is friction a good or a bad thing?

In startup land — things tend to be all about “reducing friction.” We used to write on pen and paper. Then typewriters. And now I am typing on some fancy touchscreen iPad. At every milestone, you could say we reduced friction.

We made it easier to write. But now the question I am asking myself is really trying to understand — did we? Is it now much easier to write?

I am not sure the answer is so straightforward.

In some ways, surely you could say the answer is yes. Many would say it is obviously yes. Like duh — try writing 1,000,000 words by hand! Think about how long that would take you. And how tired you would feel. Compare that to gliding over a keyboard. Or forget the keyboard, you can now voice dictate the whole thing and not even have to move your fingers. Obviously that is “easier.”

I hear all of those points and recognize those as real points. But it’s not clear to me we can have a debate about what is easier without first acknowledging what it is we are looking to achieve. Because where I get stuck, stuck in the cognitive loop, is on whether or not it is easier to produce extremely high quality things without a requisite amount of distance between your instinctive ideas and the outputs.

In other words, it is not obvious to me having a system with zero friction between what you think and what you produce is actually the right way to product extremely high quality things. What if writing things by hand, for example, meant you were forced to spend more time reviewing your work? What if typing on a typewriter made you think more about every word such that you really perfected every sentence? What if zero marginal cost to creating another document incentivizes a type of behavior that is antithetical to producing high quality work?

The above obviously poses some unpopular questions. Unpopular perhaps meaning questions that put a wrench in the “more tech is always a good thing” argument, which probably lives downstream from the “more is always a good thing” argument.

This is not to say that tech cannot be used for good. But I imagine that you have to look at it within its larger system to actually understand the appropriate way to use it to get the results you want.

My feeling is that a lot of technology we use today was built at the wrong level of abstraction. It was built at a bandaid level, and optimizes that cut very well, but does not realize that what we are really fighting as organizations and individuals is more like Cancer (the cancer of the system).

So we get all this motion — we can write more words, in theory, faster — but we lose sight of progress.

The silly thing may be that progress is right in front of us. We may just need more space to see it. We need distance.

The truly cool thing would be if we could build technology that built that space for us. Something that combined the potential power of the technology we have with the similar powerful capability found in time and nature and simplicity.

This would put an end to the whole — reducing friction is always a good thing type of thinking that has led us to creating systems that do not clearly help us produce our best work (I would argue Slack is a great example of this).

And in your own workflows, you can apply a similar lens.

For example, I would argue that most people check their phones too much. And when they do, and they get a message they do not particularly seem to like, they respond too quickly. Now even here notice that I am making claims around too much and too quickly. For what though? Those statements need to be anchored by an ethical world view or some objective goals for the system. Imagine we had that conversation and made that clear, though, for the sake of this exploration.

Responding too quickly is something many of us have done before. Simply sleeping on it before responding can make a load of a difference as to how you will show up in the dialogue.

Responding by carrier pigeon and having to hand write a note using an ink pen – something that could take days — had built in distance. Distance that made you think and clear your emotions before needing to respond.

Nowadays you can just fire off a text with zero friction without having cleared the emotional blinders from your face.

So you tell me which system is better?


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