Zeno Thinks: Please, don't let AI kill thank you.
For what I can now describe only as an act of fate, this weekend I decided to catch up on the latest season of The Mandalorian. As I charged through episodes one and two, dragged myself through three (this particular ramble isn’t a critique, but we can all agree it wasn’t very “Mando”) and ticked off four, something struck me. None of the humanoid characters, those of the more biological persuasion, uttered the words please or thank you to their robotic counterparts at any point.
When Dr Pershing is taxied to his apartment on Coruscant by the robotic chauffeur, nothing. When he attends his weekly Amnesty rehabilitation sessions, off he goes without a murmur of gratitude. It’s a common occurrence throughout the series now that I think about it. Pedro Pascal’s Din Djarin makes it clear early in The Mandalorian that he has no time or trust for droids.
On another day, it may not have bothered me. But my senses have been heightened with all the Chat GPT-4 and Midjourney V5 noise these past couple of weeks. For better or worse, I haven’t thought too much about AI chatbots and image generators, to tell the truth. A lot of it is cool; most of it is garbage; but one point interests me specifically. Trust the world of Star Wars to get the big kid thinking.
I’ve noticed it myself when saying “Alexa, read the news”. The commanding and transactional nature of words that comes with using technology for an extended period of time. And it’s only just beginning.
Language has always evolved. Please, for example, was not originally used in solitude but rather part of the more expansive if it pleases you. Over time, the four word phrase was shorted to three - if you please - and then to please you, for further convenience. Finally, as Walker Mimms in The Atlantic discusses: “In 1771, a London merchant wrote, Please send the inclosed to the Port office—the first instance found by The Oxford English Dictionary of the adverb and a prime example of its graceless urgency. With each diminution of the phrase, the speaker lost some regard for his hearer and gained some regard for himself”.
Now we have arrived at post-please, where the selfishness of our spoken words has been fast-tracked through the general availability of smart assistants. Siri was put in our hands in 2011. Alexa debuted at the end of 2014. It’s no coincidence that instances of please in written sources peaked in 2015, before nosediving. At the other end of our sentences, thank you has also taken a hit.
Source: Google Ngram Viewer
If we lose please forever, will we be worse for it? A ruder and blunter species; less accommodating of others? It’s not a simple equation. Exhibit A:
- Can you just do the washing, please?
- A glance over to a pile of dirty clothes and a smirk. You promised, remember.
As Mr Mimms accurately points out: “[we] confuse please, the term, with courtesy in general—as if it’s impossible to be polite without it”. As the example above shows, it really comes down to context (as all things do) and the relationships that the conversation is acting on top of. Words can (and should) be transactional at certain times. It’s conducive to getting things done. But they should also form more meaningful and longer narratives over time, especially with certain people.
The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu wrote about the difference between words as purely point scoring tools, to help win arguments (increasingly common in a world of polarisation and attention), and their central role in making us better people. “What is the art of conversation? It is so much more than a transactional exchange of words. The special synthesis, for example that occurs in marriage or other long-term partnerships, in which one’s lexicon merges with that of another, producing shorthand terminology and a distinct rhythm and style”.
Maybe we don’t need to say please and thank you to the robots. And that’s okay - I’ll get over it. But changing language shouldn’t be an excuse to neglect proper conversation. Where we talk for the sake of it. When we actively listen to others because we want to, without the desire to convince them of something, tell them what to do, or try to change their mind.
Like the future of please, our conversations should be uncertain. That’s what makes it interesting. We shouldn’t know the final destination when we talk or message someone. I think that’s what really bugs me about these AI tools. Everything is framed by the output and not the process. Please can we slow down for a minute and appreciate the art in words, thank you.