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This week's essay was motivated by an observation:
You can type faster than you can think, and you can think faster than you can write by hand.
The Backbone of the Internet
I’ve had my brain plugged into the tech startup zeitgeist for about five years now. I’ve spent time holed up in a Market Street warehouse, sharing a bunk bed at a SoMa “hacker hostel”, and working out of an investor’s 15th floor Union Square office.
In these brief few years, I’ve realized that the tech world’s organizing principle is the measurable reduction of friction.
In most cases, friction refers to the distance between taking some action and not taking some action. How much friction exists between you sitting on your couch and you ordering Thai food? How much friction exists between you using Facebook once and you using Facebook again? How much friction exists between your philanthropic impulses and you acting on them?
Teams of physics PhD dropouts and former Jet Propulsion Labs engineers spend their days analyzing product usage data and redesigning apps to shorten these types of distances.
There is a cottage industry devoted to reducing friction and creating rapid feedback loops that bolster user growth, user retention, and user lifetime value (in $USD). Tech luminaries like Hiten Shah, Sean Ellis, Andrew Chen, Chamath Palihapitya, and Alex Schultz have provided no-nonsense principles to help prevent naive teams from pursuing numbskull growth tactics that kill their businesses.
Reducing friction is not a trivial pursuit. Friction reduction is a statement on which behaviors should be valued and which principles should be cherished. Which actions should have low friction? Every startup carries with it a thesis on ethics that plays itself out based on how a product is designed.
In recent years, we’ve seen how the prevailing thesis in tech has become “Use this product as much as possible!” Palihapitiya (now an investor) touched on this when he recently spoke about his regrets from his time as an early employee at Facebook:
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
In Praise of Friction
The mistake the startup world has made is the mistake that the modern industrialized human has made, which is the blanket assumption that “Convenience == Progress”. The easier it is to do something, the better. This invisible principle has led to many strange feedback loops in our lives.
We check our phones to avoid boredom/idleness, the constant digital engagement making us more prone to being bored, which means we spend more time checking our phones.
But it’s too easy to blame tech for this problem. There are countless other weird feedback loops that we engage in out of convenience. For instance, we sit in a chair 8 hours a day, weakening our backs and our posterior chains, which means we are in constant pain, which means we spend more time sitting.
It appears, then, that some forms of friction are not only permissible but also necessary for us to thrive. Life abroad has brought a lot of this to my attention.
While studying in Aix-en-Provence, I noticed almost everyone had sunkissed olive tans, upright postures, and lean physiques. This despite the carb-heavy pasta-and-fish diet in the south of France. People spent a lot of time standing and walking and squatting. My 78-year-old host parent walked to the fruit market every week to pick up apples and oranges and watermelons for us to have for breakfast.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Internet was pretty slow and the medieval town’s many parks, markets, and cafes invited pedestrian exploration. Most buses ran every 30 minutes, during which time a person could walk to where they wanted to go. Most buildings were walk-ups with no elevators. I couldn’t easily distinguish between small art shops, professional offices, and the several university buildings scattered across town.
It made zero sense to check your phone or to sit or to order UberEats. The environment itself whispered its values and its principles: “Explore. Engage. Eat.”
If the Internet had been faster, or if the public transportation had run more frequently, or if the customary work day had been longer, these whispers would have been less audible and resonant.
Constructing a World of Good Whispers
The difference between my time abroad and my experience online is that changing a physical environment takes more time and effort than changing an online environment.
In meatspace the common wisdom is to find a neighborhood that suits your desired lifestyle. The whispers it emits are what will make it feel like home, and it is up to you to decide what kinds of whispers are valuable and what are not.
In digital space, you have the power to construct it as you wish. You can construct the whispers you want in your ear. The trouble is that we have not yet conditioned ourselves to organize our digital lives in congruence with our physical lives. So many of these whispers are polarizing, compulsive, alarmist, paranoid, image-obsessed, and pain-avoidant.
Imagine this environment materialized in the physical world -- who would want to live there? Sounds awful. And yet because we as users of the Internet blindly sell our dopamine pathways to the highest bidder, the Internet becomes increasingly populated with attention-demanding spaces.
Some Tools for Friction
The exciting part of all this present-day darkness is that it grants us an opportunity to articulate our life principles and then rearrange our environment to adhere to them.
If social media is slowly eroding your self-esteem and increasing your need for likes and comments, try Browse With Intent, Newsfeed Eradicator, or RescueTime. Or delete the apps from your phone. Or deactivate your accounts all together and use a combination of email, text messages, and phone calls.
If your email inbox is destroying your ability to focus and get high-leverage work done, try YourTempo, Inbox Pause, or auto-responders during work blocks. Make yourself available via email or Slack only during particular windows of time.
Much of these tactics involve adding usage friction back into arenas that were designed to be as frictionless to use as possible. The tactics worth using will vary depending on your own principles and goals.
Hope you enjoyed reading! Happy Sunday and until next time.