We live in a world of friction. Whenever we push against the world, the world pushes back. When we try to accomplish something, anything, we face a range of obstacles that must be overcome, both internal and external, trivial and terrifying. Friction is not just the physical effort required to do something – the sort of friction that a table faces when we try to push it across the floor – but the mental effort that is also required to motivate ourselves.
We might ask ourselves, what’s the source of all this friction? An easy answer would be: the world, the world is always in my path, the world is always pushing back against my plans; and from there to decide that the world is your enemy. This is the wrong way to think about friction, because the world is not the source of friction; the world is created by friction, the world is created when we rub up against it.
Friction is universal: it is the water that we human fish swim in, and so we don’t even notice it, except when it changes; when something that was previously easy becomes difficult, or something difficult becomes easy. Friction is the noise of the world, from which we have to extract the signal; friction happens at boundary points, and so enables us to define both our world and ourselves; and then to realise that they are the same.
This is because, since the world is created by friction, the boundaries are somewhat arbitrary; you can recognise them in different places at different times, and even move them around a bit yourself. They are just where we are giving our attention at that particular moment, and usually we have some say in where we give our attention. Sometimes we don’t, of course, because some boundaries are less negotiable than others – the extent of the body in pain as it is breached, for example – but that doesn’t make them less arbitrary.
So not just the human body but also the human identity as something-in-the-world was built by friction – natural selection is simply friction applied over multiple generations – and our lives remain filled with friction. Friction is unpleasant to experience, however, and our drive to minimise it as much as possible is fundamental to human nature. We seek comfort instinctively from the moment we emerge as autonomous beings; and this drive leads us both to constructive and dysfunctional behaviour, sometimes at the same time.
A useful analogy might be the human craving for sugar, as a concentrated yet rare source of energy; due to the much easier availability of sugar now, that craving for sugar now has to be managed. In the same way, our ability to minimize friction has become much greater, leading to a need that was much less urgent before, if it existed at all: the need to manage our very human tendency to minimize friction. This is where technology enters the picture.
The history of technology is, to a large extent, a history of the process of managing – by which we really mean minimizing – friction. The definition of technology that I usually use is that technology extends human capability, but part of the way in which it extends capability is by reducing friction. Something as simple as a spoon minimizes the friction involved in eating liquid foods; something as complicated as a computer minimizes the friction involved in large calculations. They go about things in the same way.
Unlike previous technologies, however, the computer minimizes friction in multiple areas at once; the extension of the computer via networking minimizes friction in an even greater number of areas and across a greater range. Silicon Valley is a temple to the minimization of friction. If you don’t enjoy the friction of food – the time and effort it takes to prepare a meal – then meal replacements are for you! But it’s not hard to imagine a Soylent consumer wishing that they didn’t even have to drink Soylent; minimization is the next best thing to elimination.
The meal which slides down our throats so easily leaves less taste on our tongues; and when larger sources of friction are removed, we focus on the smaller, obsess over them, magnify them. First world problems are problems because the first world is a world which contains less friction, but because we need friction to define ourselves, smaller amounts of friction become more noticeable, and perhaps less bearable. Removing friction doesn’t free us to seek meaning in our lives; friction is what provides the meaning of our lives.
When we remove friction from our lives, we sense that something has gone missing. Life is easier, certainly, but somehow less lifelike. A world without friction would be a world without meaning. We shouldn’t aim to eliminate friction completely, only to get the balance right; and if we want to restore meaning to our world, then we need to re-introduce some of the friction that we’ve lost. In particular this means being more mindful about how and when and why we integrate specific technologies into our lives and societies, and resisting the sugary appeal of non friction when necessary.