The sweetness and delights of the resting-place are in proportion to the pain endured on the Journey. Only when you suffer the pangs and tribulations of exile will you truly enjoy your homecoming. (The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi – Book 3)
John Johnston started to talk about ‘clunky-ness’ in technology as a way into digital mindfulness. Recently, on our radio show, we discussed the idea of friction in technology as potentially a way to develop digital skills that may be being lost in the ‘Generator Generation’ as they rely more and more on technology ‘creating’ for them.
I have also been following D’Arcy Norman’s quest to find space away from social media. He seems to also have discovered the value of ‘clunky-ness’ and the tyranny of convenience. He also speaks of adding friction as valuable,
“I’ve deleted the Twitter apps from my devices, and now if I want to check in I have to use the browser. Not having notifications or easy launching of a stream adds a bit of friction. I also have 2-factor authentication enabled, and logout after checking in, so dropping into twitter is deliberately kind of a pain in the ass.”
How is he finding this ‘pain in the ass’ valuable? “I find I’m thinking with less snark. I’m being less sarcastic in general. And I think that has something to do with withdrawing from the hot-take snark-and-sarcasm streams on social media.” Friction accessing social media, just making it more clunky, is allowing him to be more intentional and clearing his head of unnecessary stimuli. Interestingly, we also featured the ‘Space’ app on the Daily Stillness recently. What does it do? It makes accessing apps you use without intention a pain in the ass! From the blurb: “It loads a Moment of Zen before the apps you want space from. That re-wires your brain and helps you take back control of your habit. Because you don’t really want to dump your favourite apps: you just need Space.”
So, Cody De Haan adds further to the above, building in inefficiency is exactly the point:
Now when I pick up my phone, I see essentially a blank slate. This means that instead of seeing a bunch of triggers for distractions, I wind up pausing for a moment to think about what I’m doing. Often I lock my phone again and set it back down, realising that I was just in an avoidant state or trying to distract myself from what I really want to be doing. […] I think the slight delay in typing the app name I’m looking for is balanced out by the time I save not mindlessly scrolling through my apps.
So, I got curious. It seems we are (re)discovering something that has been part of many a spiritual tradition for a long time. The Rumi poem at the start of this post a beautiful example of the way in which ‘clunky-ness’ in life can bring sweetness and delight. I wondered where the notion of friction came from, I wondered why people felt more comfortable with ‘friction’ than ‘relinquishment’ or ‘abstinence’ or plain old ‘difficulty’. The renunciant’s path is alive and well in monastic life with the taking of vows to renounce the comfortable life. When I did a 3 year retreat, I did not warm to renunciation straight away, I preferred it when my abbot told me to ‘practice sense-restraint’ – it seemed less antiquated and somehow more doable!
Maybe this is what is going on with friction; adding friction to your life, does feel more modern than giving up creature comforts. Yet, popular culture really gets the inevitable end point of the ‘frictionless life’. Have you seen Wall-e and its fat people? A favourite book by David Whiteland summed it up well back in 2000,
‘You should never underestimate the power of comfort. To our everlasting discredit, we owe our utter dependency on technology to our inability to resist it.’
My search led me to cognitive friction. Alan Cooper coined the term in 1999 and defined it as: “the resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules.” If cues don’t match our expectations, we experience cognitive friction. Avoiding cognitive friction in UI design has been a design mantra in software design at least since the term was coined if not before. We get frustrated when interfaces don’t function seamlessly, and the aim is always to overcome cognitive friction in software. Of course, the flip side of the lack of friction is that we build unconscious habit and let our fingers do the walking, as we open Twitter for the Nth time in an hour without ever intending to…and stay there catching up with nothing.
I searched for the benefits of cognitive friction in health and well being, and could find very little on the google, a potential PhD for somebody scanning for research ideas? John and D’Arcy offer first person inquiry into how their mental wellbeing is benefitting by building friction into their interaction with software. The Space app benefits from our emerging ability to see value in friction – generally we call it a pain in the ass and want it gone, we want instant gratification…except sometimes.
Here at the Still Web, we have worked with the idea of challenging comfort and creating friction as offering a way out of that monkey mind since we set up the web site. Comfort is a lie or at least it is not something we should keep on pursuing uncritically as a society.
Creating friction intentionally maybe something we can sign up to more easily than relinquishing comfort and ease; and maybe becoming a consideration in software design going forward, as shown by our Space App example above.
May be those monastics through the ages telling us to sit with discomfort, relinquish comfort and become renunciants to gain enlightenment do still have something to teach us as we add a little intentional friction into our work flows. Buddhists monks know that ‘renunciation is a skill’,
“Buddhism takes a familiar American principle — the pursuit of happiness — and inserts two important qualifiers. The happiness it aims at is true: ultimate, unchanging, and undeceitful. Its pursuit of that happiness is serious, not in a grim sense, but dedicated, disciplined, and willing to make intelligent sacrifices. What sort of sacrifices are intelligent? The Buddhist answer to this question resonates with another American principle: an intelligent sacrifice is any in which you gain a greater happiness by letting go of a lesser one, in the same way you’d give up a bag of candy if offered a pound of gold in exchange. In other words, an intelligent sacrifice is like a profitable trade.”
Maybe intentional friction will lead us to ‘the pot of gold’ of equanimity as we face our modern busy lives. I am reminded of my reading of McLuhan. What does the frictionless life flip into when pushed to its limits? Intentional Cognitive Friction, maybe?
“Too much of anything, however sweet, will bring the opposite of whatever you thought you were getting. One becomes many, many become one. You start out a consumer and you end up consumed. The trick is to recognise the pattern before it is complete.”
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