Pyramid of Digital Needs

This post explores the pyramid of digital needs. Based on personal experience and observations, I describe what this hierarchy may be composed of, map technologies that support them, and offer an initial analysis of the impact on individuals and businesses.

Introduction

Digital technologies allow us to share information and connect with others in ways that were impossible not too long ago. Yet, not all of us marvel at the thought of ‘checking in’ to a restaurant we’re dining at on Google maps, tracking our biometrics with a Fitbit, or sharing all aspects of our private life on Facebook.

Not convinced that tracking your every move using digital technologies and social platforms is right for you? Don’t want to make a Facebook account because you’re not ready to share your family life with distant acquaintances? Maybe it’s not that these digital technologies are inappropriate for you, but rather that your primary digital needs have not yet been met.

Maslow, an American psychologist, is best known for identifying a hierarchy of physical needs in 1943. He argued that each layer of needs must be met before higher needs can be, too. I argue in this post that there is a hierarchy of digital needs, one that parallels Maslow’s. I suggest that our digital needs map directly to those in the physical world and thus that it is difficult to fulfill the top needs if the bottom ones have not yet been addressed and managed.

 

The Pyramid of Digital Needs

Similar to the Maslow Pyramid of Needs, my pyramid has 5 layers that I map to those of Maslow: physiology, safety, belonging, wellness (esteem) and self-actualization. This is because, as I argue in another blog post, we all have a digital twin, a digital equivalent of our physical self. This digital twin thus must have needs that parallel those of the physical self.

Below is a representation of the pyramid of digital needs with example needs and technologies that support each of the 5 layers. I describe each layer below.

Layer 1: Basic Digital Needs

This is the first layer of the pyramid of digital needs, addressing the most basic needs without which your digital self cannot exist. These needs take priority over all others.

In the physical world, these are the need for food, water and shelter. In the digital realm, I propose that these are the needs for basic digital activities such as editing a document on a word processor, browsing the web, making a phone call on your mobile phone, taking a digital picture or getting driving directions from your in-car GPS. The basic physiological digital needs have been addressed by the different technology waves.

Let’s take the creation of an electronic document, which I contend is a basic need, to explore how technology evolves but the need remains the same over time. The personal computer in the 1980s provided the means to create documents at home rather than in an office, as was the case before with mainframe computers. The Internet and cloud computing revolutions brought communication and browser technologies that allowed for documents to be created, edited and stored in the cloud rather than on our local physical device. More recently, the mobile revolution gave us access to the documents anywhere in the world. However, whatever the technology, the basic need to create an electronic document remains the same. It is a basic need because if not fulfilled, then no other digital activities can be performed, will appear difficult or will miss a critical element.

At the basic layer, the devices and technologies to access, display, create, convert, and store the digital files, pictures, and other data that make up our digital lives are all essential elements to fulfill the basic digital needs. How could we lead our digital lives without computers, mobile phones, Internet, Google or WIFI networks? They are essential technology components to fufill our basic digital needs.

For example, when the battery runs out on your mobile phone, or you loose LTE cellular coverage or WIFI access, your digital world crashes down and it becomes impossible to live your digital life. Similarly, if your smart phone is too old to search Google, or show directions on a map, or take a decent picture in low light, then you will feel compelled to get a new one. This is because these devices are essential to meet your basic digital needs.

Corporations should understand this dependency and ensure that their employees, partners, and suppliers all have the right technologies to meet the basic digital needs as they collaborate to create products and services. Moreover, they should ensure that their clients also have the right technologies to consume their digital products and services. For example, if your company sells products on an eCommerce website that is not responsive to mobile devices, then you will fail to meet your basic customer digital needs. If your products and services cannot be found easily on Google, then you will fail as well because Google searches are today part of the basic technology that supports finding digital answers.

Layer 2: Safety & Privacy Needs

Once the basic digital needs are met, we turn our attention to the next layer in the hierarchy of digital needs – the need for safety. Without safety, you may not be able to enjoy the benefits from digital technologies.

As we lead our digital lives, we expect that our activities, our transactions, our communications, and our data (and metadata) are kept safe and private. We rely on technology to do so. We expect that eCommerce websites require password protection to access our profile, that our web transactions are protected with SSL, and that our credit cards are encrypted to prevent fraud. We expect our personal data and information to remain private from prying eyes with encryption, and demand that Internet providers protect this information and not share it with others. Biometric sensors such as the fingerprint reader on our smartphone can provide increased levels of protection and security. Two-factor and multi-factor authentication can increase security even further, and allow us to trust the digital information and the resources we encounter.

We have come to rely on rules and legislation to protect our privacy and ensure our security in the physical world and expect it also applies in the digital world. We expect that companies provide privacy policies for their products and services, and that they monitor their systems to ensure that our privacy is respected by their employees and partners. When private data is shared without our consent, we expect to be informed as soon as possible and have legal options to protect our rights.

