Friction in cities and other places
(Image from colinvella, Wikimedia Commons)
I’ve been thinking a lot about friction this week. One reason for this is that I keep encountering the word “frictionless.” It usually pops up in discussions of environmental design, business models, and customer experiences. In most of these discussions, the point is pretty obvious: the frictionless experience is the one where something (my product, your money, a piece of work) slides without any resistance from one place to another. My consumer junk into the trunk of your car, your cash into my wallet, my stultifying grant application into your cumbersome online submission system (1). In these contexts, frictionlessness is an aspiration. In culinary terms, the ideal meal might be the big forkful of butter-soaked mashed potatoes that slides down your gullet without meeting any resistance along the way. No trouble here, nothing to see, just relax and swallow. Though you hardly even need to swallow.
(Image from Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr)
When I think about settings, I’m mostly an urban-scale guy, so for me friction feels a bit different. I’ve talked about all of this in a previous post. In the city, friction is what happens when my agency rubs up against someone else’s bare form. When I make a short-cut, hop a fence, engage in a feat of personal tactical urbanism, that’s friction. Friction shows up in desire lines. Friction is the unruly crowd going off in a thousand different directions. Friction is the chaotic burble of conversation in the line-up at the movies. Friction is the mass of transactions between pedestrians or between walkers and drivers (2). Friction is what reminds us that we’re all alive, living collectively in a setting, sharing some things but also jabbing at one another with our distinctiveness as individuals. Friction generates heat or, more apt, warmth. We like to feel that we have control of our destiny, a little bit of agency at least, the ability to impose our will, and I believe that that feelings comes from the experience of friction.
So, when I contrast the vaunted frictionlessness of the retail or corporate or governmental environment with what happens in healthy cities, I become a little bit depressed because I realize that the subtext of the frictionless environment is the surrender of the will. When I walk into an Amazon Fresh grocery store, I can grab stuff and just walk out the door. All of the details of currency extraction are conducted invisibly. A quantum of my personal worth is sucked out of my bank account in exchange for the honeydew melon I hold in my hands. My pure, frictionless want is unimpeded by all of the cumbersome technicalities that remind me that what has just happened is an actual exchange. The melon comes with me but a bit of me, intangible as it might seem, stays behind.
(Desire lines. Wikimedia Commons)
It’s easy enough to see this in entirely positive terms. How wonderful to be freed from the lineup at the cashier and the fumbling with cards or currency. My life is simplified, much like that bolus of buttery potato substance shooting down my throat like a torpedo. It’s also obvious to see what’s in frictionlessness for the vendor. Make it easy for people to exchange their worth for goods and they will exchange more of their worth for more goods, probably more than they need. This has long been the dream of the retailer. It even has a name: the Gruen Transform is that moment when we are induced by a setting to surrender our will to the impulse to buy (3). So far, all obvious enough, but the ground becomes more uncertain when we leave the retail environment for other realms.
Take the workplace (4). In the wake of COVID shutdowns, the world of work is going through a fundamental and much-needed re-think. Many of us have gotten so used to working remotely that we are wondering whether we want to ever go back or whether we need to. Some employers are engaging with these questions in thoughtful ways. Others are balking and insisting on a return-to-normal. But regardless of where we might stand on this, we should be grateful that the conversation is taking place. And a part of that conversation, though we might not invoke the idea explicitly, has to do with friction. Workplaces that build frictionless environments may end up as well-oiled productivity machines but the cost is a loss of agency and control. I believe that this is exactly the reason why so many of us are reluctant to return to the Before Times. Frankly, I’m not sure where this ends up. It feels just as weird to be advocating for friction in the workplace as it might to be designing a frictionless urban space that runs so smoothly that no interaction or transaction is unplanned. The latter would be a soul-sucking disaster. The former may be seditiously counterproductive (5). But neither am I sure that those two kinds of settings are so qualitatively different that the question doesn’t deserve scrutiny.
