Digital tools strive for a frictionless ideal. Armed with modern technology’s hypermobility, connectivity, and sheer capability, we’re constantly designing and using tools that reduce the friction of our mental lives. When a thought crosses my mind at work, I can pick up my phone and speak to it, telling it to remind me when I’m home to pay my credit card bill, and when it detects that I’ve returned to my home address, it will deliver my note-to-self with a gentle buzz. By making “smart” devices, we reduce our own cognitive burden.
Taking A.P. Physics tests in high school, I longed for the simplicity of a frictionless world, but in the way one longs for magic powers, with the recognition that my wild fantasies would never be anything but fantasies. Friction may be frustrating when it adds three steps to your calculations, but it also serves a purpose; friction keeps our cars on the roads, our glasses perched on our noses. As Doug Lane indicates in a recent blog post, whether we’re talking about the physical world or the psychic one, a certain amount of friction is necessary to keep the system functioning. The trick is managing it.