Moshe Y. Vardi
Let’s bring friction back into computing.
Marie de rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, was a 17th century French Pa- risian aristocrat, remem- bered for her 30-year-long
correspondence with her Provence-residing daughter. Over a thousand of
their letters have been preserved and
published in the 18th century. They are
considered a treasure of French literature. The time gap—two weeks—
between the mother’s letters and her
daughter’s replies intensified the mother’s worries, longings, and anxieties,
which are vividly reflected in her letters.
It is difficult to imagine such correspondence today. The marquise and
her daughter would be communicating
frequently via email and text messages.
The frequent exchanges would likely be
quotidian and mundane, lacking the
frisson that enriches the 17th century
letters. The emotional depth of these
letters resulted from the difficulty of
communication between mother and
daughter. Eliminate that difficulty, and
the emotions are eliminated as well.
It is quite unlikely that future generations will cherish personal correspondence from the 21st century.
Our discipline is dedicated to reducing friction. Latency must be eliminated, bandwidth must increase, and
ubiquity should be universal. Our goal
is to reduce the friction of computing
and communication as much as possible. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zucker-berg speaks of “frictionless sharing”
as a goal. This reduction of friction
has enabled the amazing world of the
Internet and the Web we have created
over the past 50 years, but should zero
friction really be our goal?
One may dismiss my concern about
letters-not-written as sentimental and
anachronistic, but the effects of fric-
tionless computing are quite serious.
as insane. The world cannot function
without friction. The goal should be to
have the right amount of friction, in the
right place, in the right time. Yet our
discipline seems committed to the total
elimination of friction in computing.
The adverse effects of frictionless
computing are all around us. Email is
the first example that comes to mind.
It is simply too easy to send email
messages, so we all send too many
(I am famously guilty of this) and receive too many. It is also too easy to
add recipients. We are simply drowning in email; with many articles bemoaning the “email tsunami” and
“Pandora’s inbox.” An invention that
was meant to free us from the overhead of paper communication ended
up enslaving us electronically.
In almost every area touched by
computing, we can see the symptoms
of reduced friction. In a recent book
by Dan Slater, Love in the Time of Algorithms, the author laments how online
romance is threatening monogamy.
“What if online dating makes it too
easy to meet someone new?” he asks.
“What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high?” In essence, has
online dating over-reduced the friction of dating?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle
said “Anybody can become angry—
that is easy, but to be angry with the
right person, to the right degree, at
the right time, for the right purpose,
and in the right way—that is not easy.”
I feel the same about friction in computing. Reducing friction is easy, but
having the right amount of friction,
for the right application, in the right
context, that is not easy, and is today a
major challenge of computing.
Moshe Y. Vardi, EdIToR-In-CHIEF