Empirical manners: towards a science of harmonious norms

"Rewilding Etiquette," Karl Schroeder's guest-post on Charlie Stross's blog, looks at a future where social contracts, not social control, are used to keep things running. As Larry Lessig wrote, the three forms of governance are law, technological constraint, and norms, and while activists and science fiction writers focus on the first two, the third is the most important (the reason your neighbors don't break into your house has more to do with being "good" than fear of arrest or difficulty defeating your locks).

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?

Rewilding Etiquette

(Image: Tokyo subway rules of etiquette, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from juicycactus's photostream)