There is a good service onalllondonundergroundlines: No excuse for automated announcements at the Olympics
Text-to-speak software, with all its comedic potential, was in its glorious infancy in my student days of the very early 2000s.
You know, the websites where you write something in, press the button and that Stephen Hawking (or Mrs Stephen Hawking) voice reads it back, with its rasped s’s and its bonkers intonation. The afternoon I spent compiling an x-rated version of the 12 days of Christmas, supplementing “my true love” for the names of the mums of my new pals was arguably one of the most productive of my three years at university.
How we laughed, but even so, it would certainly not have lived so long in the memory were it not for my regular visits to Kings Cross St Pancras station, from where, as I write, I am just pulling out on my way to the TeamGB Preparation Camp at Loughborough University.
For there, one of the country’s busiest stations, if a service has been suspended, if there is a delay, if a platform has been changed, it is this same cyborg lady from more than a decade hence that imparts the information.
“There IS a GOOD service onalllondonundergroundlines.” It as if she is trying to get to the end of reading at a funeral while a ferret has quietly crept into her knickers.
“Stop ALL the clocks, cut OFF the telephone. Prevent the DOGFROMBARKING with. A juicybone.”
Being talked at by computers is one of science fiction’s few predictions that have sadly actually come to pass. More curiously, they also like to tell porkies. What Londoner hasn’t been using the underground at the weekend when the cheery woman on the tube (a real recorded human being at least), tells you to “change here for such and such a line”, oblivious to the fact that such and such a line is in fact shut for maintenance work. The driver wouldn’t dream of imparting such wrong information, but because it’s an automaton, it’s fair enough. That our subconscious knows not to pay attention to the machines that are lying to us is one of the more depressing facts of modern life.
But at King’s Cross St Pancras, it is not automated, the announcements are just too esoteric. “Victoria Station IS closedforflooding,” to name just one that I have been told there. What computer system is that already built in to? It, must, surely, be a deliberate decision. Someone up there is actively writing this stuff into a computer and pressing play.
Technology is not Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” is no excuse to deploy it for the sake of it. At least for now, we’re all human beings. So whoever you are, in the Kings Cross St Pancras control room, when the hundreds of thousands of Olympic visitors arrive in your brand new multi-multi-million pound refitted station this summer, and board your super duper seven minute javelin trains, please, please, greet them with a human voice. Little things mean a lot.
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