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Has technology been made too easy to use?
SEVEN years ago, a younger and more carefree Mark Zuckerberg went onstage at Facebook's annual developer conference and announced a major change to the social network's design.
Until then, apps connected to Facebook would regularly ask users if they wanted to publish their latest activity to their feed on the social network. Those pop-up messages - from apps such as Spotify and Netflix - were annoying, Mr Zuckerberg said, so the company had created a new category of apps that could post directly to users' feeds, without asking for permission every time. "From here on out, it's a frictionless experience," he said.
Of all the buzzwords in tech, perhaps none has been deployed with as much philosophical conviction as "frictionless". Over the past decade or so, eliminating "friction" - the name given to any quality that makes a product more difficult or time-consuming to use - has become an obsession of the tech industry, accepted as gospel by many of the world's largest companies.
Airbnb, Uber and hundreds of other startups have made billions of dollars by reducing the effort needed to rent rooms, hail taxis and complete other annoying tasks. And when a company fails, excessive friction is often cited as the reason.
"If you're making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you're now a target for disruption," Aaron Levie, the chief executive of the cloud storage company Box, wrote in a 2012 essay.
There is nothing wrong with making things easier, in most cases, and the history of technology is filled with examples of amazing advances brought about by reducing complexity. Not even the most hardened Luddite, I suspect, wants to go back to the days of horse-drawn carriages and hand-crank radios.
But it's worth asking: Could some of our biggest technological challenges be solved by making things slightly less simple?
After all, the frictionless design of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which makes it trivially easy to broadcast messages to huge audiences, has been the source of innumerable problems, including foreign influence campaigns, viral misinformation and ethnic violence abroad. YouTube's most famous frictionless feature - the auto-playing function that starts another video as soon as the previous one has finished - has created a rabbit-hole effect that often leads viewers down a path to increasingly extreme content.
And many major security breaches, such as the one that recently exposed the data of as many as 500 million Marriott guests, might have been more easily contained if these systems had been more compartmentalised and less tailored for seamless operation.
"The Internet's lack of friction made it great, but now our devotion to minimising friction is perhaps the Internet's weakest link for security," Justin Kosslyn, a product manager at Jigsaw, a part of Alphabet that focuses on digital security, wrote last month in an essay for the technology site Motherboard.
Over the past several weeks, I've spoken to more than a dozen designers, product managers and tech executives about the principles of frictionless design. Many said that while making products easier to use was usually good, there were cases where friction could be useful in preventing harm, and steering users towards healthier behaviour.
Bobby Goodlatte, a former Facebook designer who is now an angel investor, told me that the tech industry's culture of optimisation "presumes that reducing friction is virtuous unto itself". He said: "It leads us to ask, 'Can we?' - never 'Should we?'"
Several people praised the Time Well Spent movement spearheaded by Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, as a kind of pro-friction cohort within the tech industry. Among other things, the group has successfully pressured companies such as Facebook and Apple to take steps to curb tech addiction by including features that encourage users to limit their screen time.
And a few lamented that in the tech industry's race for convenience, something important had been lost. "We wanted to juice engagement and therefore made things as frictionless as possible," said Jenna Bilotta, a design manager who has worked at Google. "We made a whole world of the literal 'least you could do' apps, and it's trashing people's mental health."
Often, invoking the concept of friction is a useful way to obscure some larger, less-savoury goal. For Facebook, "frictionless sharing" was a thinly veiled cover for the company's true goal of getting users to post more often, thus increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting. For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the platform's profitability. And for Amazon, tools such as one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.
There are signs that some tech companies are beginning to appreciate the benefits of friction. WhatsApp limited message forwarding in India this year after reports that viral threads containing misinformation had led to riots.
And YouTube tightened its rules governing how channels can earn ad revenue, to make it harder for spammers and extremists to abuse the platform.
More of these kinds of changes would be welcome, even if they led to a short-term hit to engagement. And there are plenty of possibilities.
What if Facebook made it harder for viral misinformation to spread by adding algorithmic "speed bumps" that would delay the spread of a controversial post above a certain threshold until fact checkers evaluated it?
Or if YouTube gave users a choice between two videos when their video finished, instead of auto-playing the next recommendation?
Or if Twitter discouraged abusive pile-ons by making it harder for people who haven't followed an account for a set number of days to reply to that account's tweets?
This approach might seem overly paternalistic. But the alternative - a tech infrastructure optimised to ask as little of us as possible, with few circuit breakers to limit the impact of abuse and addiction - is frightening. After all, "friction" is just another word for "effort", and it's what makes us capable of critical thought and self-reflection.
I don't want to romanticise the slow, often frustrating processes of the past. There is nothing inherently good about complexity, and the tech industry could still do a lot of good by reducing the friction in systems such as healthcare, education and financial services.
But there are both philosophical and practical reasons to ask whether certain technologies should be a little less optimised for convenience. We wouldn't trust a doctor who makes speed a priority over safety. Why would we trust an app that does? NYTIMES