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Friction is what keeps us from realizing our goals. It is what compromises all our plans, sometimes making them unrecognizable. It defies our wish for perfection and constantly surprises us with new elements of resistance. It constitutes the divide between dream and reality. But friction is also that which gets us moving, a necessary incentive to achieve progress. Nothing can start if it cannot push off something else. By blocking or delaying the easy solution friction makes for a richer, more varied world. If it stops schemes from being completely fulfilled, it also stops them from going totally awry. To the modernist project with its one-sided rationalist pretensions, friction is unambiguously bad. And so it is being disposed of at an increasing speed. This means less and less time to pause and rethink, while the vulnerability of societies is aggravated. In "The Necessity of Friction" twenty scholars tackle this topical and important concept. A number of scientific fields are engaged: physics, philosophy, economics, architecture, organizational theory, artificial intelligence, and others. Together these contributions form the first modern-day attempt at analyzing the intriguing yet elusive subject of friction.



Points of departure


Six poèmes en prose

Naval hero Tordenskjold died in a sword duel He spiked the Swedish cannon with cunning and took Marstrand. Tordenskjold won the battle of Dynekil. When still a boy, his father forced him to wear a pair of lederhosen. Peder Wessel — as he was called before he became a hero — always wore out the seat of his trousers. A stop had now been put to that. There were other children in the family and trousers cost money. But this did not stop the lad. He sat athwart a grindstone and asked a group of other scamps to turn it. In the end the inevitable occurred. He wore a hole in his trousers. How his father looked when the boy presented him with lederhosen with holes in has not been recorded. Nor what his mother looked like at the time. But Peder Wessel from then on wore ordinary clothes right up to the period he became a hero. Then he appeared in uniform and adopted his new name.
Klaus Rifbjerg

A free-falling society? Six introductory notes

Consider war. In the face of political and nationalistic passions safety catches give way easily enough. Suddenly, the cool planning is tested against a rapidly changing reality, making only one thing certain: nothing will proceed precisely as decided beforehand. Life itself in all its complexity, ambiguity and lack of overview will reign the battlefield.
Nordal Åkerman

Metaphor transferred


Re-discovering friction: all that is solid does not melt in air

Modernism ceased to be fashionable some time ago. To live a life of paradox and contradiction, to be moved at once by a will to change and to be horrified by the prospect of disorientation and of life falling apart, has ceased to be a meaningful way of how contemporary men and women experience the by no means less dramatic changes around themselves and in themselves today. Yet, a curious split of consciousness seems to occur: in one part of Europe, a kind of pre-modernism seems to emerge, characterized by the re-appearance of primordial ties of real or imagined ethnicity and mutually exclusive belongingness, ready to deny to others what each group claims for itself. In another part of Europe, the supposedly post-modern turn is undergoing equally troubling, though far less painful, convolutions to reach a more encompassing stage of integration, this time primarily in the name of a greater economic unity to which other forms of unification might follow. Large parts on the map of a suddenly re-arranged and enlarged Europe are actively engaged in deconstructing space and time after having been occupied so long by the central powers that no longer exists, while the other half is deconstructing space and time as part of a welcomed process of internationalization and further technological modernization.
Helga Nowotny

Physics & metaphysics

An exemplary physical disposition

At first glance the concept of mechanical friction seems not at all odd. It is just another force. It must be considered (as friction) when surfaces slide over one another. It must be taken into account (as viscosity) when motion in liquid media are studied. It must always be included (as resistance) when analyzing motion through the air. But it has certain peculiarities that are most instructive. Provided that two contacting bodies do not move with respect to each other, the friction between them increases with the force tending to make them slide. Physicists call this the static or Coulomb dry friction. When the external forces acting on the contacting bodies reach a certain magnitude they begin to slide along one another. But there is still friction. This is dynamic friction. Like static friction it is greater as the pressure holding the two surfaces together increases, but is always less than the static friction in the same case. If we imagine one of the contacting surfaces to be stationary and the other to be moving or tending to move the force of friction is always opposed to the direction of actual or potential motion.
Rom Harré

