The meme above is doing the rounds in schools at the moment, which shows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with an extra box drawn on the bottom. The text in the box says “Internet” or “Wi-fi”. Teenagers identify with a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that places Internet access at the very base of the triangle. Kids who have never seen a day without sustenance and shelter actually think that wi-fi access is more important than food.
It neatly introduces the subject of needs and wants. I grew up in the age before the internet, before the mobile phone. I grew up in a household with seven kids and three adults. Don’t get me wrong, I never went hungry for a day. But when I was a kid a treat was just that, a treat. There was no magic cupboard constantly refilled with popcorn or sweets or chocolate bars. A jar of jam was not a staple. There was NOT a constant supply of fresh fruit. Even dried fruit was in short supply, purchased for the purpose of making cake, and any spares were quickly nibbled away by deft young fingers.
Shop-bought biscuits were very much a treat. Deserts were home-made. There were far more deserts available when free produce came into season. Rhubarb in spring, cooking apples in the autumn, stewed and served with custard, made into tarts or sponges, baked stuffed apples. We had a vested interest in picking blackberries, because they translated into tarts and crumbles.
If we were hungry between set meals there was always (within reason) bread and butter, milk and tea. Nobody starved. We knew the difference between Need and Want.
When I was teaching marketing in college the earthquake hit Haiti. When we looked at Maslow I told the students to imagine the following situation. There is a Haitian doctor, a pillar of the community, living in a fine house with his family. One day he is mulling over a decision to replace his car. Does he want something more racy and sporty, or something more conservative to reflect his status in the community? His wife is tired of the curtains in the living room and is idly flicking through a catalogue for ideas. His daughter is moaning that her mobile phone is so last year and all her friends have better ones.
The earthquake hits. They run into the street as their house collapses around them. The house falls on the car and destroys it. They are left standing in the street, in the rain, wearing the clothes on their back.
The mobile phone no longer works because the network has been destroyed. They have no cash in hand (if anyone would take it) and the bank machines will not work because the electricity is gone.
They have dropped from Self-Actualisation all the way down to Physiological needs. The way Maslow works you need to satisfy base needs before you can move up to the next level. The four bottom rungs of the triangle are all Needs. Only Self-Actualisation is actually about Wants.
It has been said that any society is only three meals away from anarchy (I can’t get an original quote on this). It is a valid contention. Strip away the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy and society cannot stand.
Our Haitian family have moved from decisions about curtains, phones and cars to a point where they would be happy with a sheet of plastic to keep the rain off, and a mug of soup to fill their stomach.
The next time you can’t get a wi-fi signal or you lose your mobile phone, remember, though it may seem so, it is really not the end of the world.
Any problem that can be fixed with money is never as bad as it seems at the time. You may not have the money to fix it, but someone does, and you can find them if you look hard. As long as nobody was killed or seriously injured our Haitian family can start to ascend the triangle until they get back to self-actualisation.
Desire; by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes its meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart.