Today in Tedium: I think, in many ways, one of the biggest challenges we face as computer users is that things are sometimes too easy. We can control our home from thousands of miles away, and cause servers to go offline with the switch of a button. And yes, there are times when you want that. But the problem is, when everything is easy—press a switch, and you can have nonstop entertainment until the end of time, cognitive overload is always around the corner, trying to get us to switch gears. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got shit to do. In that spirit, I want to make the case that we need more friction in our computing experiences, so that when we do make decisions, they’re more explicit and less mindless. Today’s Tedium stands up for friction. — Ernie @ Tedium
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A term that refers to the concept of resistance between two bodies. Often used in the literal physical sense, it has gained uptake in recent years as a way to describe the way people of opposing views interact with one another. In the sense we’ll be discussing it today, we’ll be emphasizing it from the perspective of productivity and workflow.
Our interfaces don’t do enough to lock us into specific tasks
The web browser has mostly been a good thing for computing. It makes it possible to access things simply and cheaply. Culture that might have once been kept behind a gate or books that might have required you to travel to them to access them are now freely accessible through the web. This is excellent.
As a result of this, we have a far larger breadth of information available to us at all times.
But it has created a societal problem that is at times tough to navigate. Simply put, when you have access to an easy path, you fail to fully appreciate its value. Let me offer a few examples of what I mean:
- Spotify has made it possible to listen to basically any song we want without a problem, but now we’re in a position where music is almost mindlessly appreciated, especially compared to CD or record collections, which require intent—because, after all, we had to buy the damn things.
- Social media, which is designed to be easy to consume, creates feedback loops that can be dangerous if you’re not careful. If you’re stuck inside one of those, you might find yourself mindlessly reloading social network front pages all day.
- Misinformation is simply easier to spread than regular information, and a big reason for that comes down to the fact that well-researched information tends to cost money and creates time to produce. Propaganda and lies are cheap to make, and anyone can do it.
And when new options are always a tab away, suddenly, we find ourselves getting pulled in directions that go directly against our intentions.
We have a lot of easy paths forward, and when there’s no resistance, no friction, we run into traps. Our relationship with creative work is gradually diminished; we get lied to by our information outlets; we find ourselves addicted to our phones. The clear negative effects of the friction aren’t appreciated because we were moving so fast that we missed them on the way.
When every user interface is slick and designed to maximize engagement, the result that we keep sliding down the path of least resistance until we reach bottom.
This explains some of my concern with artificial intelligence. To be clear, I am an enthusiast of AI’s potential. I think it offers more good than harm, and I support the general idea of making artificial intelligence better, within reason. But if it is not offered with intent, it further greases the slide.
Look, there are points where you want to do things with less friction. If the process is keeping you from doing something at all, there is clearly a need for it to be simplified. But the problem is that the friction-removal processes themselves lack friction. You can’t add sandpaper to grease to make it less slick—it’s either slick or it’s not.
For this reason, when I heard Automattic was adding AI-generated text capabilities to its default WordPress plugin this past week, I raised concerns. It’s not that it can’t add things like those, or that people won’t find value in them. It’s more of a slick-surface problem: A content management system like WordPress is designed to make it easy to publish words, and it handles basically every part of the process except writing the words. Now, it can handle that, too.
It is the equivalent of waxing a bobsled so much that when it starts moving, it causes a fire that damages the course. WordPress was built to make it easier to publish. It was not built to replace the actual creation process.
When things are too easy, they lose value. There has to be some level of meat-grinding that needs to happen to make room for intent, or you’ll end up grinding the filet mignon into hamburger.
I find that as I get older, clear signs of ADHD are showing themselves. Focus is harder, and if I’m going to stay productive, I need to actually think hard about what I’m doing, or I’m going to start going left.
Technology plays directly into this tendency. It doesn’t tell you when to stop. Because it does so many things, it allows for mindless use, rather than use with intention. So you can use a computer for days on end and not really do much with it.
Compare this to, say, reading a book. When you pick up a book, generally that requires a certain level of intent. On a physical level, it is only designed to do one thing, like an umbrella. And while you can get distracted from reading it, its organizing principle is such that you have to reject the concept of reading the book entirely to disengage. Compare that to the internet, where there’s always a Plan B.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying the internet is bad. Tying back to the book example, putting a book on the internet can create a lot of value—you can research within the work in a non-linear fashion, for example. But the tactile feeling of turning the pages signals intent, something that is too easily lost in our world.
When I used my computer, I want to figure out a way to so with intent. And intent requires friction.
The year that Leonardo da Vinci first wrote about the laws of friction in a personal notebook. Despite being very early to explaining the general concept, the finding was not publicized until the 2010s because, again, it was written down in a personal notebook.
I want to create a Mac that is only useful for certain things
As I wrote seven years ago in my piece “Bare Metal Writing,” the place where I don’t want friction is in my actual creative process, the writing element. Everywhere else, please dish up more friction.
With all that in mind, I’ve recently decided to go back to an old friend, my 2012 MacBook Pro. A device with a big screen, it had been an important part of how I work for years. But then I replaced it with another laptop with a better screen, and then another one with a better processor.
