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Where the pyramid ends

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

According to Maslow, people satisfy their needs following a certain sequence. In 2004 the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies in their book ‘Creative Man’ suggested that our society is also likely to move up the ladder. As people get more affluent, they turn to self-actualization, helping others etc. And what comes next?

I tried to answer this question in my Master’s thesis. I went to the far, far future by assuming that everything we wanted materialized: interspace travel, superintelligence, mind reading etc, and natural humans stayed alive and could still live decently. This is more or less reasonable to assume, because if we survive, we are likely to get what we dream of, sooner or later, because of technological progress. Everything can be deemed possible in the long term.

So what did I find? Self-limitation seems to be the next thing we need, whether we want it or not.

Having no significant competition, we as a species accumulate more and more resources, material and immaterial, such as technologies, know-how, skills etc. Our power grows, both for the good and for the bad. If each of us, for example, can create weapons of mass destruction or make asteroids collide, or edit genes… Then we increasingly need to be able to foresee the implications of our action and, in some cases, to limit our own potentially dangerous behaviour.

Although self-limitation as a need became obvious after analysis of possible far futures, it seems to extend the theory about sequential satisfaction of needs in general, irrelevant of the time epoch. When you get so powerful that no one can limit you, you need to begin limiting yourself. Look at the situation with climate – we already have to do it; with monopolies – they limit their prices, or else the public may revolt; with some social media that begin limiting the time the users spend with them, or else they risk complete loss of their audience because of growing societal dissatisfaction over unhealthy experiences; with societies that forbid or limit certain types of businesses… Self-limitation has always been with us, from the moment a baby becomes capable of hurting itself. We just do not perceive it as a need – it is not something that we ‘get’, then we cannot ‘need’ it, right? But now, when we are so powerful, it becomes increasingly urgent. We need to ponder oftener: don’t I aim too far? Don’t I actually damage myself? Where is enough? How much wealth do I really need? How many years would be wise to live?

It is relevant for us as a society, too. It is likely that we will have to accept more limitations imposed upon ourselves. And even more of that – we are likely to support self-limitation on the collective levels. If anyone can damage many, then many will want everyone to be under control. The way additional control is going to be introduced remains to be seen – maybe it is not going to be the Big Brother.

Self-limitation that converts Maslow’s pyramid into a circular diagram, more like Yin-Yang symbol, seems to be the necessary change in the Western mind. In addition to linear thinking, to desires to grow, we need to develop circular thinking and look increasingly for balance.

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