“Under One Minute Remaining” by Lucy Zhang

Mixed Media Painting (Detail) by Choichun Leung / Dumbo Arts Cen

Under one minute remaining. In theory, fifty-nine seconds, fifty-eight seconds, fifty-seven seconds…

It has been at “under one minute remaining…” for about half an hour now. 

Here’s how this came to be:

A father has a daughter who just started ninth grade. He didn’t grow up in the United States so he’s only now learning about college applications and National Merit scholarships, AP exams and extracurricular activities. This father comes into work at seven am and buys a bowl of oatmeal mixed with raisins and almonds, a habit that has endured for over two decades. Today his task is to animate the progress bar from start to finish, as accurately as possible. He figures he can divide everything into operations: each operation takes a constant amount of time, equivalent to some portion of the bar, and he’ll let progress move at constant velocity until it reaches the next operation where a new velocity will be defined. Or, he can hard code a time–like thirty minutes–and have the progress accelerate towards the end should the real work finish early. And if not, stalling at ninety-nine percent until everything finishes might be viable. But ninety-nine percent looks rather close to one hundred percent and people might think that’s good enough when really it isn’t. Because that last operation? Without it, you end up with a mutant system where launching Microsoft Word triggers the simultaneous destruction of the internal clock, roaring of spinning fans, and a defunct security mechanism whose original purpose was to save you from this very situation but now all it can do is write files to a directory forever. Perhaps he should make an indeterminate progress bar with flashing blue and white stripes, but he is certain the higher-ups wouldn’t approve a user interface without a time estimate. He is also certain the last operation will not complete in under one minute, but these are just semantics, the “nuances of language” so his high school English teacher liked to say, and all of this seems superior to “Under an infinite amount of time remaining…”. Plus he enjoys wasting millions of people’s time–time they could be spending making the world a worse place, so he’s probably a hero of sorts. He clicks into the text file, fingers rapidly hitting keyboard buttons for two or three seconds, saves his work, and pushes it to production with privileges he acquired back when the company was small and really someone should’ve redacted these godlike abilities because him hitting the “return” button is, at least today, surely a violation of corporate democracy.

Somewhere else, in a poor country where only one person has enough money to afford products meant to elevate the life experience beyond basic physical sustenance, this person stares at a progress bar moving neither forward nor backward, even though it seems so close to completion. Well, if it’ll take under a minute, it may be worth the wait. Governing a country can come later.