Building Technology from the Inside Out

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“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety” — A. Maslow // Photo: Philippe Ramette

Two words were on my mind. As I handed back my badge, let the double-pane glass door lock behind me and walked out into the Bay’s fog. Those two pesky words described why I’d joined Google, and why I left.

“Search on.”

My name is Cristina. I’m an average American millennial. As such, I interact with technology over 2,500 times a day. That’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact. These glances, taps and swipes absorb 10 hours of each day, 152 days each year, or roughly 1/3 of our lives.

Intuitively, we know we use technology often, regardless of whether you personally buy that 2,500 number or not. As an ex-Googler, ex-yoga teacher, and Yale sociologist, I often overthink this topic:

How does technology influence our mental state?

Our use of smartphones has been shown to neurologically change our brains. As a designer of user engagement at Google, I can informally attest to this. By tweaking some prompts and colors in Google’s mobile search app, we influenced many to try speaking their questions out loud to Google, instead of typing in that eponymous search bar.

BJ Fogg, a Behavioral Psychologist at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, has more formally proven the persuasiveness of technology in academic contexts. The summary is this: Triggers, like the notifications you get from Instagram or Facebook, themselves don’t release hits of pleasure-inducing dopamine, but they can trigger us to start new behavior routines down the road that will. That new notification you received won’t necessarily give you a hit of dopamine today, but if you take action on it, it will likely influence you to create a new habit down the road. A habit, which by its very nature, is a behavior hard-wired by the chemicals of your brain circuitry. The smart product designers of today are designing your habits of tomorrow, through simple prompts, designs, and well-timed messages.

It’s on a neurological level that technologists, scientists, and psychologists have begun to operate, myself included. Technologists can help you to establish new habits — or cause you to — depending on how you want to look at it. Call this process habitual, addictive, influential — what if we settled on the word choice? Once you know how technology works on you psychologically, it becomes your choice in how you want to use it. Or if you’re a technologist yourself, your choice in how you want to make it. Yet sometimes we forget.

Technology is — a choice. We choose to use it. And we choose to continue to make it.

I’m not here to judge your use of technology, or any technology for that matter. As humans, we’ve made technologies for the last 200,000 years, many of which have been extremely powerful tools. Technologies have always stirred controversy and been used for both good and bad. That is historical fact, and likely not going to change. Sure, our technological tools are more complex today than in the fire-and-flint days, but the premise hasn’t changed. We continue to design new tools to help us with what we need.

So — what is it we all need help with today?

If you suspected that we named our company “Maslo” in a nod to Abraham Maslow, you were right. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, his most well-known contribution to psychology, lays out the range of “needs” we have as humans to live fully satisfying lives. Physiological and Safety needs make up the base — things like food, water, and shelter. These are required for us to reach a state of generally stable “aliveness”. But what then? We’re alive, but we’re not necessarily happy.

To grow into happiness, we need things that aren’t basic to our survival — needs for Belonging, for Esteem, and for Self-Actualization. It’s not necessarily enough to have the basics covered to have a happy life, as much as the zen yogi within me wants to try. Our motivation pushes us further. We’re motivated to make friends, get to know people intimately, identify with certain groups and use these allegiances to describe ourselves with symbolic labels. We do things that help us feel accomplished, help us feel that we’ve contributed to society, to give us that all around feeling of being content and satisfied.

Social media today plays off our higher order need for belonging and esteem. So does millennial slang. FOMO is a fear of missing out, of being estranged, of not belonging. But fulfillment is ultimately an inside job, and we all must start shutting out the chorus in order to find those things we so crave.

Here at Maslo, we believe in helping each other grow.

We believe in helping people be more than just alive and breathing. We believe in defining meaning, choosing belonging, and growing into identities that are bigger versions of who we are now. These things aren’t stagnant: they take work, and they will shift over time. What likely isn’t going anywhere is our deep reliance on technology. So if we’re going to share 2,500 moments with it a day — arguably the closest physical relationship we have — let’s use it to help us in our searches for meaning and fulfillment. Searches that lie way beyond those for takeout, Uber, or the occasional Airbnb.

Search on, indeed.

It’s time for technology to mature. When it engages with us on deeper human topics, we’ll know it has. That’s what we’re building at Maslo: technology that grapples with the existential and that understands the psychological, because our generation will mature hand-in-hand with technology. If it doesn’t relate with us on these levels, we won’t either. So instead of stigmatizing those philosophical, psychological, and existential questions as cliche, our technology dives right in to help us answer the meatiest and most perplexing questions for ourselves. What do we want to do with our lives? How do we identify? Where do we belong? What makes us happy?

These are questions that no app, search engine or virtual assistant will ever be able to answer for us. But they are questions that a companion could ask of us.

You want to be your best self.

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