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My Phone Wants Me to Say ‘Thank You’
How to feel about technology that tries to improve our manners
Photo: Eskemar/Getty Images

Not too long ago, I applied to give a talk about the social impact of algorithms. The coordinator of the speaker series emailed me to set up a Skype interview, so I picked a day and time. The final exchange ended with an email from me that stated, “Great, thank you.”

My boring note looked like normal correspondence. I’d kept my email brief and to the point, just like people do these days, and there were no odd remarks to trigger red flags.

The thing is, I didn’t actually compose the email — Google’s time-saving “smart reply” software did. Gmail is used by more than 1 billion users as of 2016, and Google estimates that 12 percent of all replies use smart replies.

During our Skype conversation, I spilled the beans and explained that my phone “wanted” me to say thanks.

The interviewer was surprised. She never considered the possibility that at least some of her correspondence might be algorithmically coached. But how many of us do and think about the significance of automating our voices and the associated emotional labor?

Call centers are giving the matter lots of thought. In the latest twist on digital Taylorism, Boston-based company Cogito recently created software that coaches call center workers in real time on how to make their speech patterns more “socially sensitive.”

Is our own communication becoming streamlined like an assembly line? Or, as law professor Brett Frischmann and I ask in our new book, Re-Engineering Humanity, is “smart” technology nudging us to behave like simple machines?

Smart Replies Make the World a More Moral Place

By analyzing email and suggesting three short responses, smart reply allows the user to pick a shortcut and just hit reply. Although smart reply lacks emotion, in enough circumstances it still comes up with wording that’s both affectively charged and clever enough to give users the appearance of being conscientious. Unless there’s a glitch, smart reply picks out words that are contextually appropriate and lively and ooze sincerity.

The personalization succeeds because Google uses excellent machine learning software and gives users 15GB of free storage (more accurately, freemium storage, due to the advertising business model), and every time we use it, we feed the big data beast. And it’s growing: Google’s Area 120 division recently announced that it is experimenting with a new app called Reply that “would add Smart Reply features to a number of popular messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, and Hangouts.”

Smart reply “wants” me to say thank you a lot. I’m deliberately being provocative with my choice of wording, hence the scare quotes. To say that technology wants anything is to risk falling into the trap of technological determinism, just like Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired, does in his book What Technology Wants. It also risks sounding like I mistakenly believe that smart reply is autonomous enough to have its own desires. I don’t, and in just a bit, I’ll clarify what I have in mind.

For now, please consider two recent suggestions that smart reply made after scanning two different notes. They’re representative of what you’d see if you looked through my inbox.

The Consequences of Automated Gratitude

Perhaps we should be grateful for the prompt. While simply saying “thanks” on a regular basis can seem like a series of small, insignificant gestures, these acts scale up to do something profound: make the social contract both visible and viable. The Golden Rule asks us to treat others in the same way we’d want to be treated — but the more we see people behaving selfishly, the easier it becomes to follow in their self-absorbed leads. Humans are highly evolved animals, but there’s a whole lot of “monkey see, monkey do” in our societies because, as social creatures, we regularly model our behavior on others.

Ever get put off by someone checking her phone when you’re trying to talk with her face-to-face, only to find, as the seconds turn to minutes, that your hand starts grasping for your phone and you end up doing the very thing that you found rude?

Outrage can quickly to shift to an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude because it feels terrible to be disrespected and the line between petty retaliation and sweet justice can be hard to draw. Discourtesy is contagious, and as the campaigns say, so is courtesy.

Philosophy professor Sarah Buss makes a deeper point about the power of saying thanks in her academic article “Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners.” Buss rightly notes that while “thank you” can seem to be nothing more than a robotic response that’s deeply ingrained into our social conditioning, it’s actually the type of declaration that helps humans focus on other people as moral agents who deserve a base level of respect:

Good manners, then, not only inspire good morals. They do so by constructing a conception of human beings as objects of moral concern. To learn that human beings are the sort of animal one must say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “good morning” that one ought not interrupt them when they are speaking, that one ought not avoid eye contact and yet ought not to stare, that one ought not to crowd them and yet ought not be standoffish, to learn all this and more is to learn that human beings deserve to be treated with respect, that they are respectworthy, that is, that they have a dignity not shared by those whom one does not bother to treat with such deference and care.

The fact that etiquette can be weaponized and used for terrible purposes doesn’t make Buss wrong. Yes, etiquette can convey classicism, sexism, and nationalism, and sometimes people intentionally use the veneer of etiquette to be menacing while acting as if they are being polite. It’s also true that gestures of etiquette also can betray prejudices of earlier times, and people can adopt conventions without recognizing that their well-intentioned gestures are, in fact, insensitive or absurdly anachronistic. And it can’t be denied that sometimes when we say thanks we’d be better off choosing others words or that we’re capable of using “thanks” ironically to convey displeasure.

But these confounding factors only mean that every seeming nicety isn’t always nice. It doesn’t discount the positive influence that variations of “thanks” can have over our moral imaginations and actions.