Needs, Wants, Nice to Haves

If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad;
If it makes you happy, well then why the hell are you so sad?
   — Sheryl Crow

On several fronts lately I have been debating the distinction between what people need, what they want, and what they would value as ‘nice to have’. The discussion has been in the context of innovation and marketing. I’m not a fan of Maslow, so I’m not referring to his ‘hierarchy of needs’. To me, needs are those things that are essential to physical, psychological, and emotional health. So I believe certain freedoms, a rich social life, some fun, and self-esteem, for example, to be needs for most people — I have seen too many suffering among those lacking these things not to consider them as anything less. By ‘wants’ I mean those things that you think would make you happier. Whether they actually do or not, as Sheryl’s lyric above shows, is not the point. And by ‘nice to haves’ I mean those things that have some value to you, so that you would be willing to invest at least some time or money or other currency to get them.

The purpose of marketing, generally, is to create wants, nice to haves, and perceptions of need. I may think I need a sports car, thanks or no thanks to marketers, I may even ache at the thought of not having one, but I don’t need one. I don’t need a car at all (although I live far from the city, I could get up early and walk or bike to the nearest public transportation stop, seven miles away — and my health might actually be better if I did so). I don’t need a private house, just a place to protect me from extreme elements and to sleep comfortably. I think it is very telling that most of the things we need are intangible, while most of the things we want are material.

What is ugly about marketing is that they prey on weaknesses (things we need but often don’t have, like self-esteem) to con us into believing we need something we don’t (like some brand of overpriced crap clothing). The con is that if we buy the crap, we’ll feel better about ourselves, and the real need (self-esteem) will be fulfilled by satisfying a mere want. As a result, it is in the interest of the marketers of crap that we do not fulfill our needs, since that would leave them nothing to exploit. The poor and the under-educated are the main victims of this con, and the biggest advertisers support, with campaign dollars, politicians who keep as many as people as possible poor and undereducated, so they can sell more and satisfy their shareholders (who, for the most part, are rich and educated and neither want nor need the product). The more radically simple your lifestyle, the more you realize that you need very little, and generally the happier you are, so therefore the less you want and the fewer your nice-to-haves. You will therefore never read nor hear about radical simplicity in any sponsored program.

Many modern electronic devices primarily fulfill wants and nice-to-haves, but because they are so feature-packed, they also have many features that most users don’t use at all, and which have in fact negative utility because they complicate the device unnecessarily. Simplicity and ease-of-use therefore become wants and nice-to-haves that let vendors of well-designed products charge a higher price for a product with fewer features — less is more.

So what? I have repeatedly argued that the best innovations tap an unmet, deep human need. Agriculture, the wheel, the printing press, antibiotics, and birth control pills all met urgent human needs — in the context of the times in which they were invented. Yet today we live in a world where aggregate human health — physical, psychological and emotional — remains poor (judging by wellness during life, not just average lifespan, and considering, for example, that more people suffer and die from diseases caused by excessive diet than from malnutrition). So, I have argued, any organization that wants to be truly innovative should take an honest look at our lack of wellness and invent something that will improve it.

Many people today are gambling addicts (in Canada money spent on lottery tickets and similar gambling activities is so high that it rates a separate line in the government’s average household expenditure statistics). Addiction is one (very effective) way of converting a want to a need. Addicts get physically and psychologically ill if they try to quit the activity to which they are addicted, but, catch-22, also get physically and psychologically ill from these activities. The tobacco and alcohol industries are just two which have produced dozens of billionaires by exploiting the misery of addiction, and still we tolerate them. Add in gambling, the adrenaline and dopamine-producing social activities like violent films and sports, food addictions (like salt, sugar, etc.), and other socially contrived ‘needs’ (study the agitation of schoolchildren who have to go to school without the expensive peer-approved brands of clothing, footwear or MP3 player), and the majority of our discretionary income could well be spent on ‘manufactured’ needs. Add that to the real needs of the modern Western world — (non-addictive) food, shelter from heat and cold, transportation to our wage slave jobs, health care, and a reasonable quality education for our children (to equip them for their wage slave jobs), and you have ‘needs’ that greatly exceed average income — so we fall into the two-income trap and become addicted to debt as well.

