Loss of Friction

Black Friday brings out the hunter in the average consumer. How many families used to gather all the special newspaper ads and plot out their foray to the shopping centers for doorbuster deals? Now, you might be more likely to scope out all the deals online, perhaps using Google’s new comparative shopping engine to track down the best prices on the things you covet.

But shoppers are still going out in droves to do that physical shopping.

Friction is the term used for delays in getting things done. You can shop online in seconds, in your pajamas, at any time. When you go to a physical store, you have to park your car, walk to the door, find a cart or basket, look for items, respond to offers of help or try to get help, wait for people to get out of your way, load up your cart, stand in line to check out, pay with some kind of exchange of funds, wait for someone to pack your goods, return your cart or basket, walk back to your car, load your purchases into your vehicle, and then drive home. That’s a lot of friction.

When you go to a shopping mall on Black Friday, the friction is increased at least tenfold. Maybe more. We no longer hear about fatal stampedes on Black Friday, but there is still a lot of waiting, searching aisles, finding items out of stock, navigating around crowds of other shoppers, and probably being disappointed.

Think about it. If you saved $100 by finding the best bargains on Black Friday, how much friction did you endure to get that outcome? If someone offered to pay you $100 to get up before dawn and wait in a cold parking lot for hours, then to push through doors with dozens of other people, to bumble around in crowds for several more hours and then wait in line for 40 minutes, would you agree? Maybe not.


That kind of friction has become optional for most of us. We can have groceries and meals delivered to our door without even having contact with the drivers who bring it to us. We pump our own gas and pay at the pump, or just plug our cars in at home. We drive through to fetch coffee without leaving the comfort of our cars, and order it on an app so we don’t even have to have any interactions with the servers. We can get manicures and haircuts from robots. Our lives can be smooth, frictionless, and entirely under our control.

But maybe we’ve lost something along the way. Maybe at least once a year we need that friction. The Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus had something to say about the friction that comes from dealing with other people.  “When you’re alone you should call this condition tranquility and freedom, and think of yourself like the gods,” he said, “and when you are with many, you shouldn’t call it a crowd, or trouble, or uneasiness, but festival and company, and contentedly accept it.”

Our conveniently automated lives include less friction, but maybe also less festival. Black Friday my be our chance to reintroduce a little friction into our excessively frictionless lives.