Gross Startup Ideas

“Have you ever wondered what humans taste like?
“What if you could buy human meat, lab grown? No humans harmed.
“What about a specific human’s meat? Ronaldo steak. Beyonce bacon. What do you taste like?
“Forget lab grown beef burgers. We’re going to sell lab grown human meat from specific humans’ DNA.”

This is a conversation I had with a founder at Entrepreneur First.

My first response was that their idea was gross. But, the more I think about it, the more interesting gross ideas become.

Gross ideas are open secrets about the future.

Moral Tension

Eating someone’s meat sounds gross the first time you hear it. But it captures your imagination.

It seems wrong, but it’s not obvious why. This moral tension is what makes gross ideas interesting.

The good: No humans are harmed. Maybe there are taste, happiness, or health benefits. Maybe it’ll stop wannabe cannibals from becoming criminals.

The bad: It seems gross. Maybe you need consent from the people being ‘eaten’. Maybe it’s a slippery slope to criminal cannibalism.

I don’t know the answer. But before we can agree what’s right and wrong, gross ideas get built.

New realities

Things that used to be organic are becoming artificial. And this is what makes gross ideas possible.

Artificial experiences mean you can, for the first time, separate experience and reality. In all history, to actually experience something it had to actually happen.

You’ve always had to trade reality for an experience. Now, you don’t. Soon, gross ideas will be everywhere.

As we separate reality from experience, we separate our actions from intent from consequences. And it’s hard to know whether it’s the action, the intent, or the consequences that matter.

This means we’re going to face more and more jarring moral choices:

Virtual reality makes things seem real that aren’t. What if your video game becomes a murder simulator?
Computers can learn how you communicate. What if fake videos of you are indistinguishable from real videos?
Genes can be edited and created. What if you can create new animals or change your own biology?
Generative models can create content that’s never existed. What if you artificially generate the worst kinds of porn?
Brain stimulation can make you feel whatever you want. What if you want to be tortured?

It can be built. And if it can be built, someone will build it.

Moral Dilemmas

Just because something can be built, doesn’t mean it should be built.

Gross ideas mean moral tension. Work on something gross, and you might create something you shouldn’t.

But here’s the thing: moral tension means people feel something. And, awkwardly, this resolves one of the hardest problems startups face.

Finding moral tension means you’ve found an idea people care about. At the very least, you’ll get a reaction. And even a bad reaction is promising — most startups die because nobody cares at all.

So if you’re willing to risk doing something you shouldn’t, you have a head start. Moral dilemmas are open secrets about what might be popular in the future if morality changes.

And morality does change.

Racial and gender equality, slavery and abolition, LGBT rights. Contraceptives, online dating, abortion. Genetic modification, battery farming, fake meat. Immunisation, cloning, stem cell therapy. Marijuana, prohibition, vaping. Pornography, sex toys, prostitution. Weapons, data privacy, assisted suicide.

At some point, to some people, each of these ideas seemed at least gross and at most immoral. A few still might.

Right or wrong, the opportunity is there. Moral tension guarantees people will care. It is the precondition and consequence of many big businesses.

I’m not suggesting it’s good to be immoral. I’m suggesting money gets made advancing both sides of a debate.

Technology is separating reality from experience, our actions from intent from consequences. And that means there are a lot more debates coming.

I can’t predict the future, but I do know it’s going to be gross.

Thanks to Ben Clifford and the EF Team for reading drafts of this. If you’d like to do something gross — but good — start here.

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