Occasionally over the last few years I’ve had clients who had butlers. Not many wealthy people seem to have butlers any more– rich people have assistants, chiefs of staff, and so on, but few have people they call butlers– but the butlers I’ve met have been fascinating people.

One reason I found them interesting is because the concept of the butler is one that comes up regularly in high tech. The idea of “digital butlers” is one that’s been around for a long time, but it seems to me that it’s based almost completely on an idealized, or highly formal and simplified, version of what butlers do.

For example, in a piece on “Interface Agents as Digital Butlers,” to take but one example, Nicholas Negroponte argues for “a future where your interface agent can read every newspaper and catch every broadcast on the planet, and then, from this, construct a personalized summary”– but the piece assumes that a “butler” is just “someone who applies intimate knowledge about you in your service.”

Other projects use the term “butler” as a signifier that points not only to service and intimacy, but unobtrusiveness as well. A 2001 digital butler project at Microsoft Research aimed to “give the automated assistants the manners of a classy English butler who knows when to interrupt and when to disappear.” Ten years later, design student Jessie Torres‘ proposal for a Personal Butler Digital app that would be “an engaging and interactive call and messaging manager” that works “‘intuitively behind the scenes’ as any dutiful mostly quiet butler will do.”

Occasionally, the term “butler” just refers to something high-tech and personal. The 2009 Motorola Digital Butler concept phone by Motorola consisted of a “circular touch-screen interface, accelerometer technology, PDA phone, full-resolution built-in multimedia LED projector; squeeze buttons on the perimeter and of course a full-time network connection to VIP services.” In other words, it’s essentially a round iPhone. (As a couple people have pointed out, the Apple Knowledge Navigator video had something akin to a digital butler.)

But meeting real butlers has taught me that in real life, the work of being a butler is a lot more complex than task scheduling, finding stuff, and so on. My suspicion is that you could design some really terrific software– or hybrid software / app / hardware / furniture / architecture / whatever– if you did some in-depth interviews and ethnographic work with real live butlers, and really studied what they do in real life.

I was reminded of this by a piece in the Guardian written by an actual butler explaining why “English butlers are in demand:”

One of the toughest aspects of the job is trying to second-guess my employer. Not only what, but when, how and where. Although I have some involvement in every aspect of his life, from dressing him in the morning and serving his breakfast to managing his homes, planning trips and representing him at meetings, it takes a long time to get to know someone well enough to anticipate what they will like….

A good butler should offer a diplomatic solution to any awkward moment, and never be afraid of standing up to a terrifying boss.

I believe the true test of an intelligent modern butler is not how much he knows how to do, but how he behaves when he doesn’t know.

Constantly by my master’s side, I am privy to things that even his inner circle do not know. This can be infuriating to others and there are always political waters to navigate. But with knowledge comes power, and with power comes responsibility. As the relationship grows, I observe his quirks, his weaknesses and his vices, some of which are not always palatable. Once I have earned his trust, the lines between master and servant begin to blur. I do not expect to be treated equally (nor would I want to be), but the hope is that one day he will come to rely upon having me by his side. This is the unspoken understanding, that one day the balance of power will shift, and the butler will know more about what his master wants than the master himself. Classic Jeeves and Wooster stuff.

As a modern-day butler I’m expected to be well versed in etiquette, and conduct myself with a suitable demeanor; on the other hand I must also adapt to my master’s culture and all the contradictions this brings with it. I am always on call, and should never say no unless I can be certain that no is the only answer. The modern day butler must be able to navigate the trials and tribulations of the modern world with efficiency and style and, in whichever way he can, make life a little bit easier for his master. In that respect my job probably hasn’t changed much since the 19th-century, other than the fact I carry two BlackBerrys instead of tails.

Yet another thing to do when I’m finished with this book!