In my first college class, “Introduction to Psychology,” I was introduced to a popular concept of that era, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”:
The idea is simple. For human beings to become “self-actualized,” we first need to satisfy our basic needs. Each level going “up” assumes you’ve fulfilled the need that precedes it. This can help explain why, for instance, it’s difficult to manage life if we’re experiencing hunger, trauma, or deprivation. It has a certain logic to it: what factors need to be in place for you to become your “best self”?[i]
Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker that suggested Maslow’s hierarchy needs to be updated. I couldn’t find the actual cartoon this week, but found a graphic that displays the cartoonist’s point[ii]:
What’s it like these days if your power is out? Or your internet is down? Or your cellphone dies?
A few years ago, we were staying at a modest, funky hotel on Highway 1 south of Big Sur. It was in a remote area where cell service was either spotty or nonexistent. If you were a registered guest, you were given the WIFI password. But they had a policy of not giving the password to anyone who was just passing by because their small parking lot would become full of people stopping only to use their limited system. I remember an anxious European couple coming into the tiny reception office and being told they would not be given the password since they were not registered guests. They were aghast. How does one travel without WIFI or cell service?
About the same time, I made a trip to New York to see some baseball games, music concerts and art exhibits. I was walking down a busy street in Manhattan when, out of habit, I checked to be sure my wallet was secure. It was. But then it hit me — what would I do if I lost my iPhone? That was how I was communicating with my Airbnb hosts, hailing Uber rides, showing my tickets at events, finding my way through the city, checking on my flight details, and keeping in touch with my wife.
Twenty years ago, I had a sabbatical to study how digital technology was beginning to reshape our lives. My research included interviewing people in Silicon Valley and India and surveying a broad range of experts. I became acutely aware of how our lives and expectations were rapidly changing, often imperceptibly.[iii]
The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
When the first films were first made and shown, people could not believe images of real people could move across a flat surface. Then came radio – voices traveling invisibly through the air for many miles – which seemed like another miracle. Black and white TV followed – now people speaking in real time could be seen in the privacy of our homes. Something better was always around the corner. Color TV and The Wonderful World of Disney! Then VCRs — you can record The Wizard of Oz and watch it anytime you want! Then DVDs — you don’t have to rewind the movie when you’re done! Then unlimited channels with streaming content on the internet — including YouTube with 2 billion users, where you can watch some guy in his kitchen in Tennessee showing you how to unclog a drain in four minutes! Each new stage truly seems like “magic.”
Then a few years later the miraculous device — the TV, the monitor, the laptop, the smartphone, the modem, or the router — is lying on a card table at a garage sale with a $5 price tag; when it doesn’t sell, it’s dropped off at an “E-waste” site.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari offers an overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present. He points that each time there is an “advance,” there is also some kind of loss. For instance, when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers they were highly attuned to their environment and lived entirely off what nature provided. When they settled down to become farmers, they were able to create greater quantities of food but soon lost the subtle and detailed environmental knowledge that had taken their ancestors many generations to acquire. When people moved from farms to cities, they lost the connection to the earth even more and, for many, the practical know-how of how to grow food, as well as create and fix things on their own. We’ve now moved into the digital age and gained a whole new range of capabilities — but at what cost? Are we more “self-actualized” or any wiser?
Cell phones, digital devices, the internet and WIFI have, in some ways, become as essential to modern life as food, water, warmth and rest. I appreciate all their beneficial uses. But I’m concerned about how dependent we’ve become.
Featured image: Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, 1427
[i] There have been critiques of this concept, noting it’s very Western, male, and individualistic in its assumptions and completely ignores any spiritual dimensions. But we’ll save that discussion for another day.
[iii] I published articles based on my research, including “Soul-Keeping in a Digital Age: The Role of Spiritual Practices and Traditions in a High-Tech World,’ which I presented at the “UNESCO Conference on Religious Pluralism” in Seattle in January 2005. The paper is available at https://drjsbcom.files.wordpress.com/2021/01/soul-keeping-in-the-digital-age-1.pdf