A “Frictionless” Life

I’m sitting in Salena’s stylish office at a trendy California tech company interviewing her about her use of personal technology and she’s trying to articulate why she still spends time sending birthday cards to her friends. She explained that her job was to create and promote “frictionless” ways for people to exchange information, meaning that all impediments to efficient communication are eliminated. Even though she enjoyed her company’s products and thought they were indeed “adding value” to people’s lives, she still preferred to put pen to paper in order to wish her friends and family members a happy birthday. I asked her why and she paused, and said, “Sometimes the friction adds value.”

“Eliminating friction” in everyday processes is a common goal for app and software developers. This phrase not only permeates tech writing but also popped up in a few of my recent interviews with tech industry workers in Silicon Valley.

As someone who tries to eliminate friction for a living, Salena proudly explained the ways that her company was improving communication by designing “elegant user interfaces” and decreasing the “distance between thought and dissemination”. But, what exactly is friction in a digital world obsessed with avoiding it?

At the DMV, eliminating friction may mean an online system that allows you to schedule discrete appointments to avoid endless waits in line. At the grocery store it means shopping in a virtual store in your pajamas and picking up your groceries from a locker the next day. In these cases, friction means the time and effort expended accomplishing a mundane task.  But, what about other kinds of “tasks”?

Is the idea of efficiency the best metric to measure the success of our emotional interactions?

As Michael Sacassas, pointed out, the goal of reducing friction in our intimate relationships emanates from a misunderstanding of the difference between two different kinds of labor. He argues that we’ve gotten accustomed to “outsourcing” some our intellectual labor (e.g., remembering phone numbers, appointments) to our personal devices, and now we are developing ways to do the same with the labor of love. He argues that while outsourcing the intellectual labor of remembering a phone number doesn’t make a phone call less meaningful, the labor of writing your own thoughts into a greeting card shouldn’t be outsourced, because it’s essential to the meaning of the act. Salena’s emotional labor of handwriting birthday cards for her friends is essential to the expression of care communicated through a birthday card, if she outsources it (as in the movie Her) the meaning of the birthday card is diminished.

New apps (like BroAppRomantimatic) have made these kinds of labor commensurable. They compare two qualitatively different kinds of labor along a common metric of efficiency. But, I think it’s a mistake to assume that efficiency is the measure by which all kinds of labor should be measured and improved. Judged by this metric, emotional labor doesn’t seem worth the cost. But, few of us would want to live in a world without it.

Perhaps it would be wise to dismiss this phrase as yet another Silicon Valley trend, fated to burn away as quickly as it caught alight. But, the words we use to describe the problems of everyday life are consequential, not only for the ways people go about solving them, but also because they’re indicators of the kind of lives we hope to lead.

Salena’s comment suggests a resistance to the commensurability of intellectual and emotional labor.  Her critique of this logic is a reminder that technologies don’t determine practice, and it is always necessary to look for meanings that resist reduction. The question of how to resist the seduction of efficiency as an ultimate value in our emotional engagements is one that characterizes our lives with digital technologies. However, the answer doesn’t lie in ‘unplugging’ our phones and spending our days handwriting correspondences, but instead challenges us to find a way to develop practices that express, instead of flatten, our human relationships.