Against frictionlessness


One of the pleasures of writing The Glass Cage was discovering the works of the American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, particularly the 1934 book Art as Experience. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I had that feeling often while reading Dewey. There was this passage, for instance:

An environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions would set a term to growth as surely as one always hostile would irritate and destroy. Impulsion forever boosted on its forward way would run its course thoughtless, and dead to emotion. For it would not have to give an account of itself in terms of the things it encounters, and hence they would not become significant objects. The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed; means which are only means from the very beginning are too much one with an impulsion, on a way smoothed and oiled in advance, to permit of consciousness of them. Nor without resistance from surroundings would the self become aware of itself; it would have neither feeling nor interest, neither fear nor hope, neither disappointment nor elation. Mere opposition that completely thwarts, creates irritation and rage. But resistance that calls out thought generates curiosity and solicitous care, and, when it is overcome and utilized, eventuates in elation.

Among other things, Dewey here provides us with a powerful way of examining and interrogating technologies. A tool that simply smooths and oils our way, that speeds us to the execution of an impulsion, has a deadening effect. It removes us from the world and hence from the struggle with the world and its objects that gives definition to the self. The best tools are the ones that expand and extend our contact with the world, that give us more not fewer frictional surfaces.

Dewey’s teaching runs directly counter to our assumption that we should seek out the technologies that offer us the greatest convenience and ease. Imagine, for instance, if software developers, and users, embraced Dewey’s philosophy. The entire software industry would evaporate in an instant, and along with it many fortunes, and a new industry would emerge in an entirely different form.

8 thoughts on “Against frictionlessness

  1. Paul Vitols

    What an interesting extract and an interesting post!

    But I don’t think I would draw the same inference from Dewey’s comments. For all technology smooths our way in some respects–that’s what it’s for. Using a piece of antler to dig roots from the ground is easier, smoother, than digging them out with our hands. But no technology smooths every bump out of our path. Rather, it helps us over the current obstacle so we can encounter the next one–an obstacle that we perhaps could not have met without overcoming the first. And in this encounter with new, unprecedented obstacles we call on new resources within ourselves and discover more about the world and about ourselves. We undergo differentiation and personal and collective growth.

    I don’t think that Dewey’s observation was a critique of technology, even implicitly. I think he was making an existential point: that there are always obstacles and difficulties, but that these, at least in moderate quantity, are your friends. My takeaway is: “Don’t complain!”

  2. Laraine

    I think the effect depends on the kind of technology. The kind that makes me struggle with how to use it has exactly the effect Dewey wants–and by the by, what he says reminds me of what cognitive psychologists stress, that a little difficulty is a boon to learning and remembering.

    But there is an entire technology empire that is always stressing convenience to the point of mindlessness–Don’t think about what you’ll make for dinner. Give us the ingredients in your refrigerator and we’ll give you a recipe. Tell us what’s in your closet and we’ll dress you. Never mind the refrigerator that tells you when you are out of milk or the car that drives itself.

    And where that kind of technology is concerned, the every present app, software program, or algorithm for managing every bloody aspect of one’s life, I think the post is correct. There is a segment of technology, or technology creators, who want to “oil” every path with a level of convenience that removes all obstacles and struggles without creating new and more interesting challenges.

  3. Robert Bolick

    Oh, I thought the software industry had already embraced Dewey’s trial and error method. How else do you explain all those bug-ridden launches?

    Didn’t Marlowe say and foretell it best (confirming Emerson’s observation on what was often thought but ne’er so well expressed)?

    “Is this the Facebook that launched a thousand faults?”

  4. Timothy

    Dewey’s work is still influential in education circles. I believe he is talking about technology and how it takes away from real experience. The virtual experience is not the real experience. Real experience has a multitude of textures and nuances. The tool for learning is living an experience. It is not substituting the real with video and interactive buttons. In this sense he is talking about technology, how it conditions us to act in certain ways and further distances us from the depth of real experience. In my brother’s classroom they dissected frogs on the computer. He found it of little value and bought pig hearts for the children to cut up. It was messy, but there was a greater value in the experience.

  5. Henry Beer

    Forget technology. In design of any kind, resistance builds muscularity. Designers’ careers are defined by how they address and ultimately surmount constraints. The more wicked the constraints the more creativity must be applied. The persistent myth that creativity is about freedom or the lack of constraints– “the blank sheet of paper” or “get outside the box” contradicts our nature as sentient and problem-solving creatures who relish challenges. No person would ever want to play a game with no rules, no “court” or foul lines , no balls or stick .

    It’s interesting to look at NBA films from the fifties. Compare them to recent games. Besides the obvious emergence and dominance of black players over that period and rules that have over time been modified, the amount of sheer transformational creativity that’s been brought to the game within its
    “rules” is nothing short of remarkable.

    Constraints are the fingerholds we use to climb problems. Limitations are what those with limited creativity bring to looking at constraints. I’ll embrace constraints all day long. I have no patience for limitations.

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