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Saturday, June 24, 2006


Computer sez sorry

As I travelled by train today it was pointed out to me that the announcements of delays were computer-composed from a series of pre-recorded words. Nothing startling there, you say? And certainly not, this is a perfectly adequate system when announcing the next arrival on platform ten. But when there is a delay the voice says; “I am sorry for the delay…” I am sorry? There is no I here. This is a mindless computer-generated arrangement of sounds. There is no person that is sorry, that can apologise.

So what is my problem? It is that these announcements, like so many corporate communications, are utterly dishonest. They are a perfect example of the lie of the modern corporation; that they have feelings, that they care, that they are a person. That they are a person that you ought to like, to have loyalty towards, that you ought behave towards in the manner of interpersonal interaction, rather than as a rational market actor. For a democratic socialist, they are a lie in the service of profit, disguising exploitative relationships. For a market fundamentalist, these lies act to reduce the efficiency of the market by confusing consumers, misrepresenting their market position and reducing the rationality of their market actions.

And more than that, worse than the lie, is that when a computer says sorry it demeans and degrades all the human-made apologies of genuinely felt regret.

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