Necessary frictions

[23 January 2009]

By Rob Horning

These are deep thoughts occasioned by playing 1942, so measure them accordingly. The problem I faced was defeating the first big plane you encounter, about 10 stages in. I found it to be ridiculously hard and was entertaining implementing the cheat code that let’s a player destroy it with one hit. But then I began thinking about optimal frustration and about the difficulty game creators must have in finding the ideal balance between frustration and progress. Obviously games need to be just hard enough to keep you pressing reset (or, back in the paleolithic days of arcades, dropping another quarter in) when you are foiled. You have to be persuaded by the game that you can make it past the obstacle even as the game is at the same time thwarting you. What emerge from this apparent contradiction is a sense of how frustration structures the feeling of progress. When the cheat code is enabled, there is no sense of progress in 1942—only a curiosity about what’s next keeps me going. Oh, neat: the red planes now criss-cross instead of flying in a spiral. The thirst for this sort of novelty only takes me so far, and in fact what’s revealed is how idiotic it is to care about what comes next in 1942. (It’s like the elementary-school teachers say: “When you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.”) A measure of difficulty, of friction, is necessary to transform the arbitrary novelty into progress.

This dynamic perhaps holds true for consumerism generally—we want more things because we imagine these things will enhance or enrich our lives in some way, offer some sort of progress toward a self-concept or goal. Consumerism seizes upon that impulse as the source of profit and thus seeks to gratify it. But because maximizing the volume of exchanges ultimately suits producers best, their efforts are focused on eliminating the difficulties that impede them—they seek to enable the cheat code, as it were, and let us get what we want as soon as we think of it (and can afford it). But without any difficulty in accessing more stuff, our pursuit of novelty never gives us a feeling of progress or accomplishment. Without the frustration, our frivolous impulses can’t ripen into meaningful desires. If there is no friction, our concentration is not engaged in the same way—we don’t stoke our creative problem-solving abilities or become invested emotionally. The problem (i.e. the new thing we want to integrate into our life) takes on no metaphoric resonance or depth. To make another maudlin videogame allusion: each new impulse remains just another dot to consume as wend our way, Pac-Man-like, through the meaningless maze of existence.

Obviously, as the internet facilitates our access to cultural goods, frustration becomes harder to find. In a recent post (via BoingBoing), tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly argues that more and more culture products will become readily available social goods. He argues that access is better than ownership, and therefore society will move in the direction of providing access while eroding the barriers set up by ownership.

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy – as in make a decision to own—any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.
For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage.  As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

That is a pretty friction-free world that Kelly is imagining, which will may erode some of the meaning that we derive from such cultural goods. Instead of engaging, it will be easier than ever to say, “Next?”

But what also may happen, as the sources of friction that we are accustomed to are eradicated, we will produce new, synthetic ones—we will create frustration to preserve our sense of making progress. Or we will cast about looking for frustration, though calling it something else to ourselves. My thinking about this is a bit inchoate, as you’ve probably observed by now, but it seems to me that consumer capitalism, by making it easier to get more and more things (while convincing us that this is life’s end-all and be-all), has had the effect of preventing us from experiencing a feeling of progress—we are trapped instead on a treadmill of novelty. But what makes this painful for us is that we may invent frustrations to make up for the lack of friction in our acquiring things, imposing arbitrary limitations on ourselves in the absence of external limits—those problems of exchange that our existing social relations had equipped us to deal with. So these arbitrary limits can perhaps take pathological forms—crippling self-doubt, optional paralysis, inertia, dysthemia.

Essentially, this is a variation on a joke from Manhattan, where Woody Allen’s character is tape-recording an idea for a short story (and this is a paraphrase I lifted from an Amazon.ca review) “about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” I think consumerism has distracted us from taking on the existential problems and hung us up with the self-created problems which turn out to be far worse, as they are not constrained by any real facts about our lives.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/necessary-frictions/