A Frictionless World Is Boring As F*ck
Re-humanizing technology and our way of living
After coming back from a bit of a tech detox over the holidays, and then, coincidently (…or not), reading quite a lot of articles about technology addiction, social media’s impact on mental health, and the bizarre fantasies of Silicon Valley’s tech optimists, I have begun the new year with a sort of disdain or at least skepticism toward today’s modern, digital technology and how it dominates our lives. Maybe you’re having the same experience…
I believe that in the last few years or so, despite increasing concerns and mounting evidence, the negative effects of digital technology have become normalized and seen as a necessary consequence of living in an “affluent” or modern world. However, that story seems to be breaking down more and more with a growing amount of people noticing tech’s net positive tilting towards a net loss….
Now, I don’t want to come across as anti-tech! My goal with this is to explore how we can use the amazing capabilities of digital technology without causing such harm. But in order to do so, we have to shake things up a bit! We have to reframe modern, digital technology!
“You have a supercomputer in your pocket.”
Basically, all of our modern technological devices are sleek black boxes. What I mean by that is that their inner workings are both actually and metaphorically hidden, packaged away into aluminum or plastic enclosures that are often very hard to open. The reason for that isn’t only the sort of Steve Jobs-style pursuit of simplifying user interfaces, of marrying sophisticated engineering and sleek design – creating a “magical user experience”.
A major factor here, I believe, is likewise that these devices are mainly produced in what seems like faraway places, in terrible work conditions, in factories that do not resemble “magical experiences” at all but rather hard, excruciating, trauma-inflicting, and often very monotonous work. When a new iPhone gets introduced, Tim Cook doesn’t show us pictures of the raw material mining or the assembling of the components, and there is a reason for that.
And that black box concept continues to be the go-to approach today, even for the latest tech trend, Artificial Intelligence and applications like ChatGPT:
“The evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), constantly celebrated for its exponential innovation and revolutionary abilities, hides a less glamorous, but critical, component: its remote labor force. […]
Anthropologist Mary Gray calls them “ghost workers”. People we do not see, working in remote locations, training the great models that make the most famous chat in the world produce quality content. They are not just adults. There are children, too. Just like the ones who sew together soccer balls.”
Decades of devices with hidden inner workings and far-away, off-the-mind production ultimately leads to a loss in what can be called material intelligence and a growing chasm between producers and consumers. People have no idea what they are actually holding in their hands! What materials their devices are made off, who made them, where and in what conditions they were made, or how to repair them.
“Quite probably, you are surrounded by many things of which you know next to nothing – among them, the device on which you are reading these words. Most of us live in a state of general ignorance about our physical surroundings.
It’s not our fault; centuries of technological sophistication and global commerce have distanced most of us from making physical things, and even from seeing or knowing how they are made. But the slow and pervasive separation of people from knowledge of the material world brings with it a serious problem.”
“[...] In effect, we are living in a state of perpetual remote control.”
A huge knowledge and information gap forms and grows, and people become very dissociated from the things around them, the things they use every day. And this, very importantly, reduces responsibility taking.
“If no one understands what is really happening, how can anyone be held responsible? This lack of transparency gives rise to a range of ethical dilemmas, chief among them our inability to address climate change, due in part to prevalent psychological separation from the processes of extraction, manufacture and disposal. For the same reasons, corporations take little responsibility for their outsourced workers. Scale and distance present consumers with related challenges: if you don’t know the people who were responsible for making the things in your life (and indeed, cannot imagine what their own lives might be like), it is difficult to find common cause with them.”
What scares me even more about this growing separation from the things around us – which, by the way, is also happening across many other industries – is that it spreads beyond our relationship with technology and starts to affect how we “attend” not only to the things around us but also to other human beings (more on this later).
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” Edward Tufte
What happens ultimately is that we become merely users instead of owners, caretakers, or even operators of our devices, our technology. And users not in the sense of users of a tool but rather as attention or data that can be captured and turned into money – and the more, the better. User and usage growth have really become the only metrics Silicon Valley (and other “valleys” that adopted the system) focuses on to determine investment and business potential.
“The reason that the growth-at-all-costs rot economy creates such evil companies is that their only goal — as incentivized by venture capitalists who want to see “growth” but not “profit” — is to consume market share.”
I believe that through this massive, large-scale process that defines humans as users and likewise treats them as such, we increasingly de-humanize ourselves and ultimately become more machine-like.
Technology, which used to be a tool that we at least operated, seems to have now transformed into a machine that operates us as we become a sort of tiny node in the ever-growing digital machine world.
“From streaming shows to news feeds to all the advertisements that we see but don’t consciously remember, we’re all Large Language Models now, spending our days absorbing an endless array of text and attempting to arrange what’s cluttered around us into something logical, but, just like our silicon competitors, most of what we generate at this moment ends up being nonsense.”
Viewing humanity through the lens that we are leading lives akin to machines, or to put it differently, having relinquished significant aspects of our human essence, thus dehumanizing ourselves, casts the ongoing debates about AI and its potential to automate human tasks in a new light:
“AI is especially adept at displacing human labor (or, from the enthusiast’s perspective, liberating) in situations wherein humans had already conformed, willfully or otherwise, to the pattern of a machine. Build a techno-social system which demands that humans act like machines and, lo and behold, it turns out that machines can eventually be made to displace humans with relative ease.”