Friction of bodies, friction of minds

In the middle of the fifteenth century, roughly three hundred years before Newton formulated the socalled “laws of motion”, Nicholas of Cusa, the philosopher-cardinal, had pondered the phenomenon which has been known since as “rolling friction”. He said as follows:
“Notice that the movement of the ball declines and ceases, leaving the ball sound and whole, because the motion that is within the ball is not natural, but accidental and violent. Therefore when the impetus that is impressed upon it dies out, it stops. But if that ball were perfectly round ... its motion would be round. That motion would be natural and in no way violent, and would never cease.”
Agnes Heller

On the battlefield


Friction and warfare

“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. ... Countless minor incidents — the kind one can never really foresee — combine to lower the general level of performance. So that one always falls short of the intended goal. ... The military machine ... is basically very simple and easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction.... A battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to delay things and sometimes make them go wrong. ...
Chris Donnelly

Incentives for progress


Let us now praise dragging feet!

Sometimes those who try to lead, govern, develop or plan our societies do a good job because we are able to stop, delay or pervert their schemes. More often we produce unanticipated problems and slowly developing catastrophies because we are too clever in eliminating sand in the machinery, like “red tape”, or the “traditional attitudes” or “petty vested interests” of others.
Ottar Brox

Social change induced by technology: promotion and resistance

Technological progress, offering on increase in output which is not commensurate with the increase in the costs necessary to generate it, is in the form of that rare thing in the economist’s lexicon — a ‘free lunch’. Countries or regions which take advantage of this ‘free lunch’ through sustained technological progress over time, ratchet themselves to high levels of prosperity and modernize their social and economic structures. Notable example of such socio-technical transformation are Britain since 1775, United States from early Nineteenth Century, and Japan and Sweden in the last century or so.
T. R. Lakshmanan

Inertia and development models

This essay is about inertia in relation to models of development1. Terminology first: I use the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985:306) definition of inertia, ‘property of body by virtue of which it opposes any agency that attempts to put it in motion or, if it is moving, to change the magnitude or direction of its velocity’. A ‘model of developmenf contains three components: (a) a concept of development defining the goal of the development process, that is, clarifying the notion of development itself; (b) a strategy of development, concerning the guidelines for action intended to move the process of development along; behind these two elements is a third, namely (c) a theory of development meaning a set of hypotheses regarding conditions, relationships and structures which are held to be important for the process of development. Furthermore, the ‘processes of development’ to which I refer concern the level of societies even if there will be some references to specific groups and individuals. The distinction between the three dimensions of development models is purely analytical; they are closely interrelated: the formulation of a strategy requires theoretical considerations which must also include a notion of the goal, the concept of development.
Georg Sørensen

Rationality in the marketplace


Friction in economics

The core of late twentieth century economics consists of a set of assumptions which, taken together and seen as a whole, constitutes an image or vision of a self-regulating system in which friction and inertia are largely absent. Friction in both senses of the word is generally ignored: there is neither dissention and conflict nor is there resistance to relative motion. The economic system adjusts smoothly to disturbances; markets clear instantaneously; competition ensures that resources are used efficiently. We live, in effect, in the best of all possible worlds given the resources and technology available to us and the distribution of income.
Keith Griffin

Essential friction: error-control in organizational behavior

In the physical world, interaction without friction is nearly inconceivable. The most elaborate mechanisms would be required to pick up a bottle, set a table, drive a car, or walk to the door. Objects set in motion, whether pencils, mice, feet, automobiles, or trains, would slide freely until arrested or deflected by collision with another object. Without the damping effect of friction, we would live in an impossibly kinetic world in which the consequences of every action would persist and multiply to the point of insanity.
Gene I. Rochlin

Elation & frustration

Playing, writing, wrestling

The kitten is busy with her toy mouse. All pricked ears and wispy tail she gives her vivid performance of hunter and prey. She knows of course that she is handling a dead object. But in a corner of her mind lurks handed down cat knowledge, which maintains that the very nature of play is to breathe life into things passive; by force of imagination as well as literally, with swift paws.
Sigrid Combüchen

