Peter Cochrane's Blog: How tech alters human needs

The digital world has inserted new categories into the hierarchy of human needs…

Written in my Chicago hotel and dispatched to via a 100Mbps LAN.

For millennia our personal and societal needs have migrated up a relatively static value chain. Recently, however, I reckon that chain has been extended in line with our technological capabilities.

Way back in 1943 - before I was born - Abraham Maslow published A Theory of Human Motivation based on the study of 'exemplary people' such as Einstein, Roosevelt and others who had made outstanding contributions to the progress of the human race.

He also made a statement - controversial by today's standards - that dismissed the study of the mentally ill, the neurotic, the average and non-contributory members of a society. To be specific, he wrote:

  • The study of crippled, stunted, immature and unhealthy specimens can yield only a crippled psychology and a crippled philosophy.

Maslow also studied the healthiest one per cent of college students - the brightest and the best. Rightly or wrongly, this social filtering created a clear and crisp categorisation of human need that is still referred to today. Graphically it is often presented in a form similar to this:

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs

In the 1930s Abraham Maslow defined what he saw as the hierarchy of human needsImage: Peter Cochrane

I tend to think of this classification as Maslow 1 because we have now gone way beyond worrying about the basics, with food, health and safety taken for granted throughout the first world, while love and belonging, self-esteem and status are varyingly within our grasp.

To my mind, this basic stuff is done and dusted and the digital world has now inserted a new set of categories that transcend the old. New levels of connectivity, communication, group contribution and social power have created inputs from all quarters in ways that were entirely unforeseen in 1943. This new set of needs I tend to think of as Maslow 2 and can be described as follows:

Peter Cochrane's revised hierarchy of human needs

A revised hierarchy of human needs reflecting the changes wrought by the digital worldImage: Peter Cochrane

Here we see influence topping power in companies and government, while access and convening power contribute greatly to our influence.

Status is now the interesting one. Is it that gold watch, diamond-studded ring, house, car, visible library of music and books, or is it the good old job position? For some, it has to be yes. But for others, it is a resounding no.

With a world facing a number of key criticalities, the people with knowledge, understanding, connectivity and a powerful network quickly rise to the top. And what of the outward signs of this rise? Is it the mobile phone, tablet, laptop, blog, Twitter feed, web page, Google rating and public following?

Not entirely. It seems more likely to be the ability to marshal resources rapidly and to garner effective opinion, and then to engineer closure.

This new set of circumstances represents quite a transition, and I'm not at all sure what Maslow would have made of it. But it is very different, and heralds a new order in a society now facing continual and accelerating change.

And very shortly, I suspect there will be a new contributor in the form of our machines - which will lead to an even more dramatic change in the hierarchy of needs.