We live on the precipice of a time when advances in computing will make it possible for us to build cocooning environments that use everything from simple servos to elaborate machine learning routines to anticipate, predict, and sculpt our interactions with space in all kinds of clever ways. It’s perhaps a simple example but even devices that are designed to measure and regulate vehicular traffic can be thought of in this way. As the palette of behaviours that we can understand and control broadens, the possibilities become a little more worrisome (6). Arguments in favour of the penetration of such environments into everyday life are much the same in flavour as those I described above for retail environments. Managing “difficult” people (elderly, neurodiverse, anyone with accessibility issues) with efficiencies that come from algorithmic environmental control sounds sensible, pragmatic (7). But even with those kinds of efficiencies held squarely in mind, I mourn the losses they entail. At urban scale, friction brings life. But even in more controlled settings outside of the democratic marketplace—institutional settings, places of work—erasing friction entirely leads to stultifying zombie-ism that we will find repellant and unmotivating. A good start in addressing all of this would be to at least recognize the powers that are being unleashed and their consequences. As we become better at controlling behaviour through environmental design, we must also think clearly about our motivations for those controls. Whom do we want to be? Whose control? Who is in charge? These questions are arising in every arena of space from the public places in cities to the insides of our schools, universities, administrative buildings and workplaces. Much of our future hinges on how we decide to answer them. Couching the questions in terms of friction is the key.
Footnotes of a sort
(1). I’m being whimsical here of course. Grant applications and what happens to them could be the very definition of friction for an academic.
(2) We think first of these latter transactions as being antagonistic but they don’t always have to be. Eye contact, nods and waves still do sometimes happen in these settings. Think of a woonerf. Rare but not unheard of.
(3) So named after Viktor Gruen, the Viennese architect who has the dubious distinction of being described as the inventor of the shopping mall, though his conception of what such places could be had little in common with what they became. He went to his grave despising the evolution of the American shopping mall.
(4) Please. Take it somewhere far away from me. I’m on sabbatical and not at all keen to return to the dedicated workspace. Indeed I went there yesterday to begin the process of re-immersion in university life and discovered that I had forgotten which key opens my office door. Freud may have been onto something.
(5) But would it be? Would a workplace set up to jolt us from mindless automaticity from time to time be a terrible thing? Would a workplace that included a few conceptual banana skins for us to slip on unexpectedly necessarily be a bad thing? We have sometimes talked about environmental designs that encourage serendipitous encounters between unfamiliar colleagues. Even though that might seem a bit time-wasty, might it be just one example of a way to load a spigot of creativity into a boring, frictionless office environment? Who dares to try this?
(6) I’ll add the caveat here that I think a lot of the current pearl-clutching over the imminent domination of AI over human affairs is based on the supposition that human psychology is a simple thing, easy to capture with cheap algorithms. This is misguided and mystifying. Why are we so keen to believe that we are cheap, easy and stupid?
(7) And also dreadful. Even as my fingers tap out words like “managing” I can’t help thinking of generations of psychiatric treatments, pharmacological or otherwise, that were designed to make life easy for the caregivers regardless of cost to the patients.
What I’m eating
We’ve gone a bit mad for armadillo potatoes lately (aka Hasselback or hedgehog potatoes but we like saying the word “armadillo” for reasons we don’t understand). Cut potatoes (we use russets) almost all the way through by standing them between two wooden chopsticks that prevent the knife from going to ground zero. Baste with olive oil and sprinkle a few Maldon sea salt flakes on top (I like to spill a few flakes on the tablecloth to remind my spouse that I am not perfect, just in case she becomes momentarily deluded. Note that, for authenticity, I’ve included this feature in the photo above). Roast at 400F for about an hour. Remove from oven, by which time the scales of the armadillo will have opened up a bit. Baste with something. In the picture, we’ve used a commercial spicy chili miso sauce (Abokichi Okazu is good if you’re looking for one), but we’ve also invented our own marinade with miso, sesame oil, garlic, rice vinegar and maple syrup — mix in proportions that you like using frequent sampling) and then back in the oven for another 30 minutes or so.
What I’m Reading
I’m still swotting up on the birth of science, now reading a book by David Wootton entitled The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t blanche when you see the adjective “encyclopedic” on a cover blurb then you’ll like this book. It’s a very precise, heavily footnoted account of (mostly) the historical evolution of language used to describe science and scientific goings-on. If that sounds a bit dry, consider that the word “discover” is a relatively recent one in English (and in many other languages) because for much of our history the prevailing view was that there was nothing much new under the sun — we might forget things we once knew, but nothing was truly new. Things just cycled. The real breaking point was the realization that this was not really so. Unfortunately, the example that Wootton keeps using is the “discovery” of America by Columbus. I know what he means but that particular example goads me to anger every time I read it. As I’m reading this, and trying to calibrate it against the modern view of science, I’m trying to understand some of the social history of science and rationality. Currently, I think we are bemoaning the catastrophic loss of rationality and the belief in scientific findings. But what has really changed? In the time we now call the Enlightenment, was such enlightenment a widespread thing or was it the privileged province of the few?