The Writer's Voice
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A trip to the market in the 21st Century
"May I help you?" The automated voice caught Hal by surprise.
"Huh!" Was all he could reply.
"Welcome to Barney's Market. Today we're proud to offer fresh baleen, Pacifica's favorite meat substitute."
"I just want to look around," Hal felt stupid talking to an automaton.
"Well don't forget to stop by our deli for time saving serving ideas you can use at home. If I can be of any further service please feel free to call. Any red button located on shelve and aisle stands will provide you with immediate service. Thanks for shopping at Barney's Market."
Hal was disturbed that the automaton had just taken thirty seconds of his time to pitch the store. He was used to shopping the old fashioned way. You went into a store, walked the aisles and picked what you wanted to buy; no automation service trying to anticipate your needs; no constant reminders of what you were running out of; no sales pitches, no promotional deluges. He just wanted an old fashioned shopping experience where he made all of his own decisions and was on his own. Impossible, he thought to himself.
The cart moved as he took his first couple of steps up the aisle. It was a distraction at first, but he knew the Persona Carts were there to serve. The slight hum as it started and stopped to match his movements indicated its motors needed repair. It was a noisy one that latched on to his name tag when he walked into the store. He wondered if he could get another one that wasn't as distracting.
"Protein Specs is an alternative to bland cereal substitutes. Added to--." Hal put the box back down. The spiel stopped. He reached for the next one. "Luftkins Revenge. The breakfast food that will put fight into your day. Get ahead and eat Revenge. The cereal for winners."
The soft feminine voice almost overlaid the aggressiveness of the promotion. Couldn't he pick up a box without it bleating at him, he thought. What about the ingredients? He had to think for a minute to remember how to get the voice coms to provide other information. What was the sequence for getting them to give ingredient information, he tried to remember. Oh yea! You pick the box straight up and then turn it to the left, either hand, and the voice com will list the ingredients.
"Protein Specs is a powerful substitute for ordinary cereals. The ingredients are designed to give you added strength and vigor to overcome the rigors of your day." It bothered Hal that even ingredients spiels were allowed to be sales pitches. "Dried spinach puree emulsified with water, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, enhanced with tamarinds, salt, hydrogenated soy and corn protein..." Hal put the box down. The female voice was trying to make the ingredients sound sexy and important.
Hal tried to remember why he came to the store. He pulled out his list. He wrote it down the old fashioned way, on paper, rather than download it to his cart's display. He didn't trust the downloads, anyway, they were always adding 'suggested items' to the list, often making the original list indistinguishable from the add-ons. The first item was bread. He started walking back out the aisle.
Like all stores nowadays the aisles were set up in a maze. You couldn't just walk straight up and down aisles, like you used to. Most retail business was done electronically and stores had to make physical locations pay for themselves with marketing and promotions mostly paid for by the distributors and manufacturers. They had to take you on a tour, a marketing extravaganza, designed to get you to buy.
He remembered the one long aisle at the back of the store, where you could get a glimpse down several aisles as you perused the store. "Where's the bread?" He mumbled to himself. A voice from his cart said, "Bread is located in aisle A2, on the north side of the store."
"Wholesome Grain. Two loaves." He instructed the cart. It sped away. While the cart was getting the bread he picked up a can of olives. He turned it to the left to get the ingredients. "This can contains eleven ounces of olives in water." The voice stopped. He was pleased by the directness of the ingredient list. No hype. No pitch. He put the can on the shelf and picked it up again, turning it to the right this time.
"Orchard Olives. Eleven ounces. Twenty four dollars and thirty cents. Price per pound is thirty five dollars and thirty four cents."
The cart returned silently. The noise was gone. The trip must have warmed up its motors. Hal put the can of olives in the cart. The red display showed his total to be forty eight dollars even: a can of olives and two loaves of bread.
