You can live without air for three minutes, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food; but how long can you survive without checking your mobile phone for messages and calls or asking for the WiFi password? Of course, you can literally survive without these technologies, but you can’t help it ‒ you need them.
In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that human beings have five sets of needs arranged in a hierarchy: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. Although they were created way before the digital age and were based on human physiology and psychology – do they still apply irrespective of digital technology? Fast forward to the 21st century where almost everyone is carrying a smartphone and the internet has become a necessity, the question begs: how does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs manifest today?
According to the World Economic Forum Digital Media and Society report, innovations in technology and digital media have altered “the very fabric of daily life.” It adds, “People are interacting and connecting with each other in different ways. Their sensibilities and psychologies are changing. Blurring boundaries between private and professional lives and the hunger for immediate information are driving online connection time.”
But while human interactions and dynamics have changed radically for the past 70 years, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still holds to be true today. Psychologist Ed Deiner of the University of Illinois led a study challenging the theory and concluded that despite some exceptions not supporting its ranking, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “largely correct” as each level of need is basic and universal.
Thus, its relevance is still the same. The way we define, align or address these needs, however, is not.
Physiological needs: Giving life to our ‘digital twin’
Our fundamental needs for survival (food, air, water and shelter) are perhaps the most unquestionable universal needs of all, and are irreplaceable by technology (or at least not yet). But as our smartphones, tablets and other handheld devices become an extension of ourselves, WiFi also becomes a need ‒ both to give life to our ‘digital selves’ and to provide the needs of our physical selves. In fact, according to a research by comScore, more mobile users are now reaching out for their phones to buy food and clothes, or search for real estate properties, all in the speed of a click!
Safety needs: On cyber threats and digital security
Maslow’s concept of safety revolved around physical and financial security, and now that we have exposed our personal information online, we’ve also placed our digital security at risk. Not only do we fear thieves getting in our homes and businesses at night, we are now living with the worry that our websites might get hacked, our online bank accounts illegally accessed or that suspicious emails might contain viruses that can erase very critical data.
Everything we do online is recorded, everyone can be hacked. We have so much to lose, digitally.
Love and belonging needs: Virtual relationships and connections
No doubt, the need for love and belonging has been largely addressed by technology, thanks to social media. As we give in to the urge to share our thoughts on Twitter, photos of our families, friends, and colleagues on Facebook, and even the food we are about to eat on Instagram, it seems that we are more connected to our loved ones now more than ever.
Aside from connecting with family and peers, dating and meeting new people has also gone digital. The internet has opened the door to another realm where we can talk to people who have the same interests digitally through online chat rooms, fan pages, and online gaming; or get acquainted with those who are seeking for romance via dating applications such as Tinder, OkCupid and eHarmony.
Though nothing will ever be as good as the real thing, the internet surely does make communicating and connecting easier and faster.
Esteem needs: a freeway of instant feedback
While our presence on social media addresses our needs and belongingness, it is our interactions and engagements with our networks that feed our egos. In the digital world, acceptance and approval are popularly known as ‘likes,’ ‘views,’ ‘comments,’ and ‘hits’. The more positive interaction we generate, the better it makes us feel. This need can be proven to be true on business social networking site LinkedIn, where your connections and peers can endorse you for skills that you are good at and commend you for a job well done.
However, the feedback lane is on a two-way street. With instant gratification also comes instant feedback, for better or for worse . The worldwide web has become a freeway of opinions, and our egos are being targeted. Unfortunately, in today’s digital language, trolls are no longer known as toy dolls.
Self-actualisation needs ‒ and how we achieve it, digitally
“What a man can be, he can be,” Maslow explained, referring to our need to achieve our full potential. While personal experiences largely help us in achieving self-actualisation, our exposure to different cultures, global issues and influential people online can help in determining what it is that we want to be in life and how to achieve it. According to a Harvard blog: “In the digital age, mobile social media provides new choices, possibilities, and ideas for self-actualisation through constant connectivity and reinforcement of social intimacy with distant others.” In this brand driven prosumer digital world, well-timed posts describing success or meaningful outcomes really can catapult people to the heights of ‘rockstar’; and linking real people to brand opens audiences far beyond usual reach or influence.
In many ways, Maslow’s hierarchy has been redefined by the progress and advancements of digital technology, and it cannot be stopped. The evolution of our way of life is moving at an exponential rate and we all have to keep up with these innovations and disruptions if we don’t want to be stagnant, irrelevant and unfulfilled. If this is how our needs are addressed now, imagine what it would be like in 20 years. Don’t wait. Move fast, keep up, and strive to be self-actualised.