New Englanders possess a unique specialization: an appreciation of friction.
I’m not talking about getting into it with the manager of Market Basket over the vague language of a coupon, or trying to merge onto 128 while flipping two simultaneous birds. I mean the science kind of friction.
We salt our roads, we chain our tires, we wear these hideous boots that were on sale, and we do it all because of our long-developed and elementally attuned understanding of friction. And while no one would ever mistake us for patient people, we also know well the hazards of rushing into things and losing control. It’s psychological black ice that extends before us even in the dead of summer. We are a people who go willingly but warily forward.
Which also makes us not a great fit for the Internet.
This past week in an essay for Motherboard, Justin Kosslyn, who leads project management for Jigsaw (a security-focused extension of the Google parent company Alphabet), made the argument that the Internet was suffering for its deficit of “friction.”
“It’s time to bring friction back,” he writes, cautioning fellow developers and designers against the now-orthodox “groupthink bias against friction” when it comes to designing our online experiences. “Friction buys time, and time reduces systemic risk. A disease cannot become an epidemic if patients are cured more quickly than the illness spreads.”
It’s an idea that runs directly counter to the very imagination that gave rise to the Internet, which often seems only ascertainable through the metrics of speed. From same-day shipping to instant messages, speed is what defines (and often makes or breaks) our online activity, and it has become the primary vector for innovation. We don’t know quite what we want from the future, but we know we want it faster.
But in terms of security — the thing we should probably be more concerned about than the continued shaving of nanoseconds — the push for friction makes plenty of sense.
“In the old days, it took time and work to steal secrets, blackmail people, and meddle across borders,” writes Kosslyn, “Then came the internet.” And with it came the increasing ease with which malicious forces could outrun any of those forces that might police them. Most data breaches, phishing scams, misinformation campaigns, DDoS attacks, malware epidemics — each of them rely on both the features and failures of extreme speed in order to succeed.
Extra checks and preventative measures — e.g. additional security layers, human moderation — could stem the rush of information that comes toward our devices daily. It just wouldn’t be very Internetty of us to pump the brakes.
But Kosslyn’s caution can also apply to matters beyond the jurisdiction of the help desk.
What else has the promotion of speed over everything done to our experience of the Internet and one another?
The fact that so many of us prefer texting to calling signals one shift, and the fact that many of those text messages are made up of abbreviations and the surrogate symbols of emoji signals that we’re not done shifting.
Our devices push and push us to tap and scroll. We hastily compile research to win Facebook squabbles; we rush to tweet the right take at the right time (only to discover it’s already been tweeted 60 times in 30 seconds); we skim everything, we absorb nothing; we rush to read and react; we’ve turned our friends into “friends” and genuine engagement into a kind of passive voyeurism. It feels like we’re all locked in a tie for first at every given moment, yet somehow we’re falling behind.
It feels like we’re all locked in a tie for first at every given moment, yet somehow we’re falling behind.
You can even zoom out further, and appraise what this ambient obsession with speed does to our notions of self-worth (this new paradigm of seeing things and wanting them and having them in a matter of clicks) as well as the value of others.
It’s no small irony that Kosslyn’s call for slowing down the Internet seems to have arrived years too late (sometimes it feels like we missed the exit for the scenic route decades ago).
But the future approaches at the same steady rate it always has, and if we can just slow our collective roll and adopt some healthier habits (anything from logging off to disabling notifications to practicing a bit of meditation, or simply staying conscious of the pull of the current) we may be able to regain control. If we don’t, we might end up crashing through the guardrails, waking up later with no explanation apart from “It all happened so fast.”Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.