When we don’t feel secure or that our privacy is not respected, as has been the case when Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA surveillance of digital communications and systems, digital security becomes a major concern and we reduce, restrict or stop fulfilling our higher level needs.

Similarly, recent news regarding cyber espionage by Russia in the US election process highlights digital security as a fundamental tenet of the digital pyramid. Without security and privacy, it is impossible to trust the documents we get from Google searches or the tweets we read from our politicians.

Businesses have started to provide products and services to help protect our digital selves and meet our need for digital security. Large providers such as Google, Facebook, Apple understand the importance of security and privacy and go to great lengths to build systems that are trustworthy. Password managers such as lastpass have become popular in recent years because we have come to rely on the digital technologies for our most intimate exchanges, interactions and transactions. We should thus expect that security and privacy remain core elements of any products, as they move from the physical to the digital world.

Layer 3: Belonging Needs

Once we have access to digital technologies (layer 1) and feel secure and private (layer 2), it is possible to interact with others and socialize because we belong to a community and intrinsically are social animals. Belonging thus forms the third layer in the pyramid of digital needs.

I use the evolution of the Internet to illustrate the progression from layer 1 to 3 in the hierarchy of our digital needs. The first period of the Internet, in the 1990s, focussed on fulfilling basic digital needs for creating websites, browsing digital encyclopedia such as Wikipedia, and searching information using Yahoo or Google. This is the layer 1 of the pyramid.

When eCommerce solutions started to take shape, the need for security and privacy became essential as we wanted to protect our transactions and prevent fraud. Everyone started to understand what HTTPS means and look for the little lock in the browser toolbar to secure their eCommerce transactions. This is layer 2 of the pyramid.

Soon, we wanted to interact with each other and communicate using the Internet. This led to the second wave of Internet – the Web 2.0 – which provided new solutions for communications such as Skype or social networks such as Facebook. This made possible the fulfillment of our needs for belonging, social interaction, love and relationship. Our digital needs to share texts and images on social networks like Pinterest or twitter, our ability to communicate with colleagues and partners via text blogs on wordpress or video blogs in Youtube became popular. We started to share our life moments via live conversations via using Facetime or Google hangout. This is the layer 3 of the pyramid.

However, these relationship and love needs could only be pursued once layer 1 and 2 digital needs were met. We would not use digital communications at all, or as often as we do, if we were not assured of their security. For example, Snapchat mobile app provided both the social interaction (layer 3) and the security (layer 2) for users in a single social messaging application where images you sent would automatically disappear after a short time limit, so as to guarantee – or try to guarantee – privacy. Layer 3 needs are very strong and when they can be fulfilled with the right technology in a secure way, their adoption is explosive – as demonstrated by the growth in sexting and intimate private conversations in recent years.

Satisfying the need for social interaction has become a component of most digital solutions, such as the online chat and messaging solutions built into digital games. Companies providing these layer 3 solutions are aware of the users need for security and basic needs (layer 1 and 2) and have gone to great length to build this into their solutions. Consider for example how Apple messaging solutions have evolved to ensure that communications are encrypted and built into the device from the ground up to offer a seamless experience.

Layer 4: Wellness and Self-Esteem Needs

Once we can leverage devices securely and interact with others in the digital world, our focus shifts towards ourselves. Layer 4 in the pyramid of digital needs relates to our desire to improve ourselves, feel better and be happier.

As I write this, wellness needs are the new focus of the technology industry. We are starting to explore how technologies and devices can provide us with insights about our lives, our activities, and our behavior. New devices and sensors, like the Apple Watch or the Fitbit, capture input from our physical self, securely store it on the cloud, and share it on social networks.

We are also developing the capabilities to make a real impact on our offline selves through insights gained from using these wellness-focused devices and technologies. Fitbit trackers allow us to track our steps and monitor our heart rate throughout the day, providing us with bio-feedback that other apps can leverage to motivate us to shed some extra weight or prepare for a marathon. The social connectivity of some of these devices – like Fitbit’s ability to share with friends how many steps you’ve walked today – provide an additional layer of motivation and rely on Layer 3, social needs, being met.

Devices can even be integrated into our clothing – the OMsignal bra, for example – to track our physiological signs and breathing patterns. These wearable devices can offer insight on our moods and stress levels. Soon enough, these technologies will provide historical data for our doctors to review when we visit – or consult remotely – for our health checkup or post-operation checkup.

Companies have started to promote digital wellness to their employees, trying to reap the benefits of higher productivity and lower insurance premiums. In the medical industry, access to a large dataset of wellness information has been transformative. For example, the Jawbone sleep study has already identified trends in sleep patterns across countries and time of year across millions of individuals – which may make it one of the largest study of its kind. It provides insight to help individuals compare to their peers.

