Self-Actualization Trends in the Digital World

20 November 2003

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

A million downloads in three days. That’s how many people grabbed a copy of Apple’s iTunes for Windows software right after it was released. I confess, I’m one of those million.

But when iTunes first came out, it wasn’t a big deal to me. I’d already played with other music jukeboxes on the PC, and while the idea was a cute novelty, it hadn’t stuck. My idea of music wasn’t about listening to pop songs on a tinny set of built-in laptop speakers. But I got intrigued when my friend (I’ll call him “Digital-Doc”) showed me his new shiny iPod. “10,000 songs in your pocket, just like the ad in Wired magazine,” he said.

Digital-Doc delivers babies — he’s been doing it for about 30 years. Our daughters are 6th grade classmates and team members in state-level competitive gymnastics. Digi-Doc blows me away. He’s one of those early adopters of technology: iPod, TiVo, 5 megapixel photography — you name it. An old-fashioned baby doctor at the digital cutting edge. If I want to know more about the latest rage, I ask Digi-Doc. When he’s found something cool, he shares it with an exuberance that often lifts his voice up an octave.

Me — I’m a think-tank technologist and software management consultant, but strangely enough I have an alter-ego named “Analog Man.” Analog Man listens to vinyl records on a tube amplifier. My kids call them “big black CDs.” If you can believe it, my turntable costs more than my laptop. I also still take pictures on film using my 1978 Nikon, bought with precious savings from a job as a high school courier in New York City at $2.10 an hour. (By the way, when the tubes are warmed up on my stereo, it’s virtual reality — my music room is like the Star Trek holo-deck, transporting your soul to the center of Carnegie Hall. Nice as digital music is, you can’t get that analog and tube feeling from little computer speakers, and I routinely make people’s jaws drop since most have never had the tube/analog experience.)

Analog Man is an inverted mirror image of Digi-Doc. For Apple to have snagged me on an iPod download means that the last cow has come into the barn. But 10,000 songs on vintage vinyl records would require a U-Haul truck, while Digi-Doc happily hums away using earbuds attached to 40 gigs in his pocket. So I jumped in, got hooked, and entered a world of digital personalization.

Installing iTunes took about a minute and 48 seconds. After downloading, I imported a CD of Christmas and Hanukah music on which my daughter Tara is featured singing on several tracks. (One is an a cappella solo of “Ave Maria” in Italian — the Andrea Bocelli version.) The CD was produced by a gifted schoolteacher named Dana Martens and a remarkable musician here in the Berkshires in Massachusetts named Mark Kelso. Dana and Mark recorded a children’s school chorus in an old country church. It’s a hot seller that began as a fundraiser when their school faced a financial crunch from the recession. (Money raised helps minimize tuition increases and offsets costs of the annual school play.) Last year, shortly after the last song was recorded in the church, Mark finished the final mix in his studio, digitally. A couple of weeks later the children performed the songs by candlelight at a holiday celebration in a beautifully restored Shaker building, where the CDs were sold at the door.

Some of our friends had never heard Tara sing Ave Maria. So last night I clicked and dragged the song to the desktop and e-mailed it to them. Tara’s voice comes alive with one click. If they want to buy the CD, it’s available with another click. It’s also for sale at the checkout counter at Bartlett’s Apple Orchard and the Lenox Bookstore in the Berkshires. The Lenox Bookstore is a small family owned place near the Tanglewood Music Center. After a concert you can get CDs of Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra there on a shelf next to the Mountain Road School CD.

This is personalization. Andy Grove, the Chairman of Intel, described this new world in a recent interview on the subject. Commenting on innovation and the future of technology, he said that we are at the cusp of endless possibilities on how people will live and work in the years to come. He says, “Anything digital is borderless. You can not put obstacles in the way of digital technology flowing everywhere. Everything that has an information element can be digital, increasingly inexpensively.”

“That leads to a wholesale personalization of everything. MP3 players are personalization. Digital delivery allows you to make your own [iTunes] playlist. Same thing is happening in television, with personal video recorders like TiVo. The same thing is beginning in medicine, with diagnostics and personalization of treatment. This is information technology. And I submit to you, it is very, very early. We can’t even glimpse IT’s potential in changing the way people work and live.”

We are now living in a world where it’s possible for a small private school nestled in an old Shaker building in a rural community to self-produce a holiday CD of its own choir and create a beautiful gift of children’s voices, samples of which can be e-mailed and sold on the Internet. This is self-actualization and personalization in action.

The idea of self-actualization is the work of a 20th century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who lived from 1908 to 1970 and expressed the now-famous theory known as the hierarchy of human needs. In this theory, some needs take precedence over others. An example of this is if you are hungry and thirsty, you will tend to try and take care of the thirst first. The reason for this is, while you can potentially do without food for weeks, you can only do without water for a couple of days. Likewise, you can be very thirsty, but if you can’t breathe, that will be more important. The hierarchy of needs start at these physiological needs, and rise through the safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization needs.

In the self-actualizing domain, Maslow referred to this level as “growth motivation.” That is to say, once engaged, these needs continued to be felt, and grow stronger as we feed them in a continuous desire to fulfill potential, to “be all you can be.” Self-actualization is about becoming the most complete, fullest person possible, hence the term.

Digital and information technology can be about an acceleration of self-actualization. But why the acceleration? In Maslow’s theory, in order to self-actualize, you had to have your lower needs taken care of to some extent. It’s difficult to self-actualize if you’re struggling to put food on the table. And in the time of Maslow, much of the world was still immersed in the Industrial Revolution. When Maslow put forth the hierarchy of human needs, he estimated that only a very small percentage of people were self-actualizing — perhaps 2%.

But today, we may be seeing an acceleration of that 2% — perhaps it’s doubling, tripling, or quadrupling at a geometric rate now that we’re living in the Information, and not the Agricultural or Industrial Ages. Taking it to another level, personalization is without a doubt happening in corporate IT. If you extend the notion, you can imagine people within organizations and companies creating endless possibilities because of digital technology flowing everywhere. Barriers are coming down, middlemen are going away, and the rapid creation of things means that organizations can self-actualize with more freedom than was possible a few years ago.

While it’s hard to say where this trend will lead, there’s no doubt that as we’re going along on this ride, the possibilities for self expression and creativity are immense. Assuming that most of us can rest assured that there’s a roof over our heads and food on the table, the democratization of technology means that more and more people can have opportunities to author and create aspects of their lives in entirely new ways.

In the end, it seems to involve connecting with people and sharing life, whether it’s 40 gigs of music in your pocket or digital photos taken with your cell phone and sent instantly to grandma in New Jersey. It seems to be that businesses and companies that figure out how to constantly innovate are going to revolutionize their worlds and prosper. From what I’m told, Apple is apparently selling millions of 99-cent songs to millions of people who downloaded iTunes to their PCs. Even to analog guys like me who listen to Mozart on vinyl records through tube amplifiers. Digi-Doc is proud– he grins every time we talk about the new things people can do. I wonder what the world will look like when the babies he delivers today get to be our age?

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

© 2003 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved.