Solve deep needs, not superficial wants

This is the age of immediate satisfaction. Tech is relentlessly focused on getting us a cheap, disposable version of whatever we want in the fastest possible time. The biggest advertising companies in the world are Google and Facebook, and Amazon is the biggest discounter. The only thing that lasts today is our hunger for—and addiction to—more. We must break this addiction or we will break the Earth.

We must seek to:

  1. Solve deep needs, not superficial wants
  2. Design for the top tasks
  3. Don’t create: the most important decision is what you decide not to do 

Some twenty years ago, I accidentally discovered a research method that is now called Top Tasks. It’s a survey that identifies what matters most and what matters least. The WHO used Top Tasks in May 2020, during the height of the pandemic, to identify COVID-19 top tasks. The top four tasks were:

  1. Vaccine (development, availability, safety)
  2. Latest news, latest research (alerts, directives, updates)
  3. Transmission, spread, epidemiology
  4. Immunity, antibody testing (criteria, availability, accuracy)

The WHO Top Tasks survey had over 120 countries participating. Then we did individual Top Tasks surveys in Canada, New Zealand, Norway and Ireland. The same basic results came up time and time again, because we’re all human and we all have the same basic tasks, the same basic needs.

In Ireland they ran the Top Tasks survey in May 2020, November 2020 and May 2021 in order to see if the top tasks were changing as the pandemic evolved. You might expect that, in a fast-moving pandemic, the top tasks would change on a monthly basis. But no. 60% of the top tasks were identical in May 2020, November 2020 and May 2021. Deep needs don’t change, even in a pandemic. Out of 79 tasks that people chose, vaccine was 1st, 2nd and 1st. Mental health and wellbeing was 5th, 1st and 2nd.

In the first Irish COVID-19 survey, the top seven tasks got as much of the vote as the bottom 47 tasks. This is the classic scenario. In our 2009 Top Tasks survey for Liverpool city, the top six tasks got as much of the vote as the bottom 49. This is what we have found again and again in some 600 Top Tasks studies.

Some things are a lot more important than others. As we found in Liverpool, and in fact in the vast majority of places where we did these surveys, the top tasks were being neglected and the tiny tasks were being promoted.

That’s because when a tiny task goes to sleep at night it dreams of being a top task. The ego, the vanity, the superficial wants—these are what we often find down among the tiny tasks. It is the dreams of tiny tasks that are creating the nightmare for life on Earth. The constant creation and production of the less important stuff, and the neglect of the top tasks. In a pandemic, the cost of political and ego-based decisions is brought into stark focus. The top task (the vaccine) must be focused on because it is literally a matter of life or death. In so many other areas, it is a matter of life on Earth, but we don’t see that because we’re slowly boiling the frog—and so many other species. A little bit of superficiality and short-term thinking never hurt anyone, did it now? Once more for the superficial want, for the useless content, the wasteful cliché image, the vanity video, the throwaway app, the unnecessary feature. Let the deep need wait.

We cannot let the deep need wait anymore. You must become the voice that asks: Is it worth it? Why are we doing this? Why do we need to be constantly creating stuff for the tiny tasks? Why do we neglect maintenance on the top tasks? Why do we focus so much on superficial wants instead of focusing relentlessly on deep needs?

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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