Saturday, November 12, 2005

Coefficient of Information Friction

Ff = Fp μf
Friction, in physics, is the force that makes it hard to slide one object against another (e.g. to drag a wooden bookshelf across a carpet). It depends both on how tightly the two objects are pressed together (e.g. it’s easier when you unload some books) and on what the two objects are made of (e.g. it’s easier to drag it across a hardwood floor). That what’s the formula above says – Ff is the force of friction, and it depends on both Fp, the perpendicular force between the objects, and μf, the coefficient of friction between the two objects.

A couple more facts about physical friction:
  • Friction wastes energy. (More accurately, it converts energy into heat, which isn't useful unless you're trying to start a fire.)

  • Treating surfaces can make a huge difference in how much friction there is between them - if you look at some actual coefficients, you see that steel on steel is about 0.6; add oil and it drops to 0.06. That means a few drops of oil in the right place can make things ten times easier.

Information friction, by fuzzy analogy, is whatever gets in the way of moving the information you need to where you need it. Pseudo-mathematically, we can define the coefficient of information friction, μI , as a measure of how hard it is to move a given amount of information. In the old days (say the early 1990's), that often meant phone calls, trips to libraries, research assistants, meetings with experts, subscriptions to custom data feeds, and so on. Today, that often means finding the right URL.

And even more importantly, if you can't find the right URL, it probably takes a very reasonable amount of effort to build a website that provides the right URL, both for you and for others with needs like yours. Think a few person-days to mash up a map of apartments for rent in the right neighborhood, or a few person-months (weeks?) to create a filtered news site based on collective opinion, or a few person-years to launch a business finding dates, cars, houses, or URLs.

Testing the analogy:
  • Yes, information friction wastes energy. The energy you (or your customers) spend getting the right information is energy that's not being spent doing something useful (or profitable) with that information.

  • Yes, better technology can make a huge difference. We've spent the last decade spreading Web-oil across lots of surfaces, and it has dramatically lowered the coefficient of information friction. (I haven't thought of good quantitivate metrics here - let me know if you have any.)

lim(μI --> 0) = ?

It keeps getting easier. More information from more sources keeps becoming available via HTTP, more devices to access that information in more places keep getting introduced, and more standards for easily mixing-and-mashing that information keep emerging. When μI dropped a little, we got the first-order effects of the Web - we kept doing what we were doing, but it was easier. As we saw the benefits of lower friction, we started to invest in the infrastructure to handle increased flows, accelerating the drop of μI . We're just starting to learn what it's like to live in a world where μI is tiny.


Michael Teper said...

So going from 0.6 to 0.06 in metal on metal is a net positive, but would going to 0.0 be a good thing? I dont think we are quite there yet with the web, but your other post mentioning the need for artificial bottlenecks strikes the right cord -- we are definitely getting info-overloaded, especially if one tries to go near the "new media" firehose. It seems to me there are two major areas of interaction we can observe on the web today: one is information access (and here we are getting close(er) to optimal); and the other is everything else: e-commerce, web apps, etc. That second area still needs improvement, and its where the required richness of interaction is running against the bottleneck of HTML. The Web2.0 (bubble2.0?)movement is trying to attack that set of problems, but I think there's only so far JavaScript hacking can take us...

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