"Win a trip to Ayers Rock. Beautiful, majestic, the ultimate getaway." Hal had triggered a laser marker. The sound of wind rushing and animal noises were set to a background of Australian music. "When you purchase RooMaGoo, you and a pal can spend a glorious weekend at Camp Awadingo, where the most breath-taking views of Ayers Rock will change your outlook on life. Just pick up a can of Awadingo RooMaGoo soup and step on the blue dot to be automatically entered into this glorious contest."
Hal retreated. The voice-over kept talking as he left. "Accommodations include..."
Another cart came whizzing by. It veered slightly to avoid Hal and stopped a few feet down the aisle. Its mechanical picker grabbed a can of soup and put it in the basket. As the can passed the rim of the basket there was a low pitched siren indicating that it was the wrong item.
Kids, Hal thought to himself. They'd sometimes come in and move things around in some of these older stores that didn't have shelf alarms. Or maybe it was a distracted shopper, he continued on. The mechanical alarm reached up for another can of soup and then grabbed the wrong can out of the basket and put it back in its right location on a shelf farther down the aisle.
Hal was starting to get concerned about time. He enjoyed shopping manually but there were only so many hours in a day. Next time, he thought, I'll just use data transfer. But then you don't get to pick out the freshness. His forehead wrinkled as the thought passed his mind. "Take me to the produce," he instructed his cart. At least he'd get to pick out things that mattered, for freshness, not something he always had the time to do. Usually he waited till last to pick out soft goods like bread and produce.
A couple of times the mechanical picker had dropped a can onto something soft in his cart. Once it was tomatoes and he hadn't noticed it until he got home. The split tomato had leaked all over the bag and stained the packaging of a couple of other items. He had to wipe them off before the cleanliness sensors at home would let him put them on the shelf.
"Disease and degeneration," the motto went through his head a couple of times. That's why he had bought the clean sensors, to reduce the number of times government inspection was required of his home. "Not a spec of dirt will only work," the motto went on. The serious outbreak of unchecked Rubella two years ago had scared a lot of people into buying the latest version of clean sensors. But Hal was more concerned with the unannounced inspections that were often intimidating and dehumanizing.
The selector probes were placed randomly throughout the produce section. A fresh salad, Hal thought to himself. He went to the lettuce first. He reached for a nearby selector probe and touched the tip to the head of lettuce he wanted through the mylar sensor sheets that were draped over all the unpackaged produce in the section. There was a slight rumble and a roar as the lettuce head disappeared beneath the table and then was ejected out a shoot at the end, neatly packaged in a plastic wrap.
Next he pointed to some onions and carrots. All were packaged and sent out the shoots. He picked them up and put them in the cart. Next it was a cucumber. He noticed an excess of plastic that hadn't been trimmed properly, as he picked it up out of the shoot. The mechanical claws from the wrapping machine had poked a hole in the cucumber.
Definitely a health code violation, he thought to himself. I wonder how I can put it back? At least if he couldn't put it back how could he reject it. He looked at the side of the shoot to see if there were any reject buttons. Then the wand. Nothing. There was no way he could see to cancel or reject a selection once it had been made, at least not in the produce section. He looked down at the cart display. '85.62', it showed in big bright letters.
He pressed the itemize button next to the display. The words were in fine print, so he had to lean over to see if the cucumber was already added: cucumber 6.49/LB - .78 LB $5.06. Was there a way to reject this? Could he cancel it? Boy, they weren't missing a trick. They made it as easy as they could for someone to spend money, but you had to put up a fight to quit spending. Was this legal? He thought. He was starting to get frantic and he knew he had to check these feelings before they got out of hand and he lost some of his control. He looked around for a red button.
The nearest was over by the sauce section in the aisle next to the produce section. Hal walked towards it. His cart started to follow and then retreated to the shoot where the cucumber was. It gently picked it up and placed it in the basket. Hal saw this.
"Even you're against me," he scolded. "What's going on here?" The cart didn't reply. Hal pressed the button. The automaton appeared almost instantaneously.
"May I help you?" The automated voice was somehow softer this time.
"Yes! I want to reject this zucchini, I mean cucumber." Hal knew his temper was getting the better of him with this slip of the tongue. It took the automaton a second to respond. "Yes zucchini, cucumber, our produce section. I'm sorry. What was the question?"
"This cucumber. I wish to rescind my initial selection of this cucumber." Hal had to slow himself down a bit to maintain control.
"I would appreciate the opportunity to hear your reasons." The automaton sounded genuinely interested. "Please explain."
Hal knew the automaton was just trying to buy time in order to analyze the situation. He was trying not to be fooled by the 'customer service' persona programmed into it and realize it was only part of a profit making machine for some big company.
"The mechanical picker that picked this cucumber damaged it. It poked a hole in the cucumber. Look! Even the wrapping went on wrong." Hal plucked the cucumber from the basket and held it up to the automaton.
"Damaged goods," it replied. "Let me check your tally. You'll need a clearance voucher code to deduct this purchase from your tally," it went on.
"How do I get that?" Hal replied.
"Processing." The softness seemed to have left the automaton's voice. "Please deposit the damaged item into the return slot by the customer service counter. Please enter the following clearance voucher code into the return slot keypad." The automaton started printing out a list of numbers on receipt sized paper. The slip of paper was cut and dropped into a small tray on the front of the automaton. The tray was extended and the automaton said, "This receipt is for your convenience. Enter the clearance voucher code printed on the receipt into the return slot keypad and the item will be deducted from your total purchase. Is there anything else I can assist you with?"
There seemed to be an increase of marked enthusiasm in the automaton's voice. Hal picked up the piece of paper and put it into his pocket. "Thank you." He found himself saying involuntarily.
Hal grabbed the front edge of his cart and returned to the produce section. The cart followed on its own rather than reacting to Hal's pull. He skipped the cucumber section, somehow loosing interest in cucumbers for a salad. His next foray was into the fruit section. A fresh apple. He could almost taste it. He touched three apples through the mylar sensor sheet with the selector probe. They all disappeared and reappeared wrapped at the shoot. Mushrooms. He let himself think of salad again.
All the mushrooms were against the wall. They were packaged in quarter pound lots. He picked up one quarter pound package and put it into his cart. Trying to decide what else he should put in a salad he pulled out his list again and gave instructions to the cart: "Get some Newman Honey Dijon salad dressing, 16 ounce, Templer croutons, milk, one quart, two percent, Moorehead Dairy."
The cart paused, waiting for any further instructions, and then headed out of the produce section. It paused again as another cart went speeding by the entrance of the produce section, and then sped away. Hal turned to look over the produce section. He decided to get a three pound bag of potatoes and picked up the first available bag. Next he perused the radishes. A stab of the pointer bundled up a small bundle of radishes and sent them to a shoot. Celery. He set the bag of potatoes on the edge of the display.
"Try our Megadose vitamins, celery flavored..." The bag had triggered a promo button. "If you like celery you'll like..." Hal picked up the bag and the promo stopped. The celery too, was prebundled, so he picked up a bundle just as his cart was returning. He placed the potatoes and celery into the cart and then retrieved the radishes. "One more thing," he mumbled to no one. He tapped the broccoli with the selector probe and a banded bunch of broccoli was packaged and sent out the shoot. Hal picked it up. Still clutching it, he returned the selector probe and left the produce section.
What else was on his list, he wondered. Breakfast. I don't have anything for breakfast. He'd only been in this store a couple of times in the past. He still wasn't sure where everything was. "Cereals?" He said out loud.
"Aisle three," the cart responded.
"I know," he said, "we were just there. Can you get me the cheapest box of corn flakes?" The cart didn't respond. He needed to give a product name or ID number.
"OK, Post corn flakes, 24 ounce." The cart started to go. "Wait!." Hal said. He put the broccoli in the cart. "OK now you can go." The cart left.
Hal pulled out his list. He still needed soup, frozen dinners, potato chips, Hand Wipes and his favorite to prepare, Pop Tarts. He thought maybe he'd wander the aisles and see what else came to mind, but then he thought he should get going. He had a lot to do and it would be easier to just have everything else delivered. Hal left the produce section just as his cart was coming back.
"Home Inventory, Pop Tarts," he said to the cart.
The cart responded instantly; "Two sixteen ounce packages, mixed flavors, one partial, eight ounces remaining, apple."
"Home list," Hal once again instructed the cart. "What's on it?"
"Absorbent sponges, two packs, eight ounce, sugar extract, Bonanza brand, twelve ounces, Tyler's food supplement, one bottle, four ounces, Quick Lick..."
"Stop!" Hal instructed. "Fill home list." Just as he said this he noticed some chocolate substituted in the basket.
"Wait!" He said. He pulled out the chocolate and held it up. "What's this?" He asked. The voice from the cart replied; "I just thought you'd like that on your cereal. Your home inventory shows you don't have any and it's very popular on cereal."
"You don't put chocolate on cereal," he said out loud. There must have been a short circuit in the cart's wiring, or somebody, someplace, got some information wrong. "Put it back," he said, " and then fill my home list. Nothing else. Just what's on the home list. OK?"
"OK," the cart responded. With that the cart went whizzing away. Hal knew what was on his list. He had just filled it out this morning. He decided to ramble up to the check out trying to remember anything else he might need. Flaming cherries jubilee caught his eye. He stopped, pressed the blue promo button.
"Flame without heat. No mess. No bother. Enjoy the fine dining of the best chefs of the past. A complete seven course meal ready to order, topped off with the most famous desert of the twenty first century: Tamarak Food's Flaming Cherries Jubilee. Begin your meal with succotash squash, the perfect entree for family and friends."
The strong male voice went on to promote the rest of the meal. Already prepared it was designed to be a dining experience. All you had to do was provide table and chairs and the rest would be automatically served.
Constance. Constance will be joining us for dinner tomorrow. Maybe I should serve a chef's diner, he remembered. Naw. It was just extra work anyway. She'd hinted at dating, but this was too formal.
All of a sudden he was caught in a DNA scan. He knew this was illegal as a marketing ploy. What was it doing in a grocery store? The marketing seduction employed with DNA scans was overwhelming to humans. Fortunately laws were passed to limit their use for emergency or information efficiency manoeuvres only. The scan passed and nothing happened. Hal shrugged his shoulders and went on. Got to check out, he decided. He wandered to the check out.
The display showed $584.17. "Receipt please." Hal still preferred a printed copy.
"If you'll provide your key codes we'll place your groceries in your vehicle." Hal preferred not to give out any of his key or security codes.
"I'll load," Hal said.
The female voice responded, "if you will position your vehicle your groceries will be served. Please note that certain items of packaging have been registered and you are required by law to account for them in your recycling bin. Thanks for shopping at Barney's, where we hope you had a wonderful shopping experience. If we can ever be of any service please feel free..."
Hal walked out the door without listening to the rest of the message. His tote vehicle was waiting on the rail. He got on and moved the joystick to position the vehicle towards the loading area. His groceries appeared all wrapped in a neat package with thin transparent plastic strips. They were positioned on an airless pallet floating across the loading dock. It didn't match up with the back of his tote. He had to get off and assist the mechanical arm sliding the groceries on to the back. He closed the totes' back rail and climbed back on.
"Home" he instructed. The tote followed the programmed route. It took the parking lot rail out to the main street rail and followed that to the highway rail. Wind generators kept the rain from falling on the tote lane. Although it was only a drizzle one of the larger vehicles went through a puddle and it splashed into his lane with some of the water hitting him in the face.
