Maslow's hierarchy describes a five-tier model of human needs, usually depicted as a pyramid with the most essential needs at the bottom and successive layers of need that can be met when the more basic needs are fulfilled. The most basic need is physiological (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction), followed by security (employment, resources, health, property), love and belonging (friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection), esteem (respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom), and finally self-actualization (desire to become the most that one can be).
The decades since the inception of the Internet have arguably been a grand, global experiment in meeting Maslow's needs electronically instead of in more traditional corporeal ways. A massive, globalized infrastructure of compute servers and storage has been constructed by a relatively small number of companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, to power this experiment. Others such as Internet and cellphone companies provide the communications infrastructure to connect these servers to each other and to us. Service companies provide a treasure trove - or maybe a Pandora's Box - of applications layered onto this infrastructure. Food, clothing and lodging can now be purchased through these services which are brought to our door using a just-in-time logistics system that is itself dependent on the infrastructure; we get a job through LinkedIn, and we Google our medical symptoms; we contact our neighbors on Facebook or Nextdoor, we obtain love and belonging on Tinder or Twitter, where we also gain - or lose - our self-esteem. The whole system - we might call it the Global Cloud - is now considered essential to our way of life. The Global Cloud has brought many benefits, such as enabling remote work, access to huge amounts of information, and convenient delivery of goods we might not be able to access locally. It has also brought problems, such as excluding those who do not have access to the necessary technologies, almost eliminating privacy, enabling state and corporate surveillance, and enabling monopoly corporations to undercut local businesses.
During the COVID19 pandemic we have a level of critical dependency on the Global Cloud that would have seemed extraordinary less than a year ago. For many, it is now the primary source for meeting even basic needs, such as to interact with neighbors and colleagues for work or recreation, to get safety information important to our well being, and to order goods. Both the benefits and problems of the Global Cloud are now amplified across the world. At the time of writing, it is unclear how much this acceleration will persist once the pandemic is over, though it is likely that the Global Cloud will continue to grow unabated.
But what happens when the Global Cloud is no more? Most natural disasters result in infrastructure failure which may be localized, such as in a tornado, or widespread, such as in an earthquake or hurricane. Cell phone towers fail, power and Internet access is lost. If we are lucky, they can be restored quickly. But other scenarios are worse: a cyberattack or solar weather event could disable key parts of the Global Cloud indefinitely; the companies we rely on could simply decide to withdraw services or be pressured to by an authoritarian government, which could also co-opt those services for mass surveillance. We thus have a new kind of vulnerability to disasters based on our dependence on the Global Cloud.
But what if there were an alternative? What if we could use technology to talk privately with our neighbors in a way that is not critically dependent on a server in Virginia or an app company in San Francisco, and that could not be accessed readily by an authoritarian adversary? What if we had vast amounts of important digital information at our fingertips even if the communication lines go dark? We can explore ways that community resilience can be increased by engaging with technologies in ways that do not obey the rules of the Global Cloud. We can use and re-use technology at a physical scope that is appropriate to its use, and where the control of the technology is maintained locally. In this way, I believe technology can support individual and community resilience and be adapted to local culture, while also having benefits for accessibility, privacy and security.