The Dark Side of Frictionless Technology

The Dark Side of Frictionless Technology

A few weeks ago I wrote about the joy of calm technology; specifically, the satisfaction that I’ve found trying to learn a new physical skill (for me, playing guitar). A whole lot of you wrote in with your own stories, and a few of you also shared reading recommendations. Last week, while taking the week off, I read one of those books: Matthew B. Crawford’s 2009 best seller, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford—a Ph.D think-tank dropout turned motorcycle mechanic—offers a passionate case for the value and dignity of manual work and elaborates at great length on what I like to call the art of slow progress.

Crawford has a compelling argument about the misconceptions around how people unlock creativity. He suggests that the common view of creativity (what he dubs a “kindergarten idea”) is that it happens almost only when we have enough freedom from conventional constraints, and that our creativity is some special force inside us that we can unleash. Crawford thinks this is bullshit and that creativity is actually “a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice.” He continues:

[Creativity] seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys.

I’m quite drawn to this idea of creativity through submission. It perfectly describes my experience learning and struggling with improvisation on the guitar. To speak fluently through a guitar, you have to submit to the rote practice of training your fingers to find each note of a given scale and its various positions, which is its own separate challenge and set of rigid rules. But even after you’ve locked in the muscle memorization, you must contend with the realities of a song and its chord progression. To make the instrument sing, you have to work within its constraints. Real, genuine musical expression is possible only when you’re innately familiar with the math and geometry of the instrument, and use its rules as a road map to get to where you want to go. Crawford goes even further, arguing: “The example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making.”

His claim is part of a bigger argument about most technology, which (writing from 2009) he laments has become aggressively convenient. He’s frustrated that analog car components and parts have been replaced—or obscured—by digital parts and interfaces. As a result, they’ve become more intuitive for the operator, but much more complicated and expensive to repair. Crawford also argues that, worse yet, we’re losing something essential as a result of all this intuitive technology:

It introduces as little psychic friction as possible between the user’s intention and its realization. It is such resistance that makes one aware of reality as an independent thing. If all goes well, the user’s dependence (on programmers who have tried to anticipate his every need when constructing the interface) remains well beneath his threshold of notice, and there is nothing to disturb his self-containment.

Crawford gets a little heady here. He’s saying that frictionless experiences with technology mean that we notice less about the tools we’re using and what it is they actually do. This, he thinks, promotes a kind of self-absorption. We don’t see ourselves as being in conversation with our tools or the physical world; instead, we see ourselves as masters of our environment, with the expectation that every tool and service ought to perfectly attend to our needs. And, because we don’t know how our tools work, we can’t repair them when they break.

It’s a paradox. Modern tools give us independence; we don’t have to worry about some of the things we used to. But they also make us more dependent on those who are doing the building or repairing.

The idea that technology is, at times, infantilizing isn’t new. But I’m interested in Crawford’s idea that our overly intuitive tools might promote a warped relationship with the world, and how we see ourselves in it. At one point in his book, Crawford describes the job of fixers, a term he applies to the roles of (for example) doctors, nurses, and mechanics. These people are in charge of fixing something that is not of their own making, which means they must master their subject in order to diagnose problems or make repairs. But, in such lines of work, there’s constant failure—or at least, no guarantee of success. Cars are totaled or unfixable; patients have terminal illnesses and die. But Crawford argues that the “experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself.” He adds that “fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.”

Maybe this all sounds a bit like Grandpa shaking his fist at the clouds because things are confusing and back in the old days the kids had manners and everyone knew how to fix a carburetor. That’s fair! But I love having a world where so much of the information and entertainment I desire is on-demand. I have always been drawn to technology that takes a once-complicated or onerous process and streamlines it, thereby increasing accessibility to information or opportunities; from Google Search to turn-by-turn directions on navigation apps, the smartphone to the iPod, there are thousands of examples to point to.

But I also see the ways that these technologies have shifted my expectations and the expectations of those around me. We expect more from our devices, while at the same time we see them as ever-more disposable. When our technology fails—when the Wi-Fi goes out, or a Bluetooth connection drops—we are quick to feel aggrieved.