I bought the MacBook Pro 11 years ago this month. It is extremely obsolete. It has not been officially supported by a modern version of MacOS for a few years. The device would hack up a lung if, for example, I tried to edit a video using this device. But for most of the work I do—particularly writing—it is great. Two or three years ago, I replaced its original glossy screen with a matte one, and that matte screen works really well in the modern day.
But as I’ve started to move more into freelance work, I decided that the things that made it a bad choice for video editing, for example, actually secretly made it an asset for my use cases. I could basically take this machine and make it a device built for friction. YouTube too distracting? Leave YouTube logged out. Too many notifications? Make it so I have to pick up my phone to use Slack.
The secret about modern computers is that machines like this are still fine for 95 percent of tasks. While it’ll never get as much battery life as an M1, it also won’t crawl if it has the right SSD and enough RAM.
But this can be taken a lot further, honestly. As it has a matte screen, it doesn’t have the reflectivity of many modern screens on tablets or smartphones. The matte screen, in the right light, can give the device the feel of eInk, which is a different technology but carries a lot of benefit for those who struggle with focus.
MacOS has some great accessibility features. One of the best is the ability to put a color filter on the screen, which can allow the screen to have a certain tint, or even appear in grayscale. I’m doing the grayscale—something I’ve already been doing for months on certain social networks, to make them less visually desirable.
To add with that, I have integrated some other accessibility features that MacOS offers, including the concept of reducing motion, differentiating objects without color, and increasing contrast. These remove some of the more toy-like features of MacOS, such as the fidgety nature of swiping between screens using a trackpad. The result is a screen in which color, noise and distraction is removed from the interface, and some of the texture gets pulled out of images.
Thanks to all that, the machine now has the appearance of eInk, without many of the technical weaknesses, particularly the slow refresh speed. (The backlight, alas, is still there. Maybe one of these days I’ll buy one of those eInk desktop monitors to complete the circle.) I have to be honest, though: I would actually kill to get this thing to have a slower refresh rate, as that would help cut back on some of the immediacy that comes with the use case. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet, but I’m sure I will eventually.
I haven’t yet gone down this road, but I think the way the machine controls also could stand to be done with more intention. Currently, it is very easy to switch virtual desktops in MacOS. All you need to do is flick your wrist. But what if it required holding multiple keys on the keyboard, or you had to use keys other than the arrow keys? Suddenly you would be less likely to do it as a force of habit and would then have to do it with intention. The idea is not to make it impossible to switch apps—it’s to make it harder to do something else, while making your primary goal easier to pull off.
Make the hard thing easy. Make the easy thing hard.
The case for building a “friction tunnel”
Web browsers are designed to favor your desire paths—the paths that you create through frequent use. If you like using YouTube, many web browsers will load it up after you only type one or two letters in the address bar, and because you’re logged in, all of your favorite videos are already set up for you.
This is great if your goal is to spend your entire day watching YouTube, but when you have shit to do, it’s a real productivity risk.
One suggestion I have for resolving this issue is by creating something I call a “friction tunnel,” a zone where the distracting stuff is extremely hard to access and removed of much of its flashy appearance, but the not-so-fun stuff is easy to do. It is a backstop against decisions that will harm your productivity.
With the web browser, a great place to start is by leaving as much logged out as you can, browsing in incognito mode, or (if you do need to be logged in) setting a profile that has no access to certain features like your bookmarks or your browser history. This makes it so that if you need to pull something up, you have to actually take the step of typing it in, in full.
Think about this like going to a bar. If you know the bartender well, there’s a chance they might give you stronger drinks than you might have gotten otherwise—great if your goal is to get drunk, but not so great if you’re just stopping in for a visit. If your goal is not to drink at all, you probably shouldn’t go to a bar—but sometimes you have to be around alcohol, and self-control isn’t always easy. One way to get past this is to force yourself into an unfamiliar environment, where the friction is high, and the easy solutions are harder to access.
But if you know you need to complete some research, obviously it makes sense to go to a library, where all the books are. This device you use can go to any possible environment in the digital world. The problem is, it is just as easy to spend all day in the arcade as it is to sit in front of a typewriter.
The solution is to put more resistance into your path of least resistance, so your objective doesn’t get lost in a sea of non-stop entertainment and immersion.
You could take this to extremes if you really wanted to. You could add another user to your desktop machine with limited permissions, or even set up the device in a limited kiosk mode, so it only does certain things. If your phone is a real distraction, adding in a long passcode and turning off any biometrics could be a smart way to discourage you from using it. (A less-extreme version of this might be simply putting it into airplane mode when you’re trying to work.)
There will clearly be limits to what you can do. After all, it’s easy to find another screen or computer. But one good solution to this involves putting the “focus computer,” your personal friction tunnel, into a space where the nice computer is hard to access. Going to the coffee shop? Bring the tank. Live in a house with extra rooms? Only use this computer in that room.
In this world, there are some of us that really suck at focus, or too easily get distracted by choice. The problem is, choices are too easy in a digital world where literally any option is available at any given time, if you know the right URL.
Let’s choose with intention—and embrace the need for friction.
This conversation is one I’ve been having in my own head for a while. I’m happy to get it on the page. Here’s the link; I’d be honored if you shared this with a pal.
See ya next week!
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