April 10, 2023
The Web3 Hierarchy of Needs
You’ve probably come across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at some point.
The gist of it: Before people can think about anything else, they must meet their psychological needs — air, water food, shelter — before then seeking out safety, whether it be physical or financial. Only then can they focus on “higher needs” like feelings of love and belonging, esteem, and, finally, self-actualization.
To reach each step, people (and, by extension, society) must secure the previous one. Note - if you haven’t read Motivation and Personality by Maslow and you work in crypto, you are missing out and probably doing it wrong.
Web3, too, has its own hierarchy of needs. Basic needs, such as sufficient security and decentralization, had to be established first. As those needs have been met, the Web3 ecosystem has been able to start considering higher level needs: things like performance, cost-effectiveness, societal acceptance, and accessibility.
In this piece, I will go into each of these needs, explaining both their necessity and their evolution over the past decade. I will end by isolating what I believe is the biggest risk to meeting our highest needs as a Web3 ecosystem — a challenge that, if not faced head on, will keep us from reaching our full potential as a force for good in human society.
The First Need: Security
It’s no accident that many of the earliest blockchain thinkers were intensely focused on security, from Satoshi speaking about it extensively in the Bitcoin whitepaper to Vitalik and other predecessors. Before anything else, the blockchain model had to prove it could work as a secure, tamper-proof ledger of transactions.
It’s not surprising then that Bitcoin, Ethereum, and many other projects adopted a proof-of-work algorithm that was intentionally computationally difficult as a way to guard against hackers and bad actors. They prioritized security above all else — above usability, cost, and other factors — in the same way human beings prioritize securing food and shelter before worrying about concepts like love and self-esteem: without security, nothing else matters.
The Second Need: Decentralization
You can have security without resilience, just as you can find shelter behind a wooden lean-to or behind a brick-and-mortar house: one is much more resilient than the other. Similarly, once basic security was met, decentralization became tantamount to building a Web3 ecosystem that was more resilient to cyber attacks and technical outages.
Early concerns about decentralized security were proven wrong as the validator model was validated over time, which is why so many Web3 networks (including Ethereum) have shifted to Proof of Stake. Through decentralization, blockchains are able to provide more security, transparency and protection against censorship than centralized traditional networks — while also enabling many of the Web3 ecosystem’s benefits as it realizes the higher needs to come.
The Third Need: Performance
The use cases for blockchain applications have evolved and expanded over time, from DeFi lending and NFT staking to decentralized identity proofs and interoperable metaverse assets.
This evolution has created a massive opportunity for the Web3 ecosystem to build a better web capable of onboarding the vast majority of humanity that operates on the more extractive web built on Web2 applications. However, it also creates an even greater need to optimize Web3 technology for stability and speed. Smart contracts and computation that allow for seamless operation without friction are critical.
The success of SKALE in enabling gas-free transactions at industry-leading speeds is a step toward a more “invisible” Web3 experience, one that is essential to meet the nearly limitless transactions required to operate, say, a fully immersive metaverse or a completely integrated DeFi economy in the future.
The Fourth Need: Societal Acceptance
Societal calls for environmentally sustainable and legally compliant blockchains have happened concurrently with the calls for greater performance on blockchain networks, and the two are intimately tied. As blockchains prove their ability to process massive numbers of transactions at scale, they must also prove they can do so ethically — an existential challenge, since failing to do so could lead to public society rejecting blockchains altogether.
Thankfully, the Web3 ecosystem has made significant progress in addressing its environmental impact, with a shift to Proof of Stake models plus conscious efforts from blockchain enterprises to decarbonize their operations and work alongside government regulators on addressing compliance concerns. Doing so is an essential component of building a better web, and as a builder myself, I’ve seen firsthand the progress being made to meet the (understandable) concerns of the public.
The Fifth Need: Accessibility
For Maslow, the culmination of addressing our human needs is self-actualization, which he described as achieving one’s full potential. For Web3, that self-actualization comes from a fully integrated and seamless blockchain-enabled internet that can successfully onboard the entirety of humanity.
To get there, you have to have all of the previous needs met, from security and decentralization to performance and societal acceptance. However, you also need a Web3 ecosystem that is optimized for user experience, ease of use, and cost. Even with its significant benefits, Web3 will continue to struggle to attract the vast majority of internet users if it is more complicated and difficult to operate than the apps they currently use.
Here, too, significant progress has been made. We are finally seeing chains, and the apps built upon them, taking UX seriously. The cultural resonance of NFTs, evidenced in their adoption by mainstream brands and their inclusion in societal hallmarks like the Super Bowl, has helped. So too has the emergence of easier to use Web3 tools, improvements in web3/API wallets, or user-friendly exchanges like Coinbase.
What Keeps us From Web3 Actualization
Now that I’ve laid out the Web3 hierarchy of heeds, it’s worth reflecting on the part of Maslow’s hierarchy that often gets overlooked: That even if someone has met their lower needs, the success of achieving their higher needs is far from guaranteed.
In fact, people often fail to progress after having certain needs met. The formerly jobless person who hoards resources rather than investing in longterm safety. The self-made entrepreneur who refuses to spend on herself/himself or on relationships because of his past poverty. The careerist who values the esteem of peers over leaving a job to pursue the life truly wanted.
At every stage, individuals are at risk of allowing their old ways of thinking to hold them back from reaching the next step in their development. And if you think of Web3 as a natural mirror of society — as I do — then it’s clear that we too suffer from this all-too-human danger. If we, as a Web3 ecosystem, hold too tightly onto our past beliefs, we may do so at the cost of our fully actualized future.
We must recognize our successes and continue to improve on the progress we’ve made on security, decentralization, and other critical needs. However, we must now spend our time and energy on prioritizing the factors that will help us fulfill our higher needs as an ecosystem, such as addressing the needs of the end user in order to enable mass adoption while not forgoing the foundation or base needs.
After all, if we aren’t building toward a Web3 ecosystem capable of benefiting humanity at scale, then what have we been building all of this for in the first place?