a brand that is innovative, forward-thinking, and costly to own. In many ways, the Big Four tech companies are serving people’s needs better than churches do.9 They’re addressing desires better, too. The vast majority of people are not thinking about mere survival; they are trying to figure out what to want next and how they can get it. The Big Four tech companies supply answers to both.
There are two approaches that people commonly take to escape from Cycle 1. The first approach, engineering desire, is the approach of Silicon Valley, authoritarian governments, and the Cult of Experts. The first two use intelligence and data to centrally plan a system in which people want things that other people want them to want—things that benefit a certain group of people. This approach poses a serious threat to human agency. It also lacks respect for the capability of people to freely desire what is best for themselves and the people they love. The Cult of Experts, with their “Follow These Five Steps” approach to happiness, lacks respect for human complexity. The alternative is the transformation of desire. The engineering approach is like extractive industrial farming, which uses pesticides and tills the land with large machinery, then measures success by seasonal yield, shelf life, and uniformity. The transformation approach is like regenerative farming, which can transform a barren piece of land into rich soil according to the laws and dynamics of the ecosystem. In our case, the ecosystem is one of human ecology—and desire is its lifeblood.
Authoritarian regimes can only stay in existence so long as they can control what people want. We normally think of these regimes as controlling what people can and cannot do through laws, regulations, policing, and penalties. But their real victory comes not when they have authority over people’s actions; rather, their victory comes when they have authority over their desires. They don’t want to keep prisoners in cells; they want those prisoners to learn to love their cells. When there is no desire for change, their authority is complete. The purpose of a “reeducation” camp is not about relearning how to write or read or interpret history, or even how to think; it’s fundamentally about the reeducation of desire. Russian scholars Catriona Kelly and Vadim Volkov have pointed out in their essay “Directed Desires: Kul’turnost’ and Consumption” that the transition to Soviet Russia came about through what they call directed desires. There was a subtle campaign to direct people to want certain things and reject others. The idea of kulturnost, or culturedness in English, began to emerge. It was a right way to live based on shared Russian cultural values.
There are two different ways of thinking that correspond, respectively, to engineering desire and transforming it: calculating thought and meditative thought. I draw these distinctions loosely from the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger.27 Calculating thought is constantly searching, seeking, plotting how to reach an objective: to get from Point A to Point B, to beat the stock market, to get good grades, to win an argument. According to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, it’s the dominant form of thought in our technological culture. It leads to the relentless pursuit of objectives—usually without having analyzed whether the objectives are worthy to begin with.
Meditative thought, on the other hand, is patient thought. It is not the same thing as meditation. Meditative thought is simply slow, nonproductive thought. It’s not reactionary. It’s the kind of thought that, upon hearing news or experiencing something surprising, doesn’t immediately look for solutions. Instead, it asks a series of questions that help the asker sink down further into the reality: What is this new situation? What is behind it? Meditative thought is patient enough to allow the truth to reveal itself.
“Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want,” he said.36 Ravikant is drawing on the perennial understanding of numerous spiritual traditions about the link between desire and suffering: desire is always for something we feel we lack, and it causes us to suffer.