Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Importance of Information Friction: Safer Societies and Subtle Satisfactions

Wet leaves abound on the ground these days in Europe, and when I walk the streets they lead me to think about the critical role that friction plays in our worlds. I own a special pair of dance shoes that give just the right amount of friction to let me glide across the floor. More would prevent me from dancing. But less, oh, less could be disastrous---movement from one spot to another would be uncontrolled and dancing would be impossible.

If you stop to think about it, it really is a similar phenomenon that makes the stories that we tell interesting. Imagine that there were no friction and that the punchline of a joke would always simply slip out of our mouths with the first line. Its not a nasty as taking a tumble during the tango, but if we collectively lost the ability to tell jokes and stories, it would not be making the world a better place.

For us to entertain each other in this way, some kind of an "information friction" is necessary, i.e., a force that holds back everyone knowing everything all the time.

This observation seems a bit of a trivial, given that concerns about eroding "information friction" are more frequently related to "big issues" involving, e.g., involving safety in society.

For example, people worry about private information being leaked that can do them serious damage. This is a legitimate concern. We are thankful when the dangers of sharing are treated constructively by the news media, e.g., ConsumerWatch: Social Media Users May Be Revealing Too Much About Location « CBS San Francisco

Here, the benefit of information friction is clear. On Twitter information about people's location travels as far and as fast as light. Unlike light, it's not gone once the source stops emitting, but rather hangs around and reveals patterns capable of haunting or even hurting, should they be traced and exploited by people with evil intent. We still want to share with others around us, but this sharing should have some natural limits, just like the physical forces that keep us from flying around without control in the real world.

We share the vision of a world in which governments can exploit patterns in real-time personal data to prevent of mitigate the effects of epidemics and catastrophes:
But another "big issue" is that we don't want to trust every government with all the data in the world. We would appreciate a bit of information friction if it could keep our data a bit closer to home and in hands that we feel we can count on because we know them well.

Here, I would like to explore another, less dramatic aspect to information friction: I would like to highlight the critical role that friction plays in the fun, loveliness and delight of life. In addition to jokes, as I described above, think also about movies. We see online communities carefully creating information friction: adding spoiler alerts so that viewers don't come to know the end of the movie until the time is perfectly right for it.

Browsers offer private browsing, which seems to me the only way that it is possible to buy anyone a gift these days---anyone (family member, roommate, colleague), that might happen to glance at the screen of your computer that is. Currently, my browser is happily showering me with recommendations for flights to the destinations that I have recently investigated using my search engine. Some may see benefit in this added inconvenience for people who are trying to deceive their loved ones. But the romantics among us regret the passing of the days in which we could book a surprise getaway trip for two without having to remember to adjust the browser settings.

We need a certain amount of information friction to make it possible to give gifts to each other. To surprise each other with unexpected kindnesses. To perform magic tricks, pass on secret recipes to the next generation, to have fun with puzzles and riddles and generally create a sense of joy and wonder.

So yes, limits to the flow of information will keep us safer from the dangers of misuse or misinterpretation of private data by evil others. But it will also keep the underlying exchanges that bind us together in relationships, social groups and societies alive and well. We need to be able to tell each other stories and to give each other little presents. For these exchanges to work, information friction must be balanced to admit flow, but also to restrict it in just the right way.

It's not a simple balance to achieve. In the real world, so much is simply handed us by physics. Friction simply exists and doesn't have to be created for a specific purpose. The digital world, on the other hand, provides a serious challenge: we can't count on social gravity giving us a constant acceleration.

I'll end by noting the reason that I think it is so important to relate the need for the right amount of information friction not only to "safer societies" but also to the smaller things like jokes and surprises, what I call "subtle satisfactions" in the title of this post. It is fatiguing to self-control our level of social sharing with alarmist thoughts preventing the revelation of too much information leading to burglary or kidnapping. Rather, our brains prefer focusing on the enjoyable and comforting parts of life. We can exercise a more gentle rein by considering the positive: Contributions to protecting individuals' privacy online also uphold a world where your loved one can give you the most wonderful gift of your life on your birthday without having to execute technical gymnastics.

Rather than only working towards an world in which bad things are impossible, we should realize that we are also working towards a world in which the good things stay possible. Achieving and maintaining information friction balance is a lot of work, so I do not doubt that we can use both motivators.