Why things don’t happen as planned

This is an essay about thwarted plans and frustrated expectations. The experience that thing’s don’t always work out as planned is a common one. However, instead of just citing Murphy’s law or the inherent malevolence of the universe, we need to understand the structure of frustration. Sometimes, things go wrong simply because we make a mistake, such as stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake. I am concerned here with more systematic, recurrent sources of frustration. Some of these are located within the individual, some of them in the interaction among different individuals.
Jon Elster

Structuring the human space


The desire for order

The process of becoming modern has been the conquest of the mysterious and the unpredictable. We humans have declared ourselves to be the supremely rational animal capable of ordering knowledge, evaluating its significance and applying it in the most efficient way. From this manner of thinking, the modern era has come to associate the achievements of the rational scientific method with the measure of civilisation. As such, the future of the modern world is represented as a matter of technical application: a better world is depicted as a more controlled, less ambiguous, less confusing, less contested one. The end result is a world thought to be malleable enough to be perfected. A better world, according to this view, becomes merely a matter of technical virtuosity.
Joanne Finkelstein

Stay in my house

During the 19th century, industrial production replaced agriculture as the major source of income in Western Europe and North America. Large transfers of population became necessary. The manner in which buildings were constructed thus acquired a new social importance: the provision of housing became a production factor.
Kaj Nyman

Unpredictability, frictions and order

Houses are normally safe, stable and predictable. In an earthquake the falling down of the houses is therefore judged to be a catastrophy. But this is physically nothing to be taken for granted, at least not for the theoretically inclined.
Áke E. Andersson

Friction and inertia in industrial design

‘Friction,’ says Nordal Åkerman, ‘is what keeps you from realizing your goals…. It constitutes the divide between dream and reality.’ The opening remarks of a paper by the American designer Jay Doblin, that he worked on the end of his life echoed something of that perception. He stated: ‘Designers are frequently frustrated by a recurring phenomenon: consumers who should know better often seem to choose products of inferior design.’1 Yet although Doblin sought with great intelligence to analyse this phenomenon, he never explained it. There is as least a prima facie case for investigating the concepts of friction and inertia in the field of industrial design as a potential means of comprehending this gulf between aims and achievement that is so frequently left unexplored.
John Heskett

Into the future


Frictionless forecasting is a fiction

Observers of the political and economic scene note that almost all decisions involve incremental changes from the status quo1. Slightly mitigating the ills we have has always seemed preferable to flying to others that we know not of. It now appears, however, that advanced information technology and improved theoretical understanding of social and economic phenomena may have put us on the verge of a breakthrough, and the possibility exists of flying directly to radically new solutions that we can predict sufficiently well not only to avoid ills but discontinuously to enhance the good. Arguments for this brave new frictionless society go roughly as follows:
With the increase in specialization, experts are available today who are capable of short-term forecasts about almost all aspects of social and economic behavior.
Concurrently, it is becoming increasingly difficult for any one person to integrate all of this understanding.
Computer technology now allows one to incorporate this immense body of short-term forecast knowledge in programs that can, through simulation, predict the long-term future impacts of contemplated decisions. These impacts are often surprising and counterintuitive, accounting for the fear, in the past, of anything but small changes2.
Once we can predict the impact of globally discontinuous decisions, debate can appropriately center on which effects are preferable and not on what the impacts will be.
Hubert L. Dreyfus, Stuart E. Dreyfus

Parting shot



I will reveal to you the secret of the surprising and admirable literary inventions which have made my international reputation. It all began one fine morning in April when, at daybreak, I was writing — or attempting to write — on the love life of a young man whom I named Hector for want of a better name. Yes, for want of a better name, for the names I choose for my characters hold great importance for me and this “Hector” clothed the boy with whose emotional life I was preoccupied rather badly. I saw him flitting between a number of demoiselles without being able to decide on any one of them. Besides, they were not so gullible, the demoiselles, something in him told them that they could not expect anything seriously of him and they treated him without involvement. I had got to that point in my story and I was scratching my head to come up with a means, a way, a feint which would allow me to deepen him, give him a superior dimension, make him superhuman, universal. Instinctively, I bent my researches in the direction of mythology. Mythology is a resource which rarely disappoints.
Michel Tournier


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