The voice is a mere micro-chip away from shrieking `Exterminate! Exterminate!'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I hitched a ride in a lift last week. I was on my own, or I thought I was, until this voice from nowhere suddenly began to speak. The voice filled the lift and damn near filled my boxer shorts, too. Still, I knew the score, so I swallowed and waited. Waited impatiently to hear:

a) I was blessed above all other women

b) I must take the Dauphin to Rheims and have him crowned King of France

c) I had to kill, kill kill in the name of Satan

But the voice - a harsh, eerie monotone handbuilt by robots - merely informed me that I had reached the ninth floor and could piss off, sharpish (no, it didn't, but the infinitely synthetic tone was cold enough almost to make me wish that it had). It wasn't the sort of voice you argue with. I got out.

I've been hearing the voice(s) a lot recently. You have, too. There's the speaking clock, of course, the sponsored one, so the voice - Death with a headcold - has access to millions: "At the next stroke, the time will be ... too late." Clamber into certain cars and the voice - unforced in its unfeeling - will tell you to buckle your safety belt, as if it cared. Fat chance. It's only politely pretending because pretending is what it does. Example: when you ring a friend and get "voice mail" instead. You're expecting someone human and instead face off with an imitation of life. A control freak that, none too convincingly, mimics the human, something that, underneath its deceptive flatness, is there to give orders - buckle up, get out, leave your message now - whilst insisting it's only there for your own good, a voice whose artful neutrality is a mere micro-chip away from shrieking "Exterminate! Exterminate!"

It's a Thatcher voice, really - replicant, rasping, ritualistic, operating its own agenda. No wonder political vixen and prefabricated voice both made it in the techno-ecstatic Eighties, when more channels of supposed communication opened yet the messages kept getting simplier, dumber, blunter, until communication wasn't really about communication at all, but idiot information, about doing (the) business; I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. And you're just not special enough to stop and talk to. Speak to my familiar instead (sure, it's not even a flesh and blood larynx, sure it's a crude keyboard creation, still, who are you to complain?) or to my familiar's distant father, the ansamachine.

Ah, the ansamachine, the Eighties incarnate: I am here/I am not here. It allowed you to touch base with, and simultaneously keep your distance from, society, only society didn't exist any more. Hadn't the Blessed Margaret recited the terrible truth? It was all falling apart and she knew it. Knew we didn't need free flow, free speech, open borders. It hurt to feel, or, at least, to feel passionately. We were retreating: we craved walls, crash barriers, safeguards against the chaos.

Thus the manufactured, emotionless voice, Conservative with a big C, Disappointing with a big D. I say disappointment because sci-fi faked us out. It promised that when machines mastered English as she is spoken, they would be like Hal, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey - warm and soft and concerned, and who cares if he's psychopathic? Or like Proteus IV, the star of Demon Seed, gifted with the aural sex that seeps from Robert Vaughan's throat, and who cares if he's a serial killer? Or, better yet, like Mother in Alien, loving and comforting and dulcet and who cares if she's a betraying bitch? The false words didn't matter. Only the inflections counted - for the inflections meant that if machine and man merged, we would have the upper lip. Hal, Mother and Proteus (happy nuclear family) sounded more human than human. They were the perfect us our parents wanted; unfailingly helpful, temperate, kind. No anger or hatred tainted their permanently patient tones.

But the future is here and the lie stands bare. The electronic voice didn't move closer to us - we moved closer to it. Listen to recorded messages, supposedly bearing the authentic stamp of mankind. Why bother? At London's Tube stations, the hollow male voice that commands: "Mind the gap, stand clear of the doors" is stripped of any and all emphasis. The voice on BT's "call waiting" service is identical, despite being (nominally) female; cut and dried, unyielding. Which makes sense, when you hit pause and ponder. Its purpose is not to aid. Its purpose is to frustrate; the voice is keeping you from your goal and rubbing your nose in the fact - best to come over detached. Why, even the voice that inhabits the air at some supermarkets, a voice that is often not recorded, but live, a voice that should be extolling baked beans and hard-selling bran baps, could be - must be - the zombie utterances of a pod person. No joy, no pleasure, no pain. Not even when the shelves run out of toilet roll.

Hardly surprising. The electronic voice now instructs us. Yesterday I tried desperately to ring a friend and the EV, as usual,brusquely fobbed me off with what it wanted, not what I desired; options, selections, menus of nothing. Blocked again. "Press one or say one," the EV ordered. And I obeyed. "One," I said - lifelessly, dully, dutifully. But inside I felt nothing short of rage. Very Stephen Hawking, very modern, very sad .

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