The sound and the fury of asinine automated tannoy announcements

16.02, Friday 19 Apr 2024

Today I’m allowing myself to be a pedantic nit-picker. Really embracing that side of me.

And I’m wondering how to push back against mundane nits, even though I’m aware that it makes me sound like I’m over-sensitive and focusing on the wrong things.

Because the tiny things really do matter, and I’m reminded of that because I’ve spied at least one mechanism where a small change has a larger cultural impact.

The example is in social media…

What is happening?! – that’s the prompt that X/Twitter gives you in the post input field.

What’s on your mind, Matt? – that’s what Facebook says to me.

This is some kind of manifestation of brand, I had imagined. I hadn’t thought about it very much. I guess the wording has an effect what the social network is like, but I wouldn’t have given that much weight.

EXCEPT: the “nudge” acts strongly with neurodiverse people.

Here’s a paper about it (detailed ref below):

[Our Autistic young adult participants] interpreted feature descriptions such as “people you may know,” “what’s happening?,” “what’s on your mind?,” and “write a comment,” as a direct statement to themselves to act upon.

That UI microcopy that I parse as at-best lightly encouraging me to behave in a particular way is treated by at least some people as a strong instruction.


we observed that young Autistic adults took prompts to share information at face value and followed these suggestions as directives. For example, Participant3 explains the reason for sharing her contact information on her profile: “I had to do that because when I made my account it said phone number or email.”

This is so illuminating to me.


Page, X., Capener, A., Cullen, S., Wang, T., Garfield, M., & J. Wisniewski, P. (2022). Perceiving Affordances Differently: The Unintended Consequences When Young Autistic Adults Engage with Social Media. Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1-21.

Let me extrapolate.

  • Prevalence of Autistic adults in the US: 2 percent. (Apologies for the reference to “disorder” on that page; I wanted to link to the stat but I disagree with the frame.)
  • McKinsey. Minimum number of employees to involve for a successful business transformation project: 7 percent.

So hand-waving a bit here, 2% of a social app’s audience taking user interface copy literally is a good way toward having actual cultural change. You get a bunch more via mimesis, a bunch via algo nudges, and so on. But neurodiverse people get you a quarter of the way there!

I had PREVIOUSLY imagined that culture changes because EVERYONE shifts behaviour a LITTLE.

But NOW I see a mechanism whereby a VERY SMALL cohort changes their behaviour ABSOLUTELY and perhaps that drags along the rest.

Which seems plausible?

Anyway, I would love to understand more how/whether neurodiverse people have a critical role as a cultural vector, online and elsewhere, disproportionate to population.

Thinking like this has made me appreciate, even more, that apparently innocuously choices MATTER culturally, even when I can’t imagine the actual mechanism.

So I’ll go into two such apparently innocuous examples

Here are two incidences with signage that I spotted on my travels in the last few days.

London Bridge

At London Bridge station this morning, an automated announcement over the tannoy: Due to weather conditions the surfaces around the station may be slippery.

I mean… yes? It’s raining a little? So… of course??

It is fascinating to contemplate the complex of considerations and sign-offs that brought this automated announcement into existence and maintain it.

I can’t imagine it stops people slipping over. And I can’t imagine it would function as a protective shield in court against negligence.

I can imagine, on the other hand, how it came into being! Somebody is trying to be nice or helpful, and nobody has an argument against adding the announcement to the roster. Or it’s a health & safety thing, an individual being extra keen, or maybe it’s aimed at staff (not travellers), but there was no lawyer in the room to say “nah that’s actually not a functional defence.”

But. To my mind, the automated tannoy announcement is corrosive:

  • Situationally: it reduces the signal to noise ratio of announcements and stops me listening to all announcements, even useful ones
  • Societally: it subtly reduces my individual level of responsibility by letting me disclaim any accident as “well, I wasn’t told.”

Society, in this case, becomes an diffuse helicopter parent.

Gatwick Airport

There are some gorgeous, huge, bright screens in Gatwick Airport now, used for way-finding and (of course) ads. You can barely tell they’re screens.

In fact these screens fulfil the function of regular static signs, and have displaced those old signs: there’s a big yellow block that says “Toilets.”

Some of the time.

A minute later, that part of the large screen changes its display mode and tells you what gates are in that direction instead.

The thing is… you can’t, on first glance, tell that these screens are screens. They do not have the visual affordance of changing over time. They are not dimmer than standard static surfaces; they have no flicker. The pixels are not visible.

So I unconsciously note that there is a sign that tells me where the toilets are, without memorising the arrow. My cognition is environmental; my extended mind extends to the sign. I look again, now wanting to know the direction… but the sign has changed.

I am confused. Was I wrong to look there for direction?

This all happens below my immediate consciousness. I am gaslit by the signage. By my own mind! By the sign’s appearance, it had informed me that it is not a changing screen. I must be mistaken.

My extental reality, I absorb just very slightly, just at 0.1% intensity, my external reality is not to be trusted.

I am aware that, in bringing up these two examples, I am an old man yelling at a cloud.

I am gesturing at what appear to be such diffuse effects, homoeopathically tiny nudges on culture:

  • That I do not bear individual responsibility for my own well-being, beginning with not being trusted to look after my own feet in the rain.
  • That I cannot trust my perceptions of my physical surroundings, beginning with an ostensibly helpful sign duping me and denying its nature.

It is challenging to belief this even matters?


My note from the microcopy-to-culture story is that it is worth caring about these things because even if I cannot identify the mechanism right now, large cultural effects from tiny acorns grow.

These examples are, indeed, how culture is enacted and propagated.

So I wonder what the counter-action could be, if I feel so strongly about the potential effects?

How can I persuade people to remove the meaningless announcements, to return meaning to signs? Short of enrolling a mob of enraged semioticians to take matters into their own hands.

To illuminate and persuade, we need new instruments to measure diffuse nudges on culture.

That sounds abstract. Yet, in the marketing world, something like Net promoter score (NPS) (Wikipedia) does exactly that.

If you’ve ever been asked whether you would recommend a product or service to a friend, know that your answer will pass through a standard and simple algorithm, and be pored over by product managers every 30 days.

The existence of NPS is so potent in bringing about a certain type of behaviour.

If there were a number to easily measure some abstract social metric - entrepreneurship, feeling of individual agency, contentment - and then show how it is eroded by the theatre of announcements that say “be careful walking, it’s for your own good”…


that would be an awfully technocratic “solution”.

And probably not work, really.


It doesn’t need to work, really. It doesn’t need to be true.

I just need some mechanism.

Some plausible mechanism to get into the heads of policy-makers and managers.

To make the asinine announcements in train stations stop.

Because they may or may not be a cause or a symptom of a certain kind of society, and all of that.

But mainly they drive me loopy.

And I want the robot to stop telling me that it’s raining and therefore I might slip over because for goodness sake.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.