Friction equals traction

If there’s a value proposition that unifies most technological innovations, it is the promise of the reduction or removal of friction. The modern search engine removes effort of reading, of personal value judgements of sources, of all kinds of labour once necessary in the pursuit of information.

The Curation Funnel built into the leading media streaming providers — Netflix, Spotify, YouTube — also promises to reduce the labour of the user and is able to deliver entertainment more efficiently to users than older “lossy” models. Instead of seeking personal recommendations or hunting through racks at a record store, you can just press ‘Play’ and be presented with a non-stop stream of streams (entertainment is now opt-out, rather than opt-in…). The word “frictionless” is affixed to many a product description so much so that one might get the impression that the elimination of friction ought to be a measure of technological success.

To define exactly what “friction” means in the tech context, it seems to be something like “human labour that takes time”. From the persepctive of technology, it should be obvious why time-taking human labour ought to be eliminated: specifically, human labour isn’t likely to fall within the scope of power of a tech product. If instead of connecting you automatically to a driver nearby, imagine Uber provided a users instead with a list of phone numbers for nearby drivers — the expectation being that a user arranges a pick-up with a driver over a phone call. That segment of human labour would not be within the control of the piece of technology. Without that control, the product would be less able to ensure quality of the service. There’s a very real sense in which the human is told to “get out of the way” in allowing the product to do what it does.

This isn’t to say that the reduction of friction is entirely a goal for a tech product for its own sake. It’s clear from the persuasive power of “frictionless” that most humans are seduced by the possibility of a reduction of their labour, or rather the time the labour would necessitate. Who would turn down a reduction of work and a freeing-up of time? Given the success of the aforementioned products, it seems most people wouldn’t. In a lot of instances, the human labour being replaced by machines labour is of arbitrary value. Does it really make a difference whether Uber or I call the driver to me? But there has to be an acknowledgement that whilst tech generally seeks to reduce the quantity of friction, it does so with indifference to the quality of that friction. Because, as it turns out, human labour can be pretty valuable to humans, even if it is synonymous with inefficiency from the perspective of a technology.

This argument does rub up against a theme of Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Complacent Class: namely that the better, more efficient matching — of users to music, of users to dates, of users to restaurants — that technology enables reduces risks for the individual whilst increasing risk for a society of reduced-risk people. In interviews and blog posts around The Complacent Class, Cowen suggest more randomisation in matches and more personal engagement with physical space — whether finding records in a record store or trying restaurants without consulting Yelp — as strategies to fight complacency and reinvigorate society with a long-lost (or in the best case, long-muted) dynamism.

I want to be clear here: my skin in the game is less about the risk/safety continuum and more to do with the deprivation of enriching, beneficial labour at quantities a tech climate geared against friction would seem to be striving to eliminate. Essentially, certain kinds of friction are necessary for human traction.

Take this very blog post as an example. When I was blogging daily in 2016, almost every post was writtin in Ulysses — a writing app that allows for publishing to Medium with a few clicks. This post, however, is starting life written long-hand in blue ink on a notepad. There is a labour cost here: not only is it more time-consuming to write by hand, but I’ve also condemned myself to the menial task of typing this all up — such that you’re able to read it. But that labour has an instrinsic value to me: I’m forced to confront spelling and grammar errors but more importantly, I’m forced to reevaluate choices of expression and won’t be able to resist making changes to tighen the argument. The friction in this process gives me greater mental traction on what I’m doing than if it had been written in Ulysses to publish immediately.

Given our proximity to technology, I fear we are inheriting an aversion to friction from products who are optimised to reduce friction based primarily on quantity. As such, the calculus of evaluating the potential convenience of a tech product is done using a quantitative characterisation of our labour — namely that more labour is worse than less labour, regardless of the labour’s quality.

But there exist certain qualities of labour we ought to value. It is through labour that we gain richer understanding, try things out, and generally are able to extract most from an experience. What we characterise as friction is really the only way we get traction on the world.

Unfortunately, we aren’t as computationally efficient as computers. We simply can’t churn information with the same tenacity as computers can. We are conceding too much to a computational model of efficiency and should instead consolidate the gains made in the reduction of (what we individually determine as) value-poor labour to more value-rich labour, even if it feels as if we are “less productive”. Building friction back into processes — whether in the discovery of entertainment or in higher-stake deep work — is a way to “fight back” in a technological climate that is increasingly optimised to minimise our influence to just being a trader of attention/time and as such revenue. Don’t trade your time saved by the reduction of value-poor labour for some tech company’s time-on-site.

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