Smart Cards

This morning I received an email from [email protected] that was every bit automated. If only question marks could become pounds we could solve the economic crisis in Greece overnight:

“Due to an operational issue, you are due a payment of ?2.50. This is now ready for collection at Victoria [London Underground].”

I should have taken this database spew as a premonition rather than marvelling at how the revolutionary Oyster Card system can detect an issue, solve it and let you know it will be fixed next time you slap your card on one of their readers at the ticket barrier.

But it was not to be.

My card did not collect any question marks at Victoria [London Underground]. Instead, it resolutely did nothing. I slapped it a few times on the yellow circle, normally such a seamless operation, turned it over and slapped it again – but to no avail. A London Underground employee then appeared and did the same, and resignedly said “the mechanism is broken. You need to go over there and change it.”

I looked over to ‘there’ and saw a long line. My smugness of being a well-oiled commuter instantly changed into Frustrated from Hove. I was already 20 minutes late due to some unknown ‘issue’ on the train from Hove – and which the driver had admitted being clueless about. I walked over to there and stood at the end of the line, cussing and cursing for 10 minutes, until eventually Window 3 barked at me.

Another London Underground employee listened to me behind the glass and then went off to a tray at the back of the office and pulled out a tatty looking form. Her voice sounded tinny, raspy and echoey as she relayed what I need to do through the intercom system. I wondered what I sounded like to her as I puffed and snorted my ‘issue’ with Oyster pointedly at the microphone that was sticking awkwardly out of the glass (I often think the same in taxis which have a similar system in place – it seems so weird to talk to the driver through an artificial amplification system when you are in such close proximity to them).

I snatched the form from under the glass. It looked like one of those over-photocopied ones (cranked out from an overworked machine) that was slightly wonky and has lots of spaced boxes to fill in so that a computer can read it automatically. Trouble is it requires us humans to think and write quite unnaturally, forcing us to etch letters from box to box rather than flowing from one to the next.

So, I started filling in my name, address, date, email, password, etc., and then realized I’d filled the wrong boxes in – I crossed some of them out and filled in some other ones. If this had been a US customs form I’d have been sent to the back of the line and severely chastised. But luckily for me this is Britain.

The woman behind the glass looked nonchalantly at me as I slipped it back to her. She turned it over and slipped it back. There was another whole side to fill in! There was no point in huffing and puffing anymore. Instead, I staccato-ed my way through the same details as I had on the other side. It is at this point of being so far out of my comfort zone that a streak of mischievousness can kick in. I thought about adding my favourite country, my mother’s maiden name, the name of my junior school and my favourite band, what I had for breakfast, even, but knew my petulant attempt at humour would be wasted.

Instead, a third of the way through the form I gave up, slipped it back to her and she nodded, chewed, and started tapping at her computer. I asked her why this part of the process could not be automated and she replied wryly “just is that way.” After a few more minutes of tapping and then pulling out a receipt from another machine, she handed me a brand new activated Oyster Card. My relief was palpable – but short lived. She then told me that I now had to go to the London Underground website and change the details for my card since the auto top-up would not work anymore. Luckily, there was enough credit on the new card (it had miraculously been transferred) to get me to work with some small tiny residue of composure.

So much for smart cards.

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