I’m ashamed of occasionally acting like a huge baby when a tool of mine doesn’t work properly. On a recent trip to a new city, my phone could not precisely pin down my GPS location, and I cursed and blamed my phone for its failure in escorting me seamlessly to my destination. I could’ve taken a moment or two to learn about my new surroundings before arriving, thus generally participating a bit more in the physical world around me. But I didn’t, because I had an app for that. At their worst, our tools cultivate a relationship to the world around us where we are the main characters and what surrounds us—from people to things to our geography—are props or scenery.

The opposite of this more narcissistic, expectant mindset is an attentive one, which, Crawford argues, one can find in the art of maintenance. Diagnosing and fixing things, he writes, “requires a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix.” He continues:

This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.

I’ve written a lot over the years about the ways that our technologies harness, exploit, and fracture our attention. Myself and others commonly focus on the ways that information overload and vectors of distraction fly in from unanticipated places at all moments, until we feel we have little control over our attention. Crawford offers another angle on the same dilemma, arguing that our tools take us out of the practice of attentiveness. It’s not just that we are distracted, but that our devices offer us the option to attend less to the world around us.

User inattentiveness is often the intention of a newly designed technology. When Steve Jobs used to pitch new Apple products, one of his favorite lines was “It just works.” Apple’s ability to deliver on an experience of seamlessness is why many of its products changed the world. If it just works, you don’t have to think about how it works. The details get filed down; you can rely on abstractions instead of grappling with the intimate details. I’m not talking just about tech specs and understanding how your cell phone’s camera works; I’m talking about a more pervasive, hard-to-pin-down ethos of incuriosity that’s marketed to us as a luxury.

Crawford’s maxim that “things need fixing and tending no less than creating” is something I’ve been unknowingly grasping at in this newsletter for the last year. There is a fundamental tension in the tech industry between the desire to build at all costs, because building is a universal virtue, and the less flashy value system of maintaining structures that already exist so that they may flourish.

I’m obviously not against innovation or building great things. But in this newsletter, I’ve criticized Silicon Valley’s impulse toward Builder Brain: “a particular line of thinking, one that seems to run the risk of missing the root cause of a problem in service of a more exciting solution.” I see it in the jargony, scam-riddled pyramid schemes and hype cycles surrounding Web3; I see it in the technology industry’s reluctance to embrace the Right to Repair movement; and I see it in so much of the pompous arrogance of tech founders and investors who think they can waltz into an industry with little expertise or understanding and disrupt it.

The vague ethos of building, as the tech journalist Jacob Silverman mentioned to me this week, “has become very important to crypto’s vocabulary of self delusion (like community, economic freedom, etc). At best they’re building rigged casinos.”

For someone afflicted with Builder Brain, the world can often seem like a theoretical place—a laboratory for thought experiments. It is a fun, energizing world to live in, not only because solutions can be elaborate, but their best-case scenarios are paradigm shifting and world changing. It is similar to the way that Crawford describes theoretical math in Shop Class as Soulcraft:

Mathematics is constructive; every element is fully within one’s view, and subject to deliberate placement. In a sense, then, a mathematical representation of the world renders the world as something of our own making…the world is interesting and intelligible only insofar as we can reproduce it in ideal form, as a projection from our selves. By contrast, in diagnosing and fixing things made by others (this other may be Volkswagen, God, or Natural Selection), one is confronted with obscurities, and must remain constantly open to the signs by which they reveal themselves.

My chief concern about a tech culture that privileges and lavishly rewards building over maintaining is that this particular mindset is being instilled in us through their tools. That, by relying on their products, we’re subtly adopting their virtues, which include an expectation of obsolescence because builders don’t repair—they build. And that, in turn, the tools that promise us frictionless experiences, boundless productivity, and renewed creativity will actually undermine our competence by leaving us more dependent, and less resilient and attentive.

A world that revolves around constant re-imagining and obsolescence is marketed to us as boundless and free. But what if that freedom doesn’t really ever deliver on its promise? What if it leaves us exhausted and thrown into chaos, and without a sense of values or of ourselves? What if Crawford is right, and the basic character of human agency “arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making.” What tools do we build, then?