Imagine a future where the most revolutionary changes in our world have not come from nanotech, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence or even space development--but from cognitive science and a deepening understanding of how humans function (or not) in groups. What would such a future look like?
We're all familiar--maybe too familiar--with one model of such a future; it's exemplified by stories like Brave New World and 1984. Those books were direct reactions to the last great cycle of research into human nature. That was the era when Freud seemed to have a true model of human nature, Marx a true model of economics (or not) and when eugenics still seemed like a good idea. (If you want to read an excellent horror/slipstream novel about eugenics run amok, try David Nickle's Eutopia, which is available from Chizine Press). These and related theories were used to justify the great 20th century human engineering efforts such as The Great Leap Forward, Soviet collectivization, and so on. The problem wasn't just that ended up being harnessed for evil purposes, but that they were wrong or incomplete. But what would a correct theory of human nature look like, combined with the principles of self-organization and collective intelligence that are emerging right now? What would a cogsci singularity look like?
I think it would look like good manners.
Manners--etiquette--are little studied these days, which is ironic considering that arguably, we need them more than ever. After all, at no other time in history (except maybe during the hegemony of Rome) have so many diverse people being jostling elbows the way they are now. These days, any big city has people from every corner of the world living in it; in my city of Toronto, more than 50% of the inhabitants are from somewhere else. (And it works magnificently; we have 1/10th the murder rate of any comparably-sized American city.) We need to get along with one another, and good manners are an essential tool.
So, what if we didn't shave everybody's head, stamp a number on it and put them through brainwashing classes; or breed them for docility; or drug the water supply. What if, instead, we started a new movement in manners, one directed at conflict resolution, collective problem solving, and the cohabitation of diverse kinds of people? And simply presented it as a movement, like open source software, not run by a social engineering elite but by anybody who's willing to use the publically available code: i.e., the peer-reviewed, experimentally verified, incomplete but emerging cognitive sciences?
I can think of several objections and reactions to this idea. Aside from WTF?!, of course. One is that manners are actually a smoke-screen that an elite use to morally whitewash themselves: I can get away with murdering and pillaging the people around me, as long as I'm polite about it. I think this is very true in certain cases; when one the characters in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age goes on an extended rant justifying hypocrisy among the moneyed classes, he's implicitly admitting to this intretation (and doing a damned fine job). -However, even people in the poorest villages know the difference between good manners and bad. Manners, I suspect, are one of those basic human inventions, like language.
Another objection is that manners are culturally determined. What counts as polite for me may not count as polite for you, or for somebody from the other side of the world. This is a great objection, but you could turn it around by saying, "Okay then, what would the manners of a global, multicultural, crowded civilization look like?" Another question you could ask would be, "Is there a core 'metalanguage' of manners?" Some linguists now think that human language doesn't directly follow some set of meta-rules, but more indirectly converges on certain kinds of attractors; maybe it's a similar case with manners. They converge on behaviours that allow us to get along; but they also get crufted over with local theories about good and bad, cleanliness and contagion, etc. Nonetheless we can to some extent rewild our manners: we can conform them to reality to some degree. For instance, in the novel Nova by Samuel R. Delany, one of the characters offers another character half-chewed food from his own mouth, saying, "this is good, try it." This can be good manners for him because communicable diseases have been wiped out in this future. For us, this action can't be good manners. Similarly, washing one's hands after going to the bathroom is a piece of good manners that's largely supplanted other hygienic etiquette, such as never shaking hands using the left hand.
Rewilded manners are manners that have had localization, historical accident, and obsolete folk theories removed; washing hands is rewilded manners. Eating pork is no longer bad manners (unless you eat it around people for whom it still is). Rewilded manners is saying, "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" instead of demanding that the person you're talking to speak proper English.
In my novel Lady of Mazes I had a book of simple rules called The Good Book. These were rules on how to behave in different social circumstances, and they had been constructed using massive simulations of millions of social agents. The Good Book is an emergent system for an amicable society. The rules weren't necessarily intuitive, and some ran counter to what one would expect good manners to look like. But they were the result of looking at human behaviour from a higher complexity level than we are able to do as individuals.
To represent (I mean re-present or express) cognitive science as manners would be to rewild it: to return our interactions to as close to a one-to-one relationship of behaviour and reality as possible. Instead of manners around contagion that tell us not to serve meat from animals with cloven hoofs, or only to shake hands with our right hand, we might for instance get forms of greeting based on the most human universals of trust-building (on the primate level, how do eye contact, physical contact, and stance etc. contribute to establishing trust when meeting a stranger? You can study that). To bow seems to be to make oneself vulnerable; it is for us as bearing the throat is for dogs. Is it then a trust-gesture we should encourage, or is it too submissive...?
I am not an expert in the sociology of etiquette and manners, and it may be that my interpretations of what they are and how they work are wrong. Even if I'm on track, this is a task for that 'army of social scientists' I was advocating in an earlier post. As an SF writer, of course, it's not my job to be right; it's my job to provoke the imagination. So, indulge me: imagine the rewilded manners of a near-future Earth, where overlapping etiquette movements combine and compete the way that Gnome and KDE do within the broader Linux community, each seeking a style proper to its vision of human culture, but each adhering to deeper common principles that are derived from a rigorous study of how people actually behave, and what helps them get along, when they do get along.