Does it matter that Micah Johnson was killed by a robot, albeit one controlled by human hands? Johnson shot five police officers during a demonstration in Dallas, Texas, on July 7 2016. Twenty-four hours later he was blown apart by explosives maneuvered into position by a robot-controlled device that was normally used for bomb-disposal, after a gun battle and the break-down of negotiations with police. According to the Washington Post, the action was “widely praised as an innovative way to eliminate a threat without risking more officers’ lives.”
This form of “violence by proxy” is already commonplace in warfare, where the use of unmanned drones is justified on similar grounds of efficiency. Studies have put the civilian casualty rate from U.S. drone strikes at anywhere between four and 35 percent of the total deaths they have caused. What’s not in doubt is that fewer U.S. military lives are put at risk when direct combat engagement is replaced by so-called ‘frictionless’ methods of attack. This trend will be even more pronounced when much more powerful weapons come on stream like ‘death rays’—giant lasers fired at ‘soft targets’ from the air.
These examples may seem extreme, but they are part of a much broader search for ‘frictionless’ solutions in business, technology, design, philanthropy, foreign aid, education and even politics. Backed by the ideology, influence and resources of Silicon Valley, the race is on to solve social and economic problems in ways that lower transaction costs and increase speed and efficiency, on the assumption that everyone will benefit.
“Smart cities” can be planned using big data and technology; money and investment can flow more freely in a frictionless global economy; human judgment can be replaced by algorithms which can search vast oceans of information in seconds; decisions over health care and education can be made using the cost-effectiveness calculations of “effective altruists;” and “frictionless design” can minimize the journeys of users around the real or virtual office.
The titans of technology even have their own friction-free version of the Burning Man festival, designed to avoid cooking and cleaning for themselves: “we have great reverence for Burning Man” said organizer Russell Ward to the Guardian’s Nellie Bowles, “but there’s always an element of arduousness. Here we have spa treatments and green juice. There’s already enough in life that’s tough.”
Who really benefits from this brave new world?
The first point to note is that less friction for some means more for others—usually those with less wealth and power who must take on and suffer the consequences of those ‘arduous tasks’, which can be deadly. Drone strikes may be highly efficient for the US Marine Corps but not for the wedding guests (the bride included) who were killed or injured in a drone attack in Yemen in December 2013.
Likewise, robot-controlled assassination may reduce the level of friction on hard-pressed law-enforcement officials, but it didn’t do much for Micah Johnson’s chances of a trial from which something useful might have been learned—or for the wider issue of accountability. As journalist Olivia Ward puts it, drones and robots “are your judge, jury and executioner—but they give you no case to answer.” The ease of use of such technologies could lead us to pay less attention to the broader social consequences of our actions.
It’s a similar though less lethal story in Silicon Valley, where the friction of finding a place to live is being aggressively outsourced from the rich to the poor. Technology companies like Facebook and Google worry that even staff who are well paid are struggling to find accommodation in the housing bubble of San Francisco, so they are buying up and redeveloping property for their workersand evicting low-income tenants.
To increase the desirability of neighborhoods nearby, technology gurus are also bankrolling efforts to clear homeless people off ‘their’ streets, echoing attempts to remove those who stood in the way of ‘progress’ in other projects of gentrification. More than a third of children in Silicon Valley are already without a home. Faced by the friction of opposition, the rich can pay, lobby and litigate until it goes away.
The second problem is that the benefits of frictionless solutions only outweigh the costs in a restricted number of circumstances—and using a limited definition of efficiency. If I want to get from home to hospital in a medical emergency I want to do so quickly and easily—with the minimum of friction. You could make a similar argument for contactless payments or donations made on your cell-phone, or organizing a supply chain so that it provides what customers need just at the right time to avoid unnecessary costs, or reporting human rights abuses using a new online app. In these situations reducing friction is an excellent idea
But for anything that has broader social or political significance the calculus is different, which is why friction is essential for social change. We all have different interests, and different views about the ‘good society,’ the provision of public goods, and the ethical issues involved in decisions about technology. These views and interests have to be aired, debated and negotiated through democratic politics, which—at least in theory—both produces friction and reconciles the results so that no-one’s voice is excluded and meaningful consensus can be built. The hard work of transforming society is not something to be avoided, but something to be embraced. Only through face-to-face engagement and political struggle can power relations be contested and remade.
Human judgment provides its own source of friction in processes like these, often frustrating and unpredictable and bloody-minded because it’s based in deeply-rooted values and inspirations. Even algorithms and calculations of cost effectiveness contain value judgments made by human beings on the basis of their own biases and priorities. It’s the power relations that underpin the design and use of technology that are important socially and politically, not the machines themselves. That’s why Facebook’s attempts to automate its news filters are proving so problematic.
Take the example of public school reform in the USA, a favorite cause of Silicon Valley philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Their model of choice is designed to reduce friction in the education system by pushing down costs using online or distance learning; narrowing the curriculum by privileging math and science over art and creativity; and measuring results using standardized tests and rankings of pupils and their teachers. The goal seems to be a more efficient production line of employment-ready graduates, not necessarily rounded human beings who are capable of dissent and imagination—and who can apply their own friction to the system in the future. But like all visions of education and learning, this model is saturated by a particular set of interests and values.
It’s no coincidence that part of this package consists of curbing the power of the teachers’ unions, which are friction-promoting institutions par excellence (or what we used to think of as counterweights and valuable sources of expertise). In fact any group that can get in the way of the techno-business elite is likely to be marked for disinvestment or undermining by other means, whether it’s a government, a labor union, a grassroots organization or a protest. There can’t be any friction if there’s no-one left to produce it.
In this world of friction-free learning, who checks the facts, or scrutinizes what’s being taught, or balances different views and perspectives? More speed plus a greater volume of information inevitably leads to superficial processing. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words; now I zip along the surface of knowledge like a guy on a jet ski” as the writer Nicholas Carr once put it. The art of thinking is supposed to be difficult and painful because our assumptions have to be exposed and tested. That’s why friction is so important. Friction slows things down and gives more people a role in producing and critiquing knowledge and ideas. This is the very stuff of democracy.
A world without friction is a world without politics, diversity or sufficient opportunities for human control and intervention. It’s a world in which elites can tighten their grip on decision making under the false promise of market efficiency, scientific neutrality, and technological progress. It heralds the dream—or perhaps the nightmare—of a population who have a basic education and a job or some other form of income security, but who lack the social and political structures and opportunities to be truly active citizens.
Who wants to live in a frictionless world? If new technology can get me to the emergency room on time then I’m all for it, but in the social, political and artistic worlds there’s little that is healthily friction-free. Struggle is the bedrock of advancement. Our job is to insert ourselves as much and as often as possible into the wheels of technocracy, bureaucracy and business. We should resist anything that evades or removes the human dimension of problems and solutions in politics and economics. And we should celebrate the life-affirming benefits of friction when applied to privilege and power.
After all, unless life is uncomfortable, there’s no room for transformation.