So if I were an innovation incubator, looking for projects to fund, I would start with projects that address both real and ‘manufactured’ needs (both at the individual and societal levels) — and things that people merely want, or would find nice to have, wouldn’t even be on my radar screen.

This intriguing article by John Thackera suggests that the nice-to-have features that can be inexpensively built into any new technology have infatuated designers to the point they overwhelm the product, or as the author puts it “If you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result will be a stupid product.”

We are told that within a generation 90% of all Internet traffic will be machine to machine (M2M). But what value comes from having staggering numbers of information transfers between machines? Is this really mostly useful and (human) time-saving activity or is it mostly noise and infrastructure to allow marketers and others to be even more invasive and presumptuous about our needs and wants? Just as Microsoft steals most of the additional space and processing speed of each new PC for its ever-more bloated and useless-feature rich ‘newest releases’, is M2M stealing bandwidth from people that would better be used to solve real human problems?

Even worse, will mindless new applications pollute the Internet the way mindless violence has polluted the motion picture and television industries — ever more money spent on ever more sophisticated special effects to evoke ever-harder responses from an audience dulled and numbed by meaningless, shallow excess? And will commercial data transfer so clog the staggering bandwidth of the future that there will be no room left for ‘free’ human P2P connection, about things that are truly meaningful?

I had a strange dream the other night. In it, various people I ‘knew’ virtually from e-mail and weblog exchanges told me that they had simply switched off their PCs because they had become an impediment to real conversation and social interaction. And I was saying to them, You mean TVs, you have switched off your TV’s to pursue social network activities and they said No, we did that years ago, now we’re switching off our PCs for the same reason — The Internet is now saturated with spam and ads and superficial, sensationalist ‘news’ and self-promoters, and ‘Britney Spears’ is now the number one Google search term, and the Internet as a whole is becoming a barren and ineffectual way of carrying on social discourse, compared to talking with people face to face, and a frustrating and unproductive way of learning, compared to going outside, say, and learning from nature.

And I realized they were right. We would be much better off rediscovering the here and now in the real world, and finding out what people think, and need, and want. More conversations and interviews and observations. Less searching and browsing, more listening and really paying attention with your senses.

I started this post with a song lyric. I guess I might as well end with one, too, about the imprecision of language and the unimaginably low signal-to-noise ratio of online information, and the disheartening incoherence of our messages to each other, from Phil Collins:

While I sit here trying to think of things to say
Someone lies bleeding in a field somewhere
So it would seem we’ve still got a long long way to go
I’ve seen all I want to see today

While I sit here trying to move you anyway I can
Someone’s son lies dead in a gutter somewhere
And it would seem that we’ve still got a long long way to go
I can’t take it anymore

Turn it off if you want to, Switch it off it will go away
Turn it off if you want to, Switch it off or look away

While I sit and we talk and talk and we talk some more
Someone’s loved one’s heart stops beating in a street somewhere
So it would seem we’ve still got a long long way to go, I know
I’ve heard all I want to hear today

Switch it off
Turn it off

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3 Responses to Needs, Wants, Nice to Haves

  1. Chris Ball says:

    You say: “We are told that within a generation 90% of all Internet traffic will be machine to machine.” Would you like to elaborate? It seems to me that ALL internet traffic is machine-to-machine, so I’m a bit curious where you draw the distinction.

  2. I think he means direct personal networks, a return to the BBS days, as opposed to server-routed a-la P2P. An aside: already there are fights between the two major internet backbones over unpaid bills; they’re cutting off certain important subscribers who are running major servers, and this is causing dropped packets by the trillion, disrupting the Internet world-wide. More redunancy in the form of individuals setting up small servers and only talking to each other also gets around (for a time) certain incredibly intrusive government controls that are being put into place to monitor net traffic.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    M2M refers to information transfers between machines on their own ‘intelligence’ e.g. your PDA asking your refrigerator what’s needed for the shopping list, and then forwarding it to the grocery store for the order to be filled, and then the grocery store machine recontacting your PDA to tell you your order is ready and waiting for you. A ton of more mundane communications with various sensors reading vearious tags will make up most of the volume.

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