Nick Carr has a thought-provoking post entitled The hierarchy of innovation on his Rough Type blog. For those not familiar with him, Carr is the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” According to a New York Times review of the book, it makes the case that computers and the Internet are destroying our powers of concentration, reducing our attention spans, fragmenting our knowledge and consigning us to the “information shallows.” “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web,” says Carr. “We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”
I’ll get back to these points later in this post but, before I do, I want to focus on Carr’s recent blog post on innovation. In it he takes issue with Justin Fox, who he describes as the “latest pundit to ring the ‘innovation ain’t what it used to be’ bell.” In a recent Wired column, Fox echoed the claims of Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson and others, which he summarized as follows:
Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century wrought by electricity, cars, and electronic communication, the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.
Carr sees it differently:
There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs.
To explain why this might be the case, Carr looks to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is summarized in the following diagram:
If necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention, then Carr’s logic makes pretty good sense:
My idea – and it’s a rough one – is that there’s a hierarchy of innovation that runs in parallel with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that human needs progress through five stages, with each new stage requiring the fulfillment of lower-level, or more basic, needs. So first we need to meet our most primitive Physiological needs, and that frees us to focus on our needs for Safety, and once our needs for Safety are met, we can attend to our needs for Belongingness, and then on to our needs for personal Esteem, and finally to our needs for Self-Actualization…
If progress is shaped by human needs, then general shifts in needs would also bring shifts in the nature of technological innovation. The tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self…
One of the consequences is that, as we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much. That’s particularly true when you compare what’s happening today with what happened a hundred years ago, when our focus on Technologies of Prosperity was peaking and our focus on Technologies of Leisure was also rapidly increasing, bringing a highly visible transformation of our physical circumstances…
We’re already physically comfortable, so getting a little more physically comfortable doesn’t seem particularly pressing. We’ve become inward looking, and what we crave are more powerful tools for modifying our internal state or projecting that state outward.
Carr’s post includes a graphic in which he lays out his hierarchy of innovation in a way that roughly parallels Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I agree with Carr up to this point, but can’t fully agree with his conclusion that “the arc of innovation, to put a dark spin on it, is toward decadence.”
Facing a fork in the road
This brings me back to what I consider Carr’s relatively dark view of the Internet as “the shallows”. What I’d suggest is that the age of ubiquitous digital connection and its particular forms of innovation do not necessarily arc toward decadence, but rather that decadence is one optional (albeit tempting) fork in the road of self-actualization-focused innovation. For lack of a better term, I’d call the other one “spiritual awakening,” or the path toward inner peace and our “higher self.”
To the extent we seek self-actualization (at the top of Maslow’s pyramid) mainly from external sources–prestige, wealth, power, pleasure, possessions, fame, a “perfect body,” a record number of Facebook friends, drugs (or any kind of addictive behavior)–Carr’s suggestion of a digital-era innovation arc toward decadence seems pretty accurate, as does his critique of the Internet’s downside.
But, to the extent that we, individually and collectively, understand and seek self-actualization as a process of awakening to what some call a “higher self,” the direction of the innovation arc in today’s digital age begins to look very different.
In case the term “higher self” seems too vague, let me try to clarify it a bit. What I’m talking about is a state of being with attributes that include compassion, inner peace, wisdom, empathy, joy, gratitude, clarity, courage, the experience of creative “flow,” personal integrity, and a non-ego-based desire to be of service. And it’s probably worth noting that this cluster of traits tends to be held in great esteem by the world’s major religions.
This is the other fork in the path of self-actualization and innovation in the digital age. And, importantly for the sake of this discussion, it’s a path for which we can find support through our access to the global Internet, which gives us ready access to many of the world’s greatest teachers, teachings, tools and practices related to discovering and experiencing our “higher self.”
It’s our choice
Certainly the Internet and digital devices like smartphones can distract and confuse. Yes, we can use them to feed our addictions, quicken the pace at which our egos are alternately pumped up and deflated, and devour every morsel of the latest gossip about Kim Kardashian. And, yes, we can use digital connectivity as a tool for self-promotion aimed at becoming the next Kim Kardashian.
But we can also use our digital connectivity to help us discover and travel the path to our higher self, which I’d suggest is the only fork in the road that actually leads to true self-actualization. In contrast, I’d consider Kardashian-style “fame and fortune” a form of pseudo self-actualization. Among the reasons: it depends heavily on external things like money and fame–which come and go and whose potential to fulfill us does not run very deep–and it generally does not nurture the “higher self” traits listed above (in fact, often their opposites).
And, while on one hand the proliferation of smartphones gives us the ability to remain constantly on the “digital decadence” path suggested by Carr, no matter where we are, the wise use of smartphones has equal potential to help us stay in close and more constant touch with our higher self.
Once we start walking a path of spiritual awakening, we can use the Internet and our digital devices to connect with others doing the same. And when we do, we often find ourselves inspiring and supporting each other, and finding ways to use the Internet and other digital (and non-digital) tools to help those who face serious challenges at every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–including those who lack basic necessities like food, clean water, healthcare, education, etc. While this might involve new forms of technological innovation, it might also involve relatively straightforward application of innovations generated in the past.
The missing peace: it’s time for Inner-vation
As many have noted, there’s plenty of food and other resources to support the world’s population, and to allow us all to travel up the path of fulfillment mapped out by Maslow and others. What’s needed most, I’d suggest, is not so much a resurgence of technological innovation. More important is for more of us fortunate enough to have reached the self-actualization crossroads to choose the fork that leads to our higher self. And then to use the power of digital technology to help ourselves and each other stay on that path, and support the billions of human beings still struggling with survival and other basic needs, so they too can join us on the self-actualization path (and no doubt teach us much about it).
The Ashoka “empathy training” project discussed in an earlier post is an example of an effort to institutionalize this process, and help young people begin traveling the higher-self road relatively early in their lives.
In short, the innovation we most need today is internal…to enable our humanity to catch up to our technology, so we can wield the latter with the wisdom, compassion and creativity that flows so naturally from the higher self.