Desire Paths & Design

On UX, Flâneuring, and Mimetic Desire

Desire paths. You've seen them. You may have made some. There's a fascinating subreddit devoted to sharing pictures of them: “Dedicated to the paths that humans prefer, rather than the paths that humans create.”

The indubitable Jim O’Shaughnessy (who has an excellent podcast called Infinite Loops) shared this interesting anecdote with me on Twitter:

Can we take the Eisenhower approach to user design? To life design? These are fundamental questions. First-principles.

There’s a mindset and way of living embedded in the Eisenhower anecdote. Let’s explore it.

Ordering Off-Menu

Designated paths and desire paths always co-exist in great tension.

Designated paths exist in an “immanent world of desire.” Closed-world video games are examples of this. But so are most systems of desire, from the Michelin Star system to the U.S. education system to the menus at restaurants.

People stay on the hypermimetic tracks that others have carved out for them. And when they stay in these systems long enough, they learn to love their cages.

Every once in a while, someone comes along who upends the designated pathways and allows people to create new desire paths. Maria Montessori did this in education. She allowed children to carve out their own pathways of desire free from the rigidity of bell-ringing and the discrete blocks of time dedicated to different subjects.

“The last major innovation in K-12 education was Montessori,” wrote Marc Andreeson, “which traces back to the 1960s. “We’ve been doing education research that’s never reached practical deployment for 50 years since.”

All innovation is, at some level, an innovation of desire: people wanting something that wasn’t previously on offer to them.

The entrepreneurs we truly need are entrepreneurs of desire.

It normally takes me years with my undergrad business students to break them out of the “will you have me?” mindset—for careers, and for relationships.

Each of us is presented with a menu of choices that we are told to choose from. We can’t go through life, at least not a life well-lived, without learning how to order off-menu.

It’s a key feature of being anti-mimetic.

One of the tactics I use to help break my students out of the “Will you have me?” mindset is this: I try to show them as many examples as possible of people who operate with a transcendent framework of desire.

These people run the gamut from CEO’s to revolutionaries to saints and visionary writers—people who see a world that others can’t see, and who help them capture a glimpse of it.

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

Would that more entrepreneurs operate in a transcendent framework rather than an immanent one!

But (almost) all dichotomies are false dichotomies. There are not merely closed worlds and open worlds. The truth is more complex.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchhill, referring to the rebuilding of the UK Commons Chamber after it was damaged in the Second World War.

Desire works the same way. Our desires take shape as part of a continuous interaction with the world around us.

A GPS for Desire

In the natural world, it’s possible to have a straight path between a subject and an object of desire.

When we’re operating on the level of our biological needs, we have built-in wiring—a built-in navigation system, so to speak—that helps determine which objects are worthy of pursuit and which ones aren’t.

If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that drinking a glass of water is desirable. If I see a stream in the distance, I’m going to take the absolute shortest route to it. All of the fibers of my body conspire together to make me want to get to that water and drink it as soon as possible.

“Desire” paths that help us get from Point A to Point B faster are not really pathways of desire at all. They’re just shortcuts.

In the universe of real desire, though—by which I always mean the world of choices for which we have no built-in navigation system, no biological radar—we rely on a different kind of “signal” to show us what to want: models.

Models are people, things, or groups that imbue things with value and make them appear worthy of pursuit. In the universe of desire, here is what a true “desire path” looks like:

I used these eyeball faces to evoke the work of Philip Guston, who drew figures like this constantly staring at meat and cigarettes. I strongly dislike the “triangular” way of illustrating mimetic desire—it reminds me of high school trigonometry class. Nobody liked it. Let’s re-imagine mimetic desire. I wouldn’t be true to this piece if I didn’t try.

Let’s consider a futuristic form of User Experience (UX) design. The current form is about 20 years behind where it should be. We’re still relying on an immanent framework of desire—one based almost entirely on data alone—to tell us what people really want.

But there’s an uncrossable chasm between data and desire. The best data scientists in the world can predict with high probability what book we might order next on Amazon. But they are almost completely helpless in predicting who is going to fall in love with whom.

In order to understand love—and politics, and economics, and travel destinations, and yes, even UX—it’s necessary to understand mimetic desire.

We want what other people want because other people want it, and it’s penciled-in eyebrows all the way down, down to the depths of the nth circle of hell where we all die immediately of a Brazilian butt lift, over and over again. —Dayna Tortorici

Let’s consider what UX design might look like in a more transcendent framework.

Futuristic UX: Pathways of Desire

Imagine a UX designer from the future who needed to know how to design the grocery shopping experience that people most want. That you most want.

This UX designer put a VR headset on you and told you that there were literally no constraints to the experience you desired—you could construct the shopping experience as you go.

In other words, you wouldn’t merely be shopping Amazon Fresh and making “Feature Requests.” You’d actually be building a new shopping world. The one you presumably really want.

The UX researcher would repeat this experience a million times with a million different people and begin to get an idea for how people might really like to shop if they could fantasize and indulge themselves a bit.

We are immediately presented with a catch-22, though. The aisles and Muzak that we are accustomed to are kind of nice. We like familiarity. We might miss these things when they’re gone. Remember: we shape our buildings; and then our buildings shape us. The same is true of our desires. So in this experiment, you’d inevitably find a lot of people imagining themselves still shopping at Whole Foods—but with items in different places, with new features, with less congestion, with lower prices. Nothing too extraordinary.

They dream too little. But can you blame them?

We already know what dreams may come for the blind. We can only see what we have been given the ability to see. And we can only want what we are able to want.

The freedom to want differently is hard-won. It lives in the tension between the immanent and the transcendent.

If I were the subject of this experiment—and if I were in the mood for fish that night, which I often am—I’d ask to be transported to the old fish market in Catania, Sicily. I’d wander the streets talking to the old Italian men smoking cigarettes and fileting fresh swordfish.

I’d be a flâneur in the market. I never have an idea of what I want when I walk in, but I always do when I walk out. There’s beauty in roaming, in observing, of being open to possibilities that I didn’t know existed. I don’t know what I want until I jump in.

Web “browsing” is not flâneuring. It lacks the sights and sounds and smells—and certainly the old Sicilian man I see leaning over and inspecting some new species of fish I didn’t even know existed, which inflames my mimetic desire for it. In short, web-browsing lacks the kind of models I want.

Now, can Amazon create this Silician market experience for me? My “mimetic desire” path? Absolutely not. Not yet, at least.

But my Catanian desire path is one that completely transcends the framework in which we normally think of UX and “user journeys,” in which we limit ourselves to incremental and marginal improvements within an immanent framework of desire.

The future is analog, meaning the future cannot be limited by these constraints.

Of course, even my Catania fish market experience comes from my own mimetic desire. It is an experience that was modeled to me by others and which forms the contours around which my desire lives and moves. (And those who know me by now know that much of it happens in Italy...)

But being able to access the experience of that market from my home in D.C. (or upstate New York, where I am now) is certainly a desire that transcends the existing framework around which we ask people to work in solving problems like how to create a better shopping experience.

Entrepreneurs are expected to be slaves to “market research.” Architects must follow “best practices” (practices which are always backward-looking, not forward-looking, by the way). In our insatiable thirst for and worship of data, we have closed ourselves off from donum (gift). And if we’re not careful. donum will simply become data.

The immanent world of desires and the transcendent world of desires always co-exist. The transcendent ones are always trying to break-in.

What limits, what constraints, what self-constructed cages have we built that don’t allow us to see and hear and pursue them?

The development of new and sophisticated algorithms can seem scary. But the only thing to fear is the development of desires that no longer care to venture outside of the Shire.

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.

“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”


Did you enjoy this post? Much of this content is supplementary material to the forthcoming book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, coming June 2021. You can pre-order here.