jump to navigation

Are We Wrong About the Future of Digital Life? September 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Digital life offers the promise of no friction in our lives; that is, no difficulty in doing anything ordinary, such as shopping, meeting people, or traveling.  There is no impediment in our lives.  I have written about the idea of friction before, thinking that at least some friction is necessary for us to grow and develop as human beings.

Further, science fiction author Frank Herbert had some very definite ideas about friction, now over 50 years ago.  He invented a protagonist named Jorg X. McKie, who worked for the Bureau of Sabotage as a saboteur.  At some indeterminate time in the future, galactic government became so efficient that laws were conceived in the morning, passed in the afternoon, and effective in the evening.  McKie’s charter was to toss a monkey wrench into the workings of government, to slow it down so that people would be able to consider the impact of their rash decisions.

But let’s fast forward (or fast backward) to Bodega, the Silicon Valley startup that is trying to remove friction from convenience store stops.  Rather than visit a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop, patrons can pick up their goods at the gym, in their apartment building, or anywhere that is willing to accept a cabinet.  Customers use their app to unlock it, and their purchases are automatically recorded and charged.

It turns out that people are objecting.  Loudly.  It turns out that the bodega (a Hispanic term for the tiny shops) is more than just a convenience.  It is where neighborhood residents go to find out what is happening with other people, and to find out what is going on in general.  In an era where we are trying to remove interpersonal interaction, some of us also seem to be trying to restore it.

My point is that maybe we want to see our neighbors, or at least hear about them.  And the bodega turns out to be an ideal clearing house, so to speak.  I’ve seen something similar in northern Spain, where the tiny pinxtos shops serve pinxtos in the morning until the late afternoon, then transition into bars for the evening.  We visit one such place every morning when we are in Bilbao.  They don’t speak any English, and my Spanish is limited (and no Basque), but there is a certain community.

That is encouraging.  Certainly there is some friction in actually having a conversation, but there is also a great deal of value in obtaining information in this manner.  We establish a connection, but we also don’t know what we’re going to hear from visit to visit.

I wonder if there is any way that the company Bodega can replicate such an experience.  Perhaps not, and that is one strong reason why we will continue to rely on talking to other people.

Advertisements

More About Friction and Life September 5, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
3 comments

Apparently the next wave of getting friction out of our lives is to text people we are visiting, rather than ringing a doorbell (paywall).  It seems that doorbells disturb people (okay, in particular young people).  In some cases apparently seriously.

I’m ambivalent about this.  As one generation passes on to the next, customs change, and it is entirely likely that texting to let someone know you are outside of their door will become the new normal.  On the surface, it may not be a bad thing.

But there’s always a but.  It turns out that texting someone is an excuse for not seeing someone physically.  And there are plenty of places where I go that I may not know the phone number of the person inside.

But more about friction in general.  Friction is the difference between us as individuals gliding through life unimpeded, or having some roadblocks that prevent us from doing some of what we would like.  None of us like friction.  All of us need it.

Whatever else I may doubt, I am certain that friction is an essential part of a rich and fulfilling life.

If you are afraid of something, then there is good reason to face it.

First, friction teaches us patience and tolerance.  It teaches how to wait for what we decide is important in life.

Second, it teaches us what is important in our lives.  We don’t know what is important unless we have to work for it.

Third, it teaches us that we may have to change our needs and goals, based on the feedback we get in life.

Many of the Silicon Valley startups today are primarily about getting rid of friction in our lives.  Uber (especially), Blue Apron, really just about any phone app-based startup is about making our daily existence easier.

You heard it here first, folks.  Easier is good, but we also need to work, even for the daily chores that seem like they should be easier.  We may have to call for a cab, or look up a menu and pick up a meal.  Over the course of our lives, we learn many life lessons from experiences like that.

Do me a favor this week.  Try the doorbell.

About Uber, Friction, and Life June 28, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

No matter where you are in most major or even minor cities around the world (yes, there are significant exceptions), you can pull out your smartphone, press a couple of buttons, and have an Uber taxi meet you at your location in a few minutes.  You compare the driver with the photo you received, and you have a measure of security.  The driver already knows your destination, and you know that you don’t have to pass him (or her) some cash at the end of the process.

And that’s the way it should be, in this day and age.  The technology has been there, and Uber, Lyft, and their ilk are bringing it together.

But let’s take an honest look about what we are trading off, because there are always tradeoffs.  In this case, we are trading off friction.  By friction, I mean the hassle of hailing a commercial taxi, finding the phone number and calling a taxi company, or getting to a location where taxis tend to congregate.

(And as I was told in Stockholm last month, all taxis are not created equal.  “Don’t take that one,” the bell captain at a hotel said.  “They will gouge you.”)

All of this sounds like a good thing.  But it turns out it is part of the life learning process as a person.  For the first twenty-three years of my life, I never saw a taxi, or a train, or a subway.  I grew up in rural America.  Today I am comfortable finding and navigating all of the above, in any city in the US or Europe.  Why?  Because I had to.

(And incidentally, no matter the payment method, I always tip in cash.  These folks work for a living, and deserve the discretion of how and where to report their tips.)

I have grown as a person.  That’s difficult to quantify, and certainly given a more frictionless path in the past I might well have chosen it.  But the learning process has built my confidence and yes, my worldliness.  I am more comfortable navigating cities I have never been to before.  I don’t stay in a bubble.

If you are using Uber (and Lyft) as an excuse for not interacting with others, especially others who are different from you, then you are not learning about the world, and how to interact with it.  And as your life winds down, you may come to regret that.