25 August 2016

The Cult of Helpfulness


Please take care when reading the following. Remain seated at all times and keep your nose pointed between the margins. Eyes should be open and facing forward. Remember to blink.

There is not, it seems, a limit on how obvious something has to be before a computerised voice will eventually remind you to do it.

Blink here.

Computerised voices are very much becoming the sound of modern Britain; a synthesised blend of obsequiousness and authority, representing the future that Blade Runner warned us about minus the three hundred foot floating geishas inviting us all to go live in the off-world colonies. It is the world of the endlessly looped announcements and the dense nanny state soundscape that tell us where to stand, how not to walk, and even how we should behave. Reversing wagons blare out warnings telling us not to get crushed and elevators describe their emotions ranging from ‘going up’ to ‘going down’. This is not so much the ‘Internet of Things’ as the ‘Overtnet of the Glaringly Obvious’. Loudspeakers everywhere remind us to be on constant terror alert and that turning our backs on our luggage will mean that the bomb squad will detonate our holiday socks and clean underwear. Meanwhile escalators endlessly drone advice: face forward, hold the rails, keep your feet between the lines. Some even have footprints painted on the steps lest you dare think of facing the wrong way or standing on your hands.

Please be advised: a serious point follows.

A smaller State was always meant to save us from the nannying instincts of the safety-tape wielding hazmat types who would label every tree as a potential leaf hazard. Individual freedom is founded in a responsibility towards the self and yet, as the State has contracted in size, private enterprises have embraced a culture of customer-centrism that now borders on the obsessive. Nowhere is the need to inform as great as in public transport where they rarely tell us anything helpful about delays, cancellations, or our conductor’s personality disorder but they do want to tell us about the blatantly obvious which they’ll keep on repeating until you start to paw at the windows.

No doubt this experience is common across Britain but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t draw your attention to Northern Rail’s stopping service between Manchester and Liverpool. Masochists might like to try the 13 station trip which takes about an hour and feels like something lifted from the CIA’s MKUltra brainwashing project in which subjects were subjected to simple statements repeated for hours on end. Before each stop, a computerised voice tells you that ‘this service is now approaching… Whiston… If you are leaving the train here at… Whiston… please take all your personal belongings and hand luggage with you. Please take care when leaving the train and mind the gap between the train and the platform.’

Once you arrive at a station, the same voice will remind you that ‘This is… Whiston… This is a Northern service to Liverpool Lime Street.’ Such brevity is to be welcomed given that the moment the train leaves, the voice reads you the novella of passenger information: ‘This train is a Northern service to Liverpool Lime Street. The next station stop is… Huyton… If you’ve boarded this train at a station with ticket buying facilities, in line with National Rail conditions of carriage, we’ll only be able to sell you a full priced ticket. You must purchase your ticket before you travel.’

Ignoring that the advice is contradictory — they ‘can’ sell you a ticket on the train but you ‘must’ buy a ticket before boarding — there’s the far more pressing question of: why they must tell us anything at all? These announcements never vary and with three per stop and with thirteen stations: that’s 39 announcements in a journey that lasts about hour. If you work a five day week, assuming 78 announcements (there and back), that is 390 announcements a week, or 4680 announcements a month. These things don’t scale up exactly (people do have holidays) but that’s somewhere around 56,000 announcements a year. At 1417 words a journey (a hundred more than the length of this article), that’s a staggering 56,680 automated words a month. In a year, the computerized voice could read you the entirety of War and Peace with plenty of time left for a couple of Stieg Larssons.

Readers are advised that snorts of indignation are only permitted here.

The cult of helpfulness is anything but helpful. It is the product of every customer service course in the country frequented by people with faux-leather smiles and executive wallets crammed with photocopied course notes with titles like ‘Complaint Resolution’, ‘Managing Customer Expectations’ and ‘Attitudes for Service’. Yet overriding everything is their belief in treating the British public like we’re bewildered dolts who would rather climb through a window than walk through a door. They think we need to be told not to jump onto the tracks, prod high voltage cables, or go head to tail with reversing bin wagons. There is nothing too obvious that isn’t worth restating a dozen times. ‘If you see somebody struggling,’ goes one of our local station’s more breathtaking announcements, ‘then please help them’. Good grief! Whatever next? Polite requests that we don’t kick strangers in the knees?

You might, of course, believe that all of this is for our good. When a company warns us about the gap between the train and platform, we might think it’s to reduce the number of people that get trapped there each year. Yet the Office of Rail and Road’s ‘Rail Safety Statistics 2014-15 Annual Statistical Release’ (the latest data available) reported that:

There were a total of four passenger fatalities in 2014-15, the lowest number since the time series began. Three occurred on the mainline and all were within stations; two at the platform/train interface, although not during the boarding or alighting trains and the third was a result of a fall at the station. The other fatality was on London Underground and was also at the platform/train interface.

In other words, there have been no deaths caused by people plummeting down the gap yet some of us are subjected to 6240 advisories a year, enough to make us think these gaps are as lethal as alcohol, tobacco, and ISIS combined. Where would we stop if we began to warn people about other dangers that cause zero deaths each year? Asteroids? Chutney? Velociraptors?
We have long since passed the point where we would have once complained about the ‘nanny state’ so it seems reasonable if businesses are held to the same measure of stupidity. Most dystopian futures (and quite a few that are utopian) include some element of mind control where ‘thinking’ is not something that people are encouraged to do. And that is what this amounts to: the assumption that none of us are capable of thinking or travelling 15 miles without getting off at the wrong stop.

Computers do not understand psychology and nor, apparently, do the people too quick to deploy technology to the places where it can do the most harm. No flesh and blood conductor would read 39 announcements an hour. A human would know how annoying it is. But this is not about the human/human ‘interface’. We’re now threatened by the human/machine interface and the respect a company should have towards their customers is being lost down the gap. As we become more miserable, we cocoon ourselves inside sensory dulling headphones. We block out the world because the world is only too happy to block us out and that cannot be the safe thing to do.

Please be aware that you’re now approaching the article’s end. Readers are asked not to carry on reading beyond the last line. Thank you.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.