Layer 5: Self-Actualization Needs

At the top of the hierarchy of digital needs, layer 5 is where pure digital needs can be expressed and grow. Relying on the other 4 layers, our self-actualization needs to interact in virtual digital worlds or combine them in augmented and mixed reality becomes possible. The quantified self and the transhumanism movements are starting to explore our needs not only to augment ourselves with digital means but also, at a certain point, to go completely beyond our physical self and become purely digital.

We can all agree that this a long term vision and that a number of digital technologies are missing to make this possible. However, what we can consider is that the other 4 layers of the pyramid must be fully explored before we can fully express our self-actualization digital needs. In the meantime, there will be many experiments to explore these needs and determine its possibilities.

For example, SecondLife has failed to become the virtual reality world we hoped it would, it nevertheless represents an experiment into what could be the top layer of our digital pyramid of need: complete immersion in the digital world where our physical self becomes completely translated into a digital version of itself. Of course, this requires devices and technologies that have not yet matured but books such as Snow Crash have already provided us with a possible path towards this.

I contend that it will be difficult to fully embrace the promise of virtual reality, transhumanism or other forms of digital self-actualization until we have satisfied the digital needs for devices, sensors, security, social and wellness.

Aligning Human Needs with Digital Needs

Many people I know are perfectly happy with using their computers to browse the Internet: they do not share or communicate with friends on social networks. To many, any request to share information or vacation pictures feels like an invasion of privacy. They push back when asked to store personal documents or pictures in the cloud. They often even resist creating a profile on Facebook. They feel only comfortable sharing with their friends in person, in the real world where they often have strong, deep and meaningful relationships. As we’ve seen before, this may be because they do not feel completely secure that their confidential information will remain private. Or, they are not properly equipped or sufficiently savvy to use the technology. Ther hierarchy of our digital needs nicely explains that.

On the other hand, life-loggers and transhumanists look forward to capture as much of their physical world information and grow their digital self so that their digital twin is as close to themselves as possible. The quantified-self movement is a testament to them. They look for ways to exploit this data into insight and knowledge about themselves. They believe they can improve their health, increase their fitness or wellness with the use of digital tools and analysis. Life-loggers leverage the social networks to exchange and collaborate with friends, colleagues or people with similar interest no matter how far away they may be. They view digital interactions as an important mean to share and learn without limitations of the physical world, whether in distance, time, or physical handicaps they may have. They also will seek the latest devices and security solutions as they are essential to protect their higher level needs.

They try to link their physical human needs with their digital needs as much as possible, as the diagram below suggests.

 

 

So not only is there a progression to digital needs – the 5 layers of the pyramid that I have presented -, I suggest that not everyone is aware or ready or capable of accessing higher layers of the digital need pyramid. This is of course also true in the physical world where not everyone is capable of addressing their needs because they live in poverty, war area or simply lack social skills.

Similarly, in the digital world, not everyone is equipped to reach the higher digital needs, whether because of limited technology access (no high-speed Internet access for example) or because they elect not to fulfill their social interactions in the digital worlds as I demonstrated above. However, I contend that it will not be possible to fully fulfill the wellness digital needs for example for those that do not fulfill their belonging digital needs – even if they have very strong real-life human social interactions in the real world.

Finally, I notice that digital technologies and services tend to blend layers in the pyramid as they mature. For example, sharing photos of a weeklong ski trip with friends requires effort to capture and select images during the day – taking out your smartphone on a ski slope is cumbersome, requires effort, there may not be network access, etc. Newer products such as wearable wireless cameras facilitate recording, transfer and sharing of pictures securely with friends on social networks, effectively bridging digital needs in layers 1, 2 and 3. I expect this trend to continue and increase in order to make possible solutions where we feel comfortable tracking our most intimate feelings and behavior in virtual worlds. We may even in the future decide to swap human needs for digital ones, deciding to interact and socialize more in the digital world than in the physical world. It will be very interesting to see if such swaps can be done, what will be required to do so and the side effects that this will bring forward.

Conclusion

I suggest in this post that there is a hierarchy of our digital needs that are essential to understand if we want to lead meaningful digital lives. I propose a hierarchy of digital needs that maps to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs because our digital self is merely a twin of our real world self.

Our digital needs can be mapped to the 5 layers of Maslow’s pyramid of needs (physiological, safety, belonging, wellness and self-actualization). We must address the bottom layer needs before higher level ones if we want to enjoy our digital life and benefit from all that it can offer. Physical and digital needs map to one another, and it may be possible to swap physical needs for digital ones. Companies should thus leverage this hierarchy of digital needs to improve their products and services.

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Farid Mheir
farid@mheir.com