Another obsession of the tech and business world is the concept of frictionless: Frictionless tech, apps, devices, experiences, food, entertainment, etc.
“We’ve gone from hunting and growing our food to pressing three buttons on a phone to get it.” Seth Godin
The word frictionless is used so often in the tech and business scene that one might almost get used to it and, therefore, ignore it. But this is not simply a term. It’s a worldview! And once you actually explore that worldview, you’ll quickly realize that what lies behind a very innocent, rather positive-sounding word is a vision that’s, at best, extremely boring and, at its worst, super dystopian.
First of all, many frictionless experiences require serious costs, which, through clever black box and dissociation practices, have been hidden or externalized by companies., who does super interesting commentary on the economy, calls this “subsidizing affluence”, which basically describes a non-profitable economy building non-essential but highly frictionless, cheap, and addictive services and products by exploiting a hidden-away “underclass” of people (or servant economy), externalizing the costs that come with that, and then selling these “frictionless services” as an achievement of an affluent society. “We” have frictionless, convenient lifestyles enabled by digital technology only because others do not have it.
What’s more, the obsession with reducing friction in all aspects of life is simply leading to a super boring and sterile future. It’s a vision of a world of instant gratification. A world in which everything is easy. A world that requires no toil, no effort, no thinking. Ultimately, a world without connections between ourselves and the things around us – what we use, consume, possess, or even just encounter. A world without relationships! A world of abundance but no soul.
“It’s all very paradoxical: that the ability to constantly communicate has made us bad communicators, that instant access to all forms of entertainment would leave us with so few touchstones, that surveilling kids doesn’t necessarily make them safer, that the absence of limitations also often means the absence of creativity — and that the particular form of abundance we’ve fetishized can feel so sad, so unspeakably sterile.”
How does this frictionless way of living change us? When no effort, no toil, no thinking is required and expected? Are we losing our ability to deal with any level of friction in our lives?
Well, we’re already seeing a few alarming implications when it comes to social connections, which are, by their very nature, made of friction:
“Myself and people my age have been trained under the illusion that we can effectively eliminate any and all friction from our lives. We can work from home, Amazon prime everything we need, swipe through a limitless array of mediocre dates, text our therapist, and have a person go to the grocery store for us when we don’t feel like it, all while consuming an endless stream of entertainment options that we’ll scarcely remember the name of two weeks in the future.
All of this creates a kind of “social atrophy” as [Esther] Perel calls it. We are so burned out by our data-heavy, screen-based, supposedly friction-free lives that we no longer have the time or energy to engage in the kind of small, unfabulous, mundane, place-based friendships or acquaintance-ships that have nourished and sustained humans for literal centuries.”
We’re also seeing technology divide or polarize society more and more. Not only online but, due to the growing implementation of self-service technologies, also in the “offline” world:
“How will our sense of community and our political preferences change when we interact less with the people who work the jobs that self-service technologies replace?”
And young people who grew up with digital technology are, of course, particularly affected:
“New research shows that Gen Z are more risk-averse than previous generations. […] Gen Z are dating less. Having less sex. Settling for situationships that are empty and meaningless. And I think a major part of this is that human connection comes with a high level of risk. […]
What’s more, the experience of a frictionless world coupled with an information and choice overload makes us less ambitious and creative and, on the flip side, more insecure and noncommittal. And I haven’t even talked about the mental and physical health issues caused by our digital technologies…
All in all, as already highlighted in the previous section, this ultimately leads to a loss of meaning or a loss of meaningful access to the world.
“When everything is available, all knowledge, all information, all entertainment ….nothing is perceived as valuable. Not the labor that creates the thing, not the person behind it, not the thing itself.”
So how can we change that? A few final thoughts:
A straightforward solution to all of this is to reduce our use of digital technologies! You’ve heard that one before, of course, but what sounds very simple actually requires a very serious breaking away of an ideology – spread loudly by Silicon Valley over the last few decades – that claims that technology is the solution to it all, that we can engineer our way out of the world’s problems, and that the world, society, and humans are nothing more than just another machine that needs certain adjustments and upgrades.
Breaking away from this ideology also means that we need to explore new, alternative approaches to solving the big problems as well as a new perspective of progress or human advancement that is non-technological. Here is a question to ponder over:
Instead of letting an engineer lead the world, how would things change when a painter, a musician, or an ecologist were put in charge?
Ultimately, this is about re-humanizing not only technology but our entire way of living: re-humanizing the way we work, the way we socialize, the way we eat, the way we learn, the way we have fun, the way we work out...
What I mean by that is that we essentially need to shift from the current trajectory, which seems to make us more machine-like in all these domains, to one that makes us more human and fosters our humaneness.
For digital technology specifically, this involves opening up the ‘black mirror’, creating resonant, intimate and healthy relationships between us and the devices we use, coming up with new investment approaches that encourage such relationships (as opposed to mere user growth maximization), and reframing friction as something that gives our lives “texture”, meaning, agency and adventure, and consequently adding more of that to our lives.
That’s it for this special Friday issue!
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