Friction gets a bad rap in everyday speech.
For example we talk about the unnecessary friction involved in the home buying process.
Or we’ll say there was a lot of friction between two world leaders.
Or between me and my old boss.
Friction burns are flat-out agony.
Yet when you think about it, friction is almost as vital for our life on earth as oxygen and water.
Without friction we’d be sliding all over the place. Items put down without perfect precision would continue to move across the desk or the floor until they hit a sufficiently chunky obstacle.
And – stretching the definition of ‘friction’ a bit – all the while we’d be being assailed by face-bound objects flying at us through the air and would-be shin crushers rolling on the ground around us.
We’d have to be permanently armoured, and we’d fasten our stuff down with hooks, magnets, and adhesives.
Although really, we wouldn’t – because we’d actually be very different creatures in a very different world, probably more like crabs or corals.
You can’t touch this
Maybe there are lifeforms getting by in the very-near-frictionless depths of space, waiting to be discovered/injured by some ill-prepared earthlings in a rocket ship.
But for now one of the closest approximations we have to a frictionless world is what quaintly used to be termed ‘cyberspace’.
The Internet enables us to move data here and there with virtually no impediments
Of course no laws of physics are being violated. Data centres are heating up. Signals are being boosted along the way. Energy from our transmissions is leaking out into space.
And even in terms of analogy there are friction equivalents, as anyone whose seen their Netflix buffering during lockdown can attest.
But compared to the real-world, the online realm is a near-frictionless place where many of the awkward everyday resistances that have defined our evolution are lessened or absent.
This has consequences – not all of them good.
We the people
Clearly I’m playing with a metaphor here.
But consider how the physically frictionless agglomeration of Reddit was able to mass together and drive up the price of GameStop.
They were aided in this by the frictionless share dealing of the fee-less trading platform Robinhood:
“It’s when friction decreases that you expect much more action, more trading, so going to zero in trading fees matters. The more frequently that people get price updates the more it warps, and changes their behavior.”Stephen Wendel, Morningstar – Bloomberg, 3 February 2021
The whole thing was orchestrated, obviously, over the Internet, where to the conception of a human mind, information just blinks into existence in different places like quantum particles.
In reality there’s a speed of light and bandwidth thing going on, I know.
But we only notice that when the Net gums up at the limit, when servers are overwhelmed, say.
In contrast 100 years ago a mass buying frenzy on this scale would have involved huge crowd of punters squeezing into bucket shops waving dollars to buy shares, jammed lines to New York, and elbows jostling.
Take out all the friction and you upgrade the mob in ways we’re only just coming to understand.
Nothing’s gonna stop us now
How did these people on the fringes of the right develop their views to the extent that they felt entitled to walk into the White House?
Equally, how do so many on the left come to believe that the slightest deviation from their agreed truth represents Neo-Nazism?
In part because the Internet has taken out most of the friction – social as well as physical – from their interactions.
There’s no sawtooth against wood, pulp against milling equipment, or rubber tire on road required for the fringiest elements to broadcast their message to anyone in the world.
Meanwhile on the social side, voicing even extreme views online gets little if any heat – friction – provided you do it in the right corner of the Web.
A National Front thug or a Citizen Smith of the 1970s would have been quickly reminded that few thought the same way if they went too far with their theories in their local pub, let alone at work or with family.
But now there’s mostly no counterforce to their theorising. No friction, short of some interfactional backbiting.
Stop the Word – I Want to Get Off
The frictionless physical world I described at the start of this piece sounds alien and terrifying.
But we might be getting a preview of its potential to cause harm in what it’s doing online today.