Software, with its ability to make choices, has crossed the border between inert machine and active participant, as the term human-computer interaction (HCI) implies. Computers today are no longer just tools that respond passively to directions but social agents that are online participants in their own right. Miller notes that if I hit my thumb with a hammer I blame myself not the hammer, but when people make mistakes with software they often blame the equally mechanical program behind it. (Miller, 2004, p. 31).
Computer programs are just as mechanical as cars, as each state defines the next, yet programs now ask questions, suggest actions and give advice. Software mediating a social interaction, like email, is like a social facilitator. As computing evolves, people increasingly see programs as active collaborators rather than passive media. These new social roles, of agent, assistant or facilitator, imply a new requirement – to be polite.
To treat machines as people seems foolish, like talking to an empty car, but words addressed to cars on the road are actually to their drivers. Cars are machines but the drivers are people. Likewise, a program is mechanical but people “drive” the programs we interact with. It is not surprising that people show significantly more relational behavior when the other party in computer mediated communication is clearly human than when it is not (Shectman & Horowitz, 2003). Studies find that people do not treat computers as people outside the mediation context (Goldstein, Alsio, & Werdenhoff, 2002) – just as people do not usually talk to empty cars. Treating a software installation program as if it were a person is not unreasonable if the program has a human source. Social questions like: “Do I trust you?” and “What is your attitude to me?” apply. If computers have achieved the status of social agents, it is natural for people to treat them socially.
A social agent is a social entity that represents another social entity in a social interaction. The other social entity can be a person or group, e.g. installation programs interact with customers on behalf of a company (a social entity). The interaction is social even if the agent, a program, is not, because an install is a social contract. Software is not social in itself, but to mediate a social interaction it must operate socially. If a software agent works for the party it interacts with, it is an assistant, both working for and to the same person. A human-computer interaction with an assistant also requires politeness. If software mediates social interactions it should be designed accordingly. No company would send a socially ignorant person to talk to important clients, yet they send software that interrupts, overwrites, nags, steals, hijacks and in general annoys and offends people (Cooper, 1999). Polite computing is the design of socially competent software.