What happened?

A couple of weeks ago, Spotify and Magicleap introduced an app that allows you to virtually pin music on your wall with augmented glasses. At first sight, the AR application could be interpreted as merely a new fancy feature to reorganize your Spotify music library, only relevant for the happy few who own expensive Magicleap glasses, hence not very interesting to awider audience. While this is partly true, there is an important characteristic of the AR app which applies to society in generaland should not be overlooked, that is; it adds some (artificial) friction in a world that is rapidly becoming frictionless.    

What does this mean?

One of the imperatives of digitalization is removing friction. Frictionless has been a buzzword for the last decade, with techno-optimists arguing that removing friction will result in ease and comfort and free up time for “the things we love the most”. But alongside these advocates, scholars have also criticized the role of technology for amplifying our strong contemporary desire for ease and comfort, which shouldn’t be an end in itself. Four decades ago, philosopher Albert Borgmann already argued that the inherent tendency of technology to install a frictionless society will alienate us, as it will make us give up on meaningful practices too easily. Meaningful practices are centered around what he calls “focal things”; objects that demand effort and care, proximity, are often inefficient by nature and take up a lot of our time (e.g. his famous example is the replacement of a fireplace by a thermostat). 

What’s next?

Humans need obstacles in life, and it appears some tech companies are starting to acknowledge this basic need in their frictionless universes. Apart from the current deficits of the application, allowing users to create an augmented library in their living room could be seen as an effort to reestablish a meaningful focal practice (managing a physical music library), but within the digital world. What’s appealing about this is that AR apps can offer friction without losing the benefits of digitalization. It can offer both cheap abundance of content, immediate availability, and ease of use on the one hand, and the possibility of focal practices by adding friction artificially on the other (e.g. AR exergaming such as Pokémon Go or an augmented music library in your living room). Consequently, in the future, we might see more attempts of tech disruptors to restore some of the friction that has been lost but, as a natural element of meaningful practices, had a certain value in daily life.