Features | the new asterisk | Future Etiquette

Future Etiquette

Author: Alexander Winter Managing Editor

by Alexander Winter | Illustration by Jeremy Joven
Published April 2015 | Etiquette Issue

In the past couple of years we have seen social norms change with the introduction of new technologies into various facets of life. The use of smart phones at the dinner table or during social gatherings at bars is fairly accepted by many people now—something that my late grandfather would have witnessed, only to throw a raging fit, push over the dinner table, and yell at everyone about how they very dare be so disrespectful.

Respect and a normal functioning of social processes is the goal of etiquette, an established convention for how to behave in any given and foreseeable context. These rules are now associated with stuffy White European historical stereotypes—as prevailed in the Victorian age—to ensure a peaceful and graceful coexistence for a privileged part of society with access to wealth.

Etiquette at its core functionality serves as a balancing mechanism for a seamless operation of society; not necessarily in its formal form, but rather in often unwritten and constantly changing patterns to which most people decide to adhere, when their intention isn’t to offend or disrespect another.

The technological revolution has placed us at the brink of multitudes and myriad of phantasmal and very possible futuristic scenarios, starting with the re-imagination of urban landscapes, thanks to the imminent advent of automobiles (a.k.a. self-driving cars; the etymology of automobile derives from the Greek and Latin words for “self” and “to move”). An entire branch around parking etiquette and road behavior will be obsolete, including the concept of “road rage,” because who are we going to be madly waving our fist at? 

These automobiles can be redesigned to benefit our social wealth and happiness. The latest Mercedes Benz driverless car made a star appearance in the streets of San Francisco and featured 4 seats facing each other. Games, entertainment, or business meetings may truly turn the journey into the destination. Better yet, how socially acceptable would mobile intimate dining experiences be while being chauffeured around by a smooth operator of complex algorithms. A quick date in a car? The ‘90s called, they want their speed dating back! We could also take online classes on our daily commute to work. What about drinking and driving? The question then would be, who is driving? A designated driver will be a thing of the past along with horse carriages being used for pragmatic reasons. It may then appeal to our nostalgia to take a car with a driver around Central Park.

Another revolution of human interactions is awakening with the arrival of initial wearables. Our wrists are already getting acquainted with the warm embrace of cold and sleek alloys and materials packed with more ways to keep information flowing to and fro. While we cannot predict whether this is going to increase or decrease distraction due to connectedness, we can take a clue from how smartphones recoded our social-interaction norms—initially it is a bother in the eyes of many, and after a warm up phase of a few years, everyone is doing it and we establish conventions around respectful and appropriate use.

For most of western civilized history, humans thought about perception in a fairly straightforward way, with a clear emphasis on the traditional uses of the 5 senses. New findings show that unconventional ways of directing information to the brain offer a powerful alternative for our complex 3 pound neuronal miracle machine to recognize patterns. Vibrational taps on the skin or stimulating the sensors on the tongue with information encoded into patterns, for example, can enhance our perceptual environment by directly feeding data from the web to the brain. We don’t yet know the limits by which this process is bound, but one could literally feel global weather patterns, stock market developments, traffic conditions, and potentially have a perceptual experience of any imaginable information, including those of images and sounds perceived not by the eye nor by the ear. The Apple Watch uses tapping patterns on the wrist for notifications, but it’s merely an open call for developers and engineers to experiment with creative ways of teaching our brain to comprehend new forms of perceptual languages. And this is just the beginning.

How do social interactions change when we are fed key information about another person during conversation? Thad Starner at the MIT Media Lab has been doing this since the ‘90s with a DIY computer strapped on his head like an original form of Google Glass. Forgetting is getting harder and catching up less necessary, at least not in any trivial kind of way, cutting the small talk and putting the emphasis of conversations on ideas and new developments. Once introduced to these sensory enhancement superpowers we will wonder how people used to live without them, just as oftentimes I can’t even remember what I would have done in any given situation without my smartphone just a decade ago. If these scenarios arouse discomfort and rejection, remember how quickly our society adapts technologies that are intrusive to one’s privacy. For the sake of convenience we give up our location, how many steps we walk, where we eat, who we are with, and much more. 

There is, of course, an 800 pound gorilla in the room. Rather, let us call him or her a googolplexplex pound gorilla. True Artificial Intelligence would emerge out of the shadows of brightly lit labs of sterility causing a singularity, a point at which all rules of etiquette—all rules we have ever known—are quickly transcended and we won’t know up from down. Since our current state of comprehension equals that of a third grader goldfish when thinking about what may happen beyond this point of no return, the more relevant question begs to know how etiquette will evolve until then. Interfaces that are programmed to seem truly intelligent, like more advanced versions of Siri or Cortana, make it easier to anthropomorphize them to the point of illusion that we are interacting with another sentient being. Sure, it is fake, but could these technologies can teach our children empathy, respect, and commonly accepted behavioral norms by monitoring a child’s behavior and nudging it into a beneficial direction. And when our children are old enough, we can tell them that their smart interface isn’t a real person, just like Santa. But then again, Santa is real, right?

The most important lesson here is our shifting baseline. It takes us but a blink of an eye to adapt to something that makes life easier, and as a consequence we structure our social norms around the ever newer ways of life; pendulum aside, goodness forbid we have to give up conveniences.

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