René Girard, meet the techies: Evolution of Desire climbs the charts at Hacker News.
Even though the Book Haven lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, we generally avoid the sphere of computer nerds and techies, except when we need our Macbook Pro repaired or have to figure out why we are getting spammed. But every so often, we get something that sends us into this brave new world. So it was with yesterday’s news on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.
It began when I received this news from Artur Rosman at 6 a.m. on Facebook: “Happy news, a computer geek link picked up your book excerpt that we ran earlier this year. It has 1,700 hits today so far. You’re going to crash our site!”
He was referring to the introduction to Evolution of Desire, which was run in its entirety on a Notre Dame University journal as “Golden Thoughts from a Nuclear Age” here. The “computer geek link” was an unknown website to both of us, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. I looked up Hacker News there:
Hacker News is a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship. It is run by Paul Graham‘s investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator. In general, content that can be submitted is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.
The site was created by Paul Graham in February 2007. Initially it was called Startup News or occasionally News.YC. On August 14, 2007, it became known by its current name. It developed as a project of his company Y Combinator, functioning as a real-world application of the Arc programming language which Graham co-developed.
Paul Graham turns out to be kind of a big deal. Computer scientist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and essayist.
But meanwhile, back in Indiana, Artur was beginning to panic. The numbers kept climbing minute by minute. He was pondering whether he should take the page down quickly so the server wouldn’t go boom. It didn’t, but meanwhile it quickly racked up 2,300 visits in a few short hours.
Faithful Book Haven reader George Jensen, who runs a terrific blog 20011 – we’ve added it to our blogroll) also saw us on Hacker News. “I was going to post about this on my own blog, but then figured that you should get first dibs.” We let him go first.
From his blogpost: “I often check the Hacker News to see what topics interest the tech world. Perhaps 60% of the linked items have to do with computing, science, or mathematics, another 20% to do with politics or economics, and the remainder can be curiously assorted. Over the last couple of days a link to an article about whether Nero killed Agrippina has been in the first few pages.
“Though I do now and then see them, I don’t go to Hacker News looking for links to pieces about the humanities. I was surprised, then, today to see what was evidently an item by Cynthia Haven about René Girard on the first page… A sometime co-worker has made it to the first page of Hacker News a few times. However, his blog mostly has to do with old computer hardware, which suits what I take to be the interests of most of the Hacker News readership. I am interested to see that the techies find mimetic desire so well worth reading and arguing about.”
In the Hacker News comment section, Oliver Jones urged people to read the article over at Notre Dame: “Our trade is strongly influenced by René Girard’s understanding of competitive mimetic desire and its violence. Why? The people who organize the ad-driven internet know all about Girard. Peter Thiel invested in Facebook because he saw its potential for harnessing mimetic desire to drive engagement. (reference: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-pr…)
“Facebook-style social media is addictive precisely because of the fear of not being as good as ‘friends.’ Mimetic desire is the the human yearning behind the Fear of Missing Out. Driving engagement is most effective when it exploits that fear. It works very well indeed. Other attempts at building social media networks (Stack Overflow, Linked In, Slack, for example) try to avoid that exploitation. They try to use other motivators than FOMO [“Fear of Missing Out” to the rest of us. – CH] to drive engagement. Can they be successful without overusing mimetic desire? It’s the key question they must answer to be successful. The obligatory panel of customer logos just below the fold on SaaS landing pages engages mimetic desire in IT buyers. ‘Wow! Schwab uses this! I want to be like Schwab!’ It’s benign in these cases.
“Girard offers a good unifying framework for understanding the human nature behind all sorts of marketing work. Convincing people their hair is ablaze and offering them ways to put it out is the heart of building new businesses. Getting people to set each others’ hair on fire, then putting it out, is the holy grail of new businesses.
“It’s no accident that Silicon Valley employs that framework in lots of ways: he was a scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. [He wasn’t – CH.] It can be a hard slog to learn about him. But it’s worth your trouble.”
I hope I’ve made the job a little easier for Oliver and the others with Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Meanwhile, read the whole discussion here. It includes the best quote ever from Peter Thiel, who studied with René at Stanford: “To believe yourself invested with divine self-sufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship – or jeering – for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.”
“Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” is here.