Need vs. Want – muddling the distinction
I was having a conversation with my teenage daughter last night about how she plans to save up for a MacBook and she was seeking advice as to whether spending an extra $400 would be a worthwhile for upgrading to i7 from i5. Without much forethought I answered “yes, of course!”, and with that answer she clicked on the “select” button on the Apple online store and went through the motion of buying her dream laptop. I then asked her whether there was any problem with the Dell laptop that I had bought for her last year. She has been using it almost daily to do her school work and for the usual teenage things like YouTube and Facebook, and I thought that she was very happy with it. She nonchalantly answered “no, there’s nothing wrong with, it’s just not an Apple”. So began our lengthy conversation about need vs want. It an argument made by sociologist, economist, clergyman, and foremost by parents. It’s such an old adage, I was surprise that I had to talk to her about the virtues of prudence and temperance when it came to the things that we want.
If you Google “Need vs Want”, almost all the articles talk about the distinction as if it was self-evident. Need is the necessary things which we can’t or shouldn’t do without, and want is that which isn’t necessary and things that we can do without. I ask her, “what can you do with a MacBook that you can’t do with the Dell laptop?”. In retrospect, the question should have been rhetorical but knowing that my daughter didn’t have the under-the-hood understanding of computers, it was meant as a challenge, hoping that she would see that they were essentially identical. What I wasn’t prepared for was her response. She said with a smile of excitement, “with an Apple I can take it to Starbucks”. For a split second, I thought she didn’t realize that her Dell laptop also had the ability to use free WiFi but just as suddenly I had a sinking feeling that she was thinking of something totally different. Something that isn’t displayed when you click on “Tech Specs”.
Depending on our social, economic and cultural bias, we have a very different notion of what is need and want. Does my daughter really need a laptop? Many of her friends and their parents would say that having a computer at home is a need, but for a boy living in rural Somalia it’s an absolutely absurdity. Just the same, a loving Somalian parent can be perceived as want by a neglected foster child in Canada while they would see it as what every child must have. Economics play a large role in determining what is culturally acceptable to be classified as need or want, and in this sense it’s not really a question of morality or virtue, but a necessary cultural rubric design to keep in check our human nature to covet and to feel shame. And what of aesthetics? Is beauty something that we need in our lives or is it just fluff? Do any of us really need clothes dyed in rich colours of modern chemistry, or is it that if we all collectively indulge in something, then it becomes a de facto need?
How we feel about ourselves and the esteem that we enjoy from our peers is not only a want but a need since it is linked directly to our survival (perhaps much more so when we use to live in a small band). The fact that my daughter wants an Apple laptop so that she would be perceived by others, including strangers as being socially and culturally relevant, is a fulfillment of that instinct to survive and secure her place in this world that is becoming evermore impersonal. While many would say that my daughter is acting like a spoiled child, and I’m not prepared to defend her on this point, she’s far from being contrived or shallow. She’s acting with honesty, the kind that has been whipped out of us.
In the immortal words of John Lenon, “all you need is love“. Ask yourselves, do you need love?