SFGate017

Love Bytes Will the Net flatten Maslow’s pyramid?


Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, April 12, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/04/12/love.dtl

You remember Maslow.

He was the noted psychologist who suggested in 1954 that people develop in a predictable way: serving our physiological requirements first, like food and shelter, before concentrating on higher order needs like safety, winning the esteem of others, or finding love.

Fans of Maslow’s theory say he described an immutable, unchanging aspect of human nature.

Enter the Internet.

The Internet is changing more than the way we live. It may also be changing human nature or, at the very least, our understanding of human nature. In fact, when it comes to the pompadance of love, the Net is already beginning to turn Maslow’s pyramid upside down.

Maslow said the complicated, time consuming search for love and acceptance must usually wait until more basic needs are satisfied. His conclusions were drawn from his observations of how people struggled to make their way in the world during the 1950s. Eventually, he concluded that the patterns he had observed were a stable part of our nature as humans. The Internet is revealing, however, that at least some of those patterns might have been merely products of the times in which Maslow lived.

The problem of finding love was brought home to me during a college course I took called the Sociology of Marriage.

I was surprised to learn that, according to a variety of statistical studies, the single-most important variable that determines whom one eventually marries is not anything you might expect, at least not at first. It’s not common interests, or shared values, or similar political views, or physical appearance, or even a common religion.

It’s proximity.

We humans tend, in general, to fall in love with, and marry, people we live near, work alongside, or see on a daily basis. For untold ages, romantic prospects, at least in the western world, have been limited to the choices that we, quite literally, had at hand.

There’s even a slang term, GU, or geographically undesirable, that reflects the geocentricity of love. Years ago, if you weren’t interested in the single people you came across each day, you were pretty much out of luck. Far better to concentrate on the search for food and shelter.

Today, though, thanks to the Internet, social circles are widening considerably, to a degree unprecedented in human history. It seems likely this more expansive pattern of interpersonal interactions will change the ways we meet our needs as humans.

I’m not just talking about the advent of online dating services, like lovecity.com, The Meeting Point, or the Internet Computer Dating Service, which can now hook people up with new prospects at the speed of light. Nor am I referring to the way some Net-savvy singles are using the Internet to get dates, even though such practices are already beginning to alter the traditional geocentric path to finding love.

The more important trend revolves around how Internet users are learning to interact, and to live, with one another.

We are forming new communities; whether in chat rooms, affinity groups held together by websites, or through increased levels of personal correspondence made possible by email. Thanks to the Internet, more of us are talking to more of us one-on-one. It’s that increased level of interpersonal accessibility that might, in the end, do the most damage to Maslow’s theory.

In the Bay Area, for example, several million people are located within driving distance of each other. Pre-Internet, over the course of an entire lifetime, you probably had access, in a meaningful way, to a tiny fraction of them. Nowadays, every single wired person in the Bay Area (or the world for that matter) is but a mouse click away. What’s more, the ranks of digitally accessible singles are growing exponentially.

Singles are already hooking up over the ‘Net in increasing numbers. A founder of Switchboard, a popular Internet people finder, said one of the largest groups of Switchboard users are people searching for romantic connections. That’s why Switchboard makes it easy for its users to send each other flowers and other gifts. There are now even high-tech meeting places where pictures of available singles are beamed onto walls so other singles can pick the people they’d like to meet.

This trend — making love connections with the help of technology — probably won’t go as far as was suggested in the science fiction classic, “Logan’s Run,” where people instantaneously beamed new paramours to their lairs after selecting them from an online video directory.

But the ‘Net is bringing more people within reach. We shouldn’t be surprised that at least some of those people have started touching one another. It’s that development that poses the greatest challenge to Maslow’s idea, which was conceived during an era when most people lived far more isolated, less reachable, lives.

The detractors, of course, claim the avalanche of online activity is actually anti-social. They point to studies purporting to show that people who spend a lot of time online enjoy comparatively fewer face-to-face interactions with real, actual people. What at least some of those studies have ignored, however, is that large chunks of all that supposedly anti-social online time frequently involves online interactions with other people, or at least with their ideas.

Another recent study claimed that heavy Internet users were more unhappy, based on their own self-reports, than were non-users. That, too, is easy to explain: heavy Internet users, at present, tend to be more highly educated and technically literate as a group, than non-users. My guess is that frequent Internet users also, consequently, have a greater understanding of the yawning gap between what is possible and what actually is. That’s enough to make anyone depressed.

The truth is that we are just beginning to feel the effects of the ‘Net’s power to change not only how we do things, but who we are. And one of the biggest of those changes is the way the ‘Net makes it easier to more rapidly meet our higher order needs. This new reality could eventually lead to a change in our thinking about the very nature of human needs.

It may turn out that feeding our souls first, by forming connections with others, is a better way to address our other, more basic needs. At very least, it’s now more possible than ever before to navigate Maslow’s Pyramid by starting closer to the top.

In fact, tending to higher needs first, such as by building a website that gives expression to the inner self, or finding romance online, might already be the best way to meet more basic needs, such as food and shelter. After all, a lover can buy you a sandwich, but a sandwich can’t buy you love.

Likewise, if you are looking for a job, what you may really need are more friends. The less isolated one is, the easier it is to find whatever you may be looking for.

Most of the attention devoted to the Internet these days focuses on how it is changing commerce, government, and the media. But in the end, bringing the top of Maslow’s Pyramid down to ground level could be the Internet’s most significant accomplishment.

By embracing the Internet, we humans are changing the ways we work together, interact, and form new relationships. We may discover that the things we are changing, change us.

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