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August 2019
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A government intrusion

He was setting up equipment but looked up and introduced himself. "Max Smugness. How can I help ya?"

A high school source alerted me to the story, I told him, and I'd come to see for myself. By decree of the state legislature, a Coolameter was slated for every Georgia high school, and Pickens High was getting its own.

The elaborate, stand-under, "Beam-me-up-Scottie" contraption was to measure each student's C.Q.––their Coolness Quotient. Results would be neither obvious nor immediate. Instead, numbers would mail home to parents with patent advice for improving C.Q. in their offspring. No point in being too intrusive, someone must have figured.

I begged Smugness to let me try the machine.

"Nothing doing," he demurred still twisting wrenches. "Not ready yet. Besides, journalists tend to skew it. Pings off the low end. Could take hours to re-calibrate. But if you're looking for an assessment, it only takes a peeper pass to peg you at pathetic," he pricked, glancing up again. "Black shoes with white socks? Dude, you're not even tryin'."

I shrugged off the impertinence but noted the infraction. A cardinal rule had just been broken: Don't mess with the press, mister, if you wanta stay cool around here.

"I'm not the issue, Max," I said. "Your machine is the topic. How does it work?"

With technical balderfuscation, he explained. Beginning with body size, physical coordination, sex appeal and social cachet, the Coolameter arrives at a base quotient, he said. Then it assesses peripherals to add more points.

"Peripherals?" I asked.

"You know: designer labels; personal electronics; textuality; “bad ride” or “beater”; postured defiance of adult authority––all those enhancements that can mean so much."

"Mean so much," I repeated, scribbling that down.

"Oh yeah. You can be practically a loser on the base quotient," Smugness said, "and peripherals will put you over the top. And what's really cool: you can buy most of those."

That troubled me. "Now look here, Smugness," I said, "paraphrasing a great American, he dreamed people might be judged not on the kind of tripe you quantify but by the content of their character."

Smugness turned from his machine and stared straight at me. “'Dreamed',” he deadpanned. “It's all about image, you nimrod, and popularity. Character? You're a character. Just look at those socks.”

“Forget the socks, you fatuous frat-boy,” I threw back. “Your machine is a soul-less sorter of surface assessments. It promotes a valueless lifestyle, a shallow existence of unexamined conformity to imposed external standards. Who could dare stand outside your ‘normal’ and risk being labeled some fool oddball? It's mind control, Smugness. It's herd-think: conform or be tread under. Your machine would mark any iconoclast, free-thinker or genius as deficient.”

"They are!" he shrieked, his finger suddenly in my face. A vein bulged on the side of his neck. "Don't you get it, you meddling pin-head? Right now these kids maybe can't think past the weekend, but there's a future up ahead. Out there they trade in their flip-flops for wing-tips, baby, and they keep on playing if they know what’s good for them."

"Playing at what?" I asked.

“The game they learn here: conform to survive. Don't think of it as mind control,” he smirked. “Too Orwellian. Think of it as 'running with the pack'.”

Sounds predatory, I thought.

The machine was ready. A ninth-grader entered to stand under its glow. Dark hair fell straight to her shoulders. Shy eyes betrayed awkwardness and fear in a face as fragile and beautiful as innocence itself. I turned away.

"I'm leaving, Smugness. Look for your bad self in the newspaper."

"Awh, don't do that," he said. "Good jobs are hard to find just now, and this is an easy one. My legislator friends won't like it if you do that."

I wasn't surprised. "So someone is on the take, then," I guessed, "for funding your Coolameter statewide?"

"Well duh, Daddy-O. Nothing's so cool as the color of money."