A perfectly frictionless world? No, thanks.

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“Pattern9” by F. Azuaje

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

Abraham Maslow

Who can deny the advantages of a frictionless economy?

You need a ride to your next meeting, tap the app, boom! Here it comes.

You are in the mood for a chai latte, not too hot, not too spicy, and delivered to your home, push the bottom, and bam! You got it.

You saw that cute handbag, grab it, scan it, and wham! Off you go.

No bother, no red tape, no sweat.

Clearly, frictionless transactions are good for business. You sell more, I buy faster. You see it, you like it (or think you like it), just put it in the basket. And it is motivated by a smart insight: You do not want customers to think too much. The more time you spend buying it, the more likely that you won’t do it.

So who would not like a fully frictionless world?

The problem with this overarching desire is that the world is more than the worlds of retail and financial transactions. And our role in life does not have to be convenience maximization only.

But we can argue that a frictionless world will give us more time. Everything will be done for us in the “background” or somewhere in the cloud, and therefore we will have more opportunities for work and play. But if work and play are also frictionless, then all that is left to us is fruitless boredom and numbness.

The underlying concern here is that we are becoming accustomed to easily extrapolating the visions of the worlds of finance and commerce into the rest of the world: present and future.

Take, for example, a Scientific American article about the power of a frictionless society. According to it, frictionless apps will save democracy. The reasoning goes like this: the hassle of registering to vote and the process of actually voting creates friction, and friction is a variable in “the formula” for predicting someone’s probability to vote. Uhh!? Anyway, because of it, reducing friction would undoubtedly enhance turnout, which consequently would create “real democracies”.

Seriously? This is like suggesting that selling more cars will eradicate world hunger just because having more cars will increase the chances of bringing food to the needy.

And it is not difficult to find elsewhere other imaginative proposals for solving the world’s problems with frictionless technologies. Fighting malnutrition and the obesity epidemic? Tap the app, you get more kale and carrots. Curing diseases? Tap it, here are the data and somebody else will eventually discover new treatments. Making governments and companies more accountable? Tap it, here is Cremona, your personal chatbot.

Real-world problems seen through the single lens of high-tech and commerce not only downplays the complexity and importance of those problems. Also, by doing so, we are allowing someone, or something, to shift responsibility and costs onto others. The new president is an idiot, boom! You just tapped the wrong app. Infrastructure is crumbling, bam! We need a new app for that. You are not happy with the service, the result or the product? Sorry, we only offer the platform to enhance your experience. Hey, but now you have extra time to buy it again.

A perfectly frictionless world may not need us after all. We do not need people tapping around to get things done. Tapping is free, easy. Wait a second. Maybe we will still need a few people to develop the code for more tapping. But it is frictionless, remember? Who needs them either?

The aspiration of achieving a frictionless world is thus becoming an infantile idealism. Human interaction is reduced to screen scrolling. Learning becomes an effort to bypass any effort. Fun becomes thumb exercising. Notions of progress, wealth and health are increasingly distorted, and their realization are made almost impossible by the same people who thought that we could achieve that and more.

A little more friction here and there will not harm us. On the contrary, selected friction can enhance us as individuals, communities and economies. Just like in the domain of physical objects, friction can also create something new, polished and beautiful. Friction can also lead up to novelty in our daily routines, unique experiences, and more importantly: meaningful interactions with humans and other systems.

We should preserve the freedom to select the places and moments for some level of friction. A certain kind of friction that can make discovery and intelligent choice possible.

Published in: Medium.

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