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Friction builds fires, moves mountains, and makes babies—and may be the key to social progress

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AP Photo/Paul Vathis)
Creating positive energy.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Most people hope for an easy ride through life. We feel like we’re making progress when we quickly move forward through routines, traffic, work, and relationships, unhindered by unnecessary obstructions or difficulties that slow us down. Against this backdrop of ease, we have developed an understanding of friction as a negative force.

The thought of friction may make us bristle, but it’s not synonymous with difficulty. The standard linguistic definition recognizes this: Friction is derived from the Latin word fricare, meaning to rub, and it generally means a force that opposes relative motion between two objects. Rubbing in opposition to something instinctively sounds like an undesirable experience—a disagreement, a struggle, a fight—and so over time, we’ve come to connote friction with negativity.

Rubbing two people together may cause arguments—but it also makes babies.

But on the whole, rubbing things together creates, not destroys. Friction gives us heat and fire. It quite literally moves mountains. Rubbing two people together may cause arguments—but it also makes babies. Friction is a positive force in all walks of life precisely because it’s only when we’re in opposition to something that we learn how to move forward.

In order to advance both individually and societally, we need more friction in our lives, not less. Without friction, we stagnate; we don’t interrogate why things are the way they are. And it’s only when we question the world around us that we find answers.

Instead, we have tried to make life as easy as possible. While a friction-free experience in an airport might allow us to reach our destination faster, a friction-free world would slow us down in more significant ways. Moving through life unchallenged renders us passive, apathetic, and—without anything to react against—in a state of inertia.

Technology, and our ever-cleverer applications of it, has been a significant force smoothing out life’s bumps. That’s because one of tech’s main functions is to make life easier: Whether it’s ordering a cab, meal, or book, we can have it delivered to our front door in moments. Beyond enabling us to do and know whatever we want, whenever we want, our use of technology has disabled us, rendering us scrolling idiots more than sentient beings.

And when there isn’t an app to make something easier, there’s usually a pill. A brief scroll through Facebook will introduce you to powders that replace your need for food, tablets that sharpen your mind, supplements that boost your libido, and miracle programs that shrink your gut, all without breaking a sweat. There is little graft or grind, and there is consequently little sense of accountability or achievement, either. It’s all just a bit too easy.

As a result, we are increasingly detached from ourselves, others, and so much of life. This reality was imagined by several science-fiction pioneers, who foresaw the dangerous consequences of our quest for the easy life.

“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. They’ll feel they’re thinking. They’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy,” says Beatty to Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953. “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” wrote Neil Postman in 1985, weighing up the opposing visions of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in Amusing Ourselves to Death—Public Discourse in the Age of Distraction.

Whether it’s a problem, a principal, a process, or a president, friction forces us to engage, react, and reinforce our sense of self.

More recently, the most compelling points in Adam Curtis’s 2016 film Hypernormalisation tracked our descent into a collective state of mindlessness to the point where we find ourselves unable to read fact from alternative fact—the consequence of too much fiction and not enough friction: “We live in a world where the powerful deceive us. We know they lie. They know we know they lie. They don’t care. We say we care but we do nothing.”

There’s a growing realization that we need to actively seek out differences of opinion: of friends, colleagues, experiences, insights. We need to challenge and be challenged in order to progress.

Collaboration is a source of positive friction: It’s about rubbing up against the experience and expertise of another person or industry to lock heads and learn from each other. In John Maeda’s 2017 Design in Tech Report, there is a quietly powerful slide with a quote from Nicholas Negroponte, professor and co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab: “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences.”

In this way, friction acts as a catalyst. It’s the force that asks, “How can we make something better?” The world’s more progressive companies are incubating friction in the form of innovation units—nimble laboratories of ideas that challenge the mothership to keep moving forward at light speed. Google’s X, Ikea’s Space 10, and Airbnb’s Samara each provide inspiration and momentum to address long-term opportunities and avoid stagnating in the daily minutiae of running of business.

If companies such as these are willing to embrace friction and build it into their growth strategy, then so can we. We cannot pass through life as numb operators and users. Whether it’s a problem, a principal, a process, or a president, friction forces us to engage, react, and reinforce our sense of self. It’s not the cause of the problem—it’s the solution.

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