The Internet and its hierarchy of needs

Internet Hierarchy of Needs

Kaila Colbin of the VortexDNA blog has a great series on the evolution of the internet, inspired by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. It starts here and then goes through the five stages separately.

Here’s a summary of the main points of the series:

The concept behind a hierarchy of needs is simple: each need must be filled before the next one becomes important, and each need loses its importance as it gets filled. With that in mind, the primary need in any system will be that of existence. Without existence, there is no point in worrying about hyperlinks, or semantics, or indexing, or metatagging.

The question at each level is always, “What problem do we have to solve before we can begin to worry about anything else?””

Level 1: Existence

Thesis: Basic elements for the Internet to work: computers connecting to each other and volume of documents

More discussion here.


Level 2: Connectivity

Thesis: The ability to connect to and between documents and sites, and its subsequent implications

More discussion here.

Kaila writes:

So what is the distinction between being able to connect computers and being able to link from within documents?

I think it’s huge.

Connecting computers means I give you a key to my filing cabinet. You can look in it, read files, and maybe edit them or make some copies if I let you or if you don’t care about my IP. Powerful stuff.

Not nearly as powerful, though, as the ability to connect from within documents. Here’s why: when I link from within a document, the object of my link becomes a part of the document. The document becomes defined through the relationship, rather than existing as a stand-alone item that can be accessed externally.

This is a significant evolutionary step. This is the difference between a collection of atoms and a living creature. This is the difference between Archie and Google.

Our existence is defined by relationships. You are live in relation to a place, work in relation to a job, love in relation to a partner. You are Rosemary’s granddaughter and the spitting image of your father.

The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 is the difference between a collection of hardware and a natural system.”


Level 3: Interpreting Patterns

Thesis: The ability to sort and search, based on titles, metatags, and document contents

More discussion here.

Kaila writes:

Without a doubt the best book that I’ve read on Level 3 is John Battelle’s The Search. In the beginning, nothing about how to organize the medium was obvious: indexing, traffic, monetizing… it was all fair game, and all of these problems had to be solved in order to create a viable and stable (somewhat) platform on which to build businesses and economies.

Google’s PageRank algorithm underscores the distinct importance of Level 2 as compared to Level 1. The correlation between relationships and relevance is undeniable, spam attempts notwithstanding. PageRank says, “You can’t look at these documents and sites in a vacuum. The way to understand them is through their connections to each other.”

Level 2 says the connections have to exist, and Level 3 says that we have to be able to interpret them.

We are at Level 3 now. We will likely be at Level 3 for several years to come. Most personalization attempts exist at Level 3. Google’s algorithm tweaks exist at Level 3. Most of Charles’ alternate search engines have business models based on Level 3.

There’s nothing wrong with Level 3, of course. It has worked remarkably well for ten years, and will continue to serve us until we supplant it. But you can already hear the rumblings… once we get this stuff organized, then what? And that will take us to Level 4, Semantic Needs, for which you’ll have to tune in tomorrow.”


Level 4: Semantic Needs

Thesis: The ability to derive meaning from language, content and context

More discussion here.

Kaila writes:

Level 4 is where we get into semantics: interpreting content and deriving meaning therefrom.


Level 5: Actualization

Thesis: The Web becomes a frictionless tool for personal growth and fulfillment

More discussion here.

For the past week, we’ve been progressing inexorably towards realizing the full potential of the Internet by asking the same question over and over: “Once we’ve done X, what’s next?”

* Once we’ve connected computers to each other, we can connect documents to each other.

* Once we’ve connected documents to each other, we can extrapolate meaning from the connections.

* Once we’ve extrapolated meaning from the connections, we can extrapolate meaning from the data.

* And now, Level 5: once we’ve extrapolated meaning from the data, the Web can become actualized, and, in doing so, fulfill its role as a tool for our self-actualization.”

This is what Level 5 of the Internet Hierarchy is about: the technology ceases to matter, and our focus returns to the true meaning of what we’re doing.

We begin to use the Internet to improve early disease detection and rapid disaster response. We use it to combat climate change. We use it to map the human genome.

1 Comment The Internet and its hierarchy of needs

  1. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    Very interesting discussion, although levels 4 and 5 are – by necessity – quite skimpy. No wonder – we’re simply not there yet. As Kaila says:

    Level 4 is where we get into semantics: interpreting content and deriving meaning therefrom… How will it happen? I have absolutely no idea. RDF, OWL, semantic search, standards… who knows?

    Level 5 is even more strange. Kayla’s discussion of it reminds me of trying to figure out – in a conceptual way – what the “next” dimension would be after the three we all know. How does the fourth dimension look, I agonized.

    The realization was that it isn’t “a dimension”. We need to overcome thinking in dimensions and realize that space doesn’t have just three directions in 90-degree orthogonal relation to each other. It has what I would call “omnidirectional extension”.

    I arrived there by imagining a system of orientation based on the tetrahedron instead of the cube. Different from the Cartesian co-ordinate system with its x,y,and z orthogonally arranged axes, the tetrahedral system would be based on four non-orthogonal axes and it would even have some advantages over the Cartesian kind in all-space orientation.

    Anyway, the upshot here is we don’t know what the next level of the internet will be until we have overcome the present one. I have a feeling that the semantic web and the level of actualization will have something to do with a ubiquitous network that interconnects and empowers all users directly, without the intervention of central servers or any of the components we think so important today. A living net of networks, pulsing and self-organizing. Something we can’t imagine until it finally emerges.

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