A Little Less Friction, Please

The big buzzword in digital technology now is “frictionless,” meaning the less we humans have to deal with, the better

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pitches the power of frictionless sharing.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pitches the power of frictionless sharing. Photo courtesy of Facebook

Think fast: What do you wish you had less of in your life? Stress? Debt? Traffic? Questions like this?

Wrong. The correct answer is friction.

Yes, I’m being ridiculously presumptuous. But in a swelling part of our daily lives, the world of smart phones and social networks, friction is considered the bane of modern existence. Or more accurately, utopia, as now envisioned, is one “frictionless” place.

This notion, that friction is something we’d be better off without, has its roots in engineering, of course-think of all the awesome perpetual motion machines we’d have by now–but lately the ideal of frictionlessness has spilled over into business transactions and social interactions. Banking without middlemen? Long overdue. Shopping without lines? What a concept. Making friends without actually having to go through the bother of meeting them? Okay, it’s a work in progress.

What we’re talking about here, obviously, is making everything more efficient, but how 21st century would that sound? So last fall, when Facebook rolled out its “Open Graph” apps that allow our friends to know what we’re listening to–on Spotify–what we’re reading–on Yahoo! News–or what we’re eating–on Foodspotting–without us actually having to tell them, Mark Zuckerberg sang the siren song of “frictionless sharing.” And when eBay announced at the Mobile World Congress last month that it was entering into partnerships with a handful of European firms, including one that would make it easier to book hotel rooms and another that would simplify buying tickets, an official for PayPal, which processes most eBay purchases, declared, “We’re focused on removing friction and providing utility to our merchants and customers.”

Even Highlight, the much-buzzed-about mobile app that lets you know if friends, or just people who share your interests, are nearby, has been hailed as “the most frictionless manifestation” of a virtual network that overlays the real world, mainly because it doesn’t require you to go through the process of “checking in,” as you need to on other geolocation apps, such as Foursquare. Once you set Highlight up, your job is done. It goes to work on its own, combing the area for people who like what you like.

Easy does it

Alas, this push to purge potential aggravations while minimizing personal effort comes too late for the TV Jerry Seinfeld. He would have loved it. But David Pogue, the personal technology columnist for the New York Times makes a suitable champion for raging at all things annoying, based on a piece he wrote recently for the Scientific American website.

Pogue raves about an Apple Store app that allowed him to walk into the store, pick up an iPod case, scan it with his iPhone and walk out. He didn’t stand in line. He didn’t need to talk to a store employee. The ultimate in-and-out. But he chides websites that make you fill out a form or wait for a confirmation email or prove you’re a human. The focus now, he argues, should be on using technology that prunes process.

He goes on to lobby for “frictionless” voting and wonders if we could actually put a dent in the obesity epidemic by making it a lot easier to buy healthy food. “Why can’t you get an apple, banana or bag of baby carrots in more vending machines or from a market with an app tap,” he writes. “Eating right still takes more effort than eating junk. Change the friction coefficient and you change the game.”

Pogue makes it sound like a no-brainer. But there are risks that come with reducing friction. Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic website, suggests that the ease with which we’ll be able to live our lives more openly on Facebook could redefine the legal definition of privacy and make it easier for law enforcement agencies and governments to collect and use personal information without a warrant.

Other privacy questions arise about mobile apps that gather location data about you. Nick Bilton recently pointed out in his “Bits” blog in the New York Times that mobile apps on iPhones can use coordinates on photos or videos you’ve taken to help map your location. Sounds innocent enough, but as David Chen, co-founder of a firm that makes iPhone apps, told Bilton:

“Conceivably an app with access to location data could put together a history of where the user had been based on photo location. The location history, as well as your photos and videos, could be uploaded to a server. Once the data is off the device, Apple has virtually no ability to monitor or limit its use.”

Making things easy, it seems, may not be so easy.

There’s the rub

Here’s other news from the frictionless front:

Video bonus: Watch the power of frictionless sharing–at least as Facebook sees it.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.