From Satiric Dystopia to State of CT Policy in 20 Years

One of my favorite quick jokes in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) is when Y.T.’s mom reads a memo about toilet paper regulations. Because she works for Fedland (what’s left of the US government), the memo includes an estimated reading time:

Y.T.’s mom pulls up the new memo, checks the time, and starts reading it. The estimated reading time is 15.62 minutes. Later, when Marietta does her end-of-day statistical roundup, sitting in her private office at 9:00pm, she will see the name of each employee and next to it, the amount of time spent reading this memo, and her reaction, based on the time spent, will go something like this:

  • Less than 10 min.: Time for an employee conference and possible attitude counseling.
  • 10-14 min.: Keep an eye on this employee; may be developing slipshod attitude.
  • 14-15.61 min.: Employee is an efficient worker, may sometimes miss important details.
  • Exactly 15.62 min.: Smartass. Needs attitude counseling.
  • 15.63-16 min.: Asswipe. Not to be trusted.
  • 16-18 min.: Employee is a methodical worker, may sometimes get hung up on minor details.
  • More than 18 min.: Check the security videotape, see just what this employee was up to (e.g., possible unauthorized restroom break).

Y.T.’s mom decides to spend between fourteen and fifteen minutes reading the memo. It’s better for younger workers to spend too long, to show that they’re careful, not cocky. It’s better for older workers to go a little fast, to show good management potential. She’s pushing forty. She scans through the memo, hitting the Page Down button at reasonably regular intervals, occasionally paging back up to pretend to reread some earlier section. The computer is going to notice all this. It approves of rereading. It’s a small thing, but over a decade or so this stuff really shows up on your work-habits summary.

When I first read this novel twenty years a while ago, this sort of exaggeration seemed self-evidently preposterous. Surely, my younger self thought, no one would tolerate such a ludicrous mechanism for making sure people spent time carefully considering policy.

But this year, my campus is rolling out an online version of sexual harassment training. This is not a post where some male academic complains about having to do the training. Actually, I think I have good reasons for suspecting it’s a good idea. I’m on board with the training, and want to be sure I know about the policy.

But then, then I got to this screen:

The Pace Meter

The actual training includes things like interactive quizzes and “what would you do”-type situations, which all sounds great. But it turns out, the thing that really matters is that you “spend at least two full hours.” I especially like how the Pace Meter claims to measure whether you’re spending those hours “learning the content,” which is of course impossible. All it knows is whether you’ve had the web app open for that long.

So, younger self, there you are: It will take just about twenty years–maybe less!–to get from the satirical dystopia of Snow Crash to official state policy.

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