Voicing the future

It seems technology goes too far sometimes. I, for one, had no objection to a flesh-and-blood woman adding up my purchases at the grocery store. She was always neatly dressed, chatted amicably about the weather, and never failed to keep me updated on the latest news. But now we have a new gal.

Presumably, the management thinks she is an improvement, but I have had my doubts. For one thing, she has no Dolly Parton hairdo, no smile. She is just a pole with a voice box atop nonexistent shoulders. When the products slide across a Product Code scanner she enunciates like Scarlett O'Hara trying out for the part of Eliza Doolittle.

''PAY-PER TOW-ULS. EIGHT-TEE FIVE CENTS.''

Every syllable receives equal attention, and she pounces on every possible one. This can result in embarrassment if you buy more than one unit at a time, as I discovered shortly after the talking checker was installed.

I unloaded my shopping basket onto the conveyor belt, little round bundles of paper rolled across the scanner, and this feminine voice screamed to a dozen or more people:''FA-CE TISH-YOU. FA-CE TISH-YOU. FA-CE TISH-YOU. FA - ''

''Excuse me, ma'am,'' I inquired, ''but don't you have a volume control?''

''TISH-YOU.''

A crowd of gawking shoppers began assembling. ''Will you kindly shut up?''

That is the last time I will buy face tissues at that store, even if it is on for half price. Of course, I suppose I was partly to blame for being so cheap as to try setting in a year's stock during Bargain Days.

The talking checkers gave the store problems in the beginning. One almost made me faint. I was among the ''first lucky customers'' to be checked out by the new girl.

My carton of cornflakes zipped across the scanner. The voice box whined momentarily, sputtered, then announced: ''TOH-TUL BILL. ONE HUN-DREAD SIX DOLL-LARS AND EEE-LEV-UN CENTS.''

As my knees buckled, I grabbed for the counter and shrieked, ''For a SING-UL box of BREAK-FAST SEAR-EEE-UL?''

A cheer arose from the family at the adjoining checkout counter. Their three baskets of steaks, canned goods, and household products came to ''ONE DOL-LAR AND TWEN-TEE FOUR CENTS.''

The store manager, who helped me from the floor, was most apologetic, explaining that the workmen who installed the talking checkers in those twelve lanes had thought they might have wired a couple of the voice boxes to the wrong counters.

The cheering family had to pay their $106.11 and stop cheering, but the manager was so grateful to me for pinpointing the problem, he gave ''lucky'' me the box of cereal. I felt lucky just to escape with sufficient strength to stagger out to my car.

The talking checkers, I admit, are talented. Not only do they call out every item and price and give a total, they tell you exactly how little change you have coming back from your fifty-dollar bill.

In case you missed any moment of their elocutionary declamation, they even hand over a purple-ink transcript which I am sure must be useful . . . say, should you ever be called upon in court to testify you were in Store No. 8 on South First Street at 13:45 hours on September 10 when the temperature was 56 degrees, spending $106.11 of your hard-earned cash, and were nowhere near the scene of any other highway robbery.

Still, is it not a bit much to have a Rockettes-row of twelve stuttering ladies, all of perfect 2-2-2 measurements, calling out different products and prices in the identical voice, simultaneously?

To be fair, their human co-workers - who remain - do have more free time now to chat with you about the weather, preen their Dolly Parton coiffures, update you on scandals, smile, and possibly show you snapshots of their kids.

And then . . . one day I came upon a blind girl in an office. She was punching numbers into a slightly oversize calculator with a speaker where the digital display might have been. A man's deep voice spoke from the calculator: ''Four hundred forty-seven times six percent equals twenty-six point eighty-two.'' The girl told me, yes, she loved her work in that office, especially the accounting. She proudly held out for my inspection the calculator that made her job possible.

On balance, perhaps technology has not gone too far, after all. It simply benefits from being guided in the right directions by a dash of human intelligence.

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