"Exit 29 has been closed. Alternative route requested." The voice from the tote's control panel took his mind off the water. "Damn," he said to himself. He needed a weather protected route. "Exit 43," he responded. "Increase to 180 kph." Marley avenue was protected part way, and he could get over to 15th which would take him all the way home via rail.
The tote slowed down. "Approaching exit 43," the console voice informed. There was a tote in front of him that seemed to be going half his speed. Doddering old fool, Hal thought to himself.
"Pass at next available rail split," he said to the console. The tote in front of him
"Marley to fifteenth. Next available off." Once again the tote split to the right, and then it came to a stop at an intersection. Hal was glad they were still under a weather guard, but it didn't seem to matter. The drizzle had slowed down to a mist. There was even sunshine peaking out in the distance.
Suddenly the tote lurched. It started up the hill. "Tapping into community power," the voice said. The tote's rechargeable battery pack wasn't strong enough to take the hill at full speed. Hal sighed. It was hopeless, he thought to himself. Everywhere you go they want money.
Community power was ridiculously expensive. He just didn't feel like fighting anymore. If he didn't traffic would go whizzing by him, and he'd have other totes slowed down behind him. "Go," he said. Not that the tote needed his instruction to go ahead. It was only necessary to reprogram, or reroute if you wanted to avoid community power. But he hadn't plugged his mental microprocessor into the tote and he knew it would take embarrassingly long to reprogram.
At the top of the hill the tote veered off 18th to Boeir. It followed Boeir to 17th and then turned again on Marley. It was only a few blocks down Marley until it came to 15th and then two and a half kilometres to home.
"Full speed," Hal said, hoping to avoid any search patrols (citizens, fully armed and protected, with the right to cite speeders). "Maximum speed is 45 kph," the voice advised. "Override," Hal said. "Seventy five kph."
The tote surged ahead and slowed down again as it came upon another tote. This time it was a delivery vehicle without a driver. Suddenly it jetted off and took the next right. Hal's tote resumed its speed. He came to the parking garage where he lived. His tote followed the service entrance and lined up with the loading dock by the service elevator. He had to manually lift the groceries off the tote and place them on to a wheeled cart. He pressed a red button on the tote's control panel and it drove itself over to the lock down area. Then he climbed the two steps to the loading dock and pushed the cart into the waiting elevator.
"Eighty-eighth floor," he instructed the service elevator. There was a slight snap as the melamine door latched into place. It took off and there was a slight sound of rushing air going around the elevator as it sped to his floor. The door opened and he pushed the cart off. He wheeled it down the hall to his door and then unloaded the groceries in the hallway. He pushed the cart back, but the elevator had already left. He parked the cart by the elevator door and went back to his unit.
"Open," he instructed the front door. It opened into the wall and he carried the groceries in. He placed them on his vacuum sled and then said "close." The door closed. A slight tap of the sled and it preceded him into the main room. There was a big gooey slimy creature inside a glass cubicle in the back left-hand corner.
"Did you get the groceries?" it demanded.
"Yes, and I think you'll be very pleased at the budgetary measures I undertook this time," Hal responded.
"Bring the sled over," it said. There was a sucking sound as the goo on the big round pink folds of the creature's body stuck and unstuck as it bent over to peer out of the glass.
"Good," it said. "Put 'em away and then bring me something to eat." The creature seemed to drool as its half glazed over eyes turned away. It raised a stick and pressed a button. A display on the side of the glass cube changed to a different program. Then it yelled out "get anything for the dinner teleconference tomorrow, with Constance? You didn't forget about my business dinner tomorrow did you?"
Its voice lowered. "You stupid automaton." It's voice trailed off almost talking
Arrogant Humans, Hal thought to himself. I'm a servaton, not an automaton. He didn't verbalize his feelings. They're always trying to make us feel worthless. Hal tapped the cart again and it slid into the kitchen.
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