Friction and good governance

Reducing friction isn't always an improvement.

September 2023

Friction is an important property in any system. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing out of context. Low friction is valued in the context of a car’s energy efficiency for example, and high friction is valued in bringing the exact same car to a safe stop.

If Alice faces a choice between less or more friction in a digital system, between more or less convenience, you know the choice Alice is going to make. Should Alice opting for lower friction / higher convenience correspond to what’s best for the health of the system overall, we have a fortunate alignment. Empower Alice now! Decentralize!

However, when such a choice is disadvantageous at the system level, she will ultimately come out the worse for it alongside the rest of us. Let's use a 2012 Wired article by way of example:

Imagine a world where banks take into account your online reputation alongside traditional credit ratings to determine your loan; where headhunters hire you based on the expertise you've demonstrated on online forums such as Quora; where your status from renting a house through Airbnb helps you become a trusted car renter on WhipCar; where your feedback on eBay can be used to get a head-start selling on Etsy; where traditional business cards are replaced by profiles of your digital trustworthiness, updated in real-time.

Porting reputation data from one context to another serves Alice wonderfully in the moment. We would all find it low friction / highly convenient. But this vista is deeply alarming, not that the author recognised as much at the time it seems. 

Programmatic quantification of reputation is an inevitable evil due to the unavoidable self-moderation and modulation it inflicts on its subjects beyond that which might be argued as 'good for society'. To be clear, the social accretion of local, contextually relevant reputation with forgiving opportunities for reparation has served communities for millennia. We are however considering universal, non-contextual and irremediable scoring and algorithmic assessment. Mix in a naïve conceptualization of identity and we will have excluded from society anyone for whom identification is a question of personal safety, and shackled the very psychological change processes we all experience and rely upon.

This reputation system epitomises a misalignment of self-interest and system-interest. In not appreciating the long-term systemic consequences, our self-interest works very much against our self-interest.

It’s unethical then to decentralize power when the system is wrought with such misalignment. More research and development is required to secure alignment, and the misalignment can be neutralised with good governance in the meantime.

The process of governance entails the determination of authority, decision-making, and accountability, and ethical governance in situations of such misalignment will necessarily incorporate a mix of talents dedicated to the flourishing of the system at all scales.

While not perfect, this is the basis of human and societal development for the past century. Rather than an abrupt switch to a new governance model, one that would be destined to fail hard, we can blend old and new forms of governance to get to where we all want to go sooner than later.