Power Fantasies , The strange appeal of the Y2K bug

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This is suppose to be a site for REASON. Everybody is entitled to their opinion.

By Virginia Postrel

Wouldn't it be great if civilization as we know it collapsed? A lot of people seem to think so.

The Y2K bug has become the latest hope for many people with a grievance against contemporary society--and not just the head-for-the-hills survivalists. The problem is real enough, of course, and computer and embedded-chip users are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to make sure that when the calendar turns to 2000, their machines don't think it's the year 1900 and crash. But in the minds of many, the computer glitch isn't just a technical problem. It's a vehicle for reimagining, and potentially remaking, the world.

Consider two publications I received earlier this year. The first is a supplement to the Utne Reader, a magazine for yuppie greens in touch with their feelings. The second is the January issue of Citizen, the magazine of Focus on the Family, James Dobson's religious right organization.

Utne Reader and Focus on the Family have little in common. Culturally and politically, they are enemies. Yet the messages are remarkably similar: Don't withdraw from society out of fear of Y2K, the authors counsel. Survivalism isn't the answer. Be prepared to help in the coming chaos, and you and people who think like you will wind up on top. Y2K is just what we've been waiting for. It will simultaneously smite our enemies and demonstrate the power of our worldview.

"Some are seeing the Y2K crisis as a social change opportunity," write Gordon Davidson and Corinne McLaughlin in the Utne supplement. "People who have been working their entire lives for political, social and cultural change immediately see its transformational potential....If there are breakdowns in the infrastructure of the modern world, the seeds that have been planted by all these movements are likely to see exponential growth." We can profit from the coming collapse.

Along similar lines, Citizen writer Shaunti Christine Feldhahn suggests that Y2K could be just what evangelicals need to triumph over a secular America that makes them feel "scorned and battered." She writes, "Just as God has historically used times of crisis to touch and save hurting souls, He has also used turmoil to bring about change and accomplish His ultimate purposes. After all, many economists are predicting an unprecedented transfer of wealth and influence--from the unprepared to those who are not only prepared, but strategically positioned for Y2K.... Imagine how the professional world might change if every Christian business owner, government official and public-policy expert was not only prepared for Y2K, but looking for opportunities to help those around them."

Neither publication shows much interest in treating the Y2K bug as a technical problem to be solved rather than a source of social transformation. Both suggest that seeking technical fixes is immature. The message throughout is that technological society is terribly brittle, and that America deserves disaster. Feldhahn cites as comforting a verse from Isaiah: "When my judgments are upon the land, then the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness." And she's tolerant compared to the Utne writers.

Many commentators have chalked up Y2K hysteria to "millennium fever," a replay of the apocalyptic religious fervors that swept Europe 1,000 years ago. I'm not so sure. The millennium angle is, I think, just an added bonus. If the same problem loomed for, say, 2005, we would see much the same response.

Y2K hype taps our native discomfort with the realities of a dynamic, evolving social order. It elevates personal, local contact over the impersonality of the "extended order" of trade and technological networks. It suggests that we can wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. It thus fuels the imaginations of those alienated from contemporary society.

Human beings do not naturally trust strangers, let alone distant, anonymous strangers. Yet our civilization depends on such trust. Our connections to far-flung strangers, through markets, professional networks, and technological ties, make us prosperous and resilient, able to reap the economic bounties and psychological satisfactions of specialization.

But these networks of strangers also make us nervous. And there are plenty of social critics ready to advocate the atavistic impulses of solidarity and autarkic "self-reliance." The Utne crowd is dedicated (somewhat inconsistently) to an ideology of local self-sufficiency. They oppose trade and specialization and detest "networks" of like-minded people, preferring "communities" that happen to be thrown together geographically. They're none too fond of technology, making Y2K a dream come true.

In this context, it's easy to understand why treating the Y2K bug as a technical problem has so little appeal: The glitch was created by anonymous computer specialists. How can we trust other anonymous specialists to solve it? Stocking up on food, water, and medicines gives us a sense of control, however false it may be. Relying on distant experts to do their jobs, by contrast, makes us feel vulnerable.

The greatest appeal of Y2K, however, is the dream of starting from scratch. In this scenario, the more systems that collapse, the better. (Another reason not to encourage efforts at technical repairs.) We will have revolution forced on us. Instead of the slow, difficult process of winning converts to their worldviews, the Y2K apocalyptics foresee an easy victory, courtesy of technological breakdown. They will then be able to build the society they've always dreamed of.

"If we begin our planning from `What's possible?' we will avoid attempts to patch together the old system, or to frantically re-create systems that have resulted in isolation and dissatisfaction," write Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in the Utne booklet, arguing for Y2K "as an opportunity to re-create our communities and culture." All that has gone before will be swept away--no messy patches, no building on the past--in favor of a world redesigned according to an ideal blueprint.

"Y2K," says Eric Utne, "is the excuse we've been waiting for to stop making so many compromises in how we know we should, and want to, live our lives. Y2K is our opportunity to stop our polluting and wasteful practices, and start living more sustainable, environmentally friendly lives."

Buried in this cheery rhetoric is the vision of a "year zero," a new world built on catastrophe and ruled by the enlightened. What Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers glibly dismiss as "the old system" are the lives of millions of people with no particular zeal to "re-create" their culture or communities.

The unglamorous truth is that the Y2K bug is a computer glitch--the costly product of long-ago decisions not to worry about the distant turn of the century. It is serious and expensive, and alarms that spur action to correct it are worthwhile. But it is not the end of the world.

And if it were, we would all suffer greatly. Fantasies of a remade post-apocalypse world are just Mad Max with a happy face, tales to entertain would-be \bermenschen. We may like to imagine ourselves as heroes in a simpler world, but the world we actually inhabit is complex, its heroes the quotidian specialists who make its complexity both productive and frightening. Instead of lusting for the end of civilization, as though real lives were just a movie, we should cherish its achievements and seek to correct its errors--even if that means settling for a "technical fix" instead of social transformation.

Virginia Postrel is editor of Reason magazine.

-- y2k dave (xsdaa111@hotmail.com), August 03, 1999


y2k dave,

No point in trying to spread the truth around here because it just bounces right off the tinfoil hats without so much as penetrating the upper epidermis of the collective cranial mass.

You would probably have better luck trying to convince people the sun is the center of our universe back in the 1400's.

-- (boink.@narf. S), August 03, 1999.

The last big 'infrastructure' collapse in our history was the 'fall' or fizzling out of the Roman Empire. At that time a small, ideological sect set out to remake the world in its own image from the Roman debris.........Christianity.

-- Forrest Covington (theforrest@mindspring.com), August 03, 1999.

The ROOF, The ROOF, The ROOF is on FIRE....

We don't need no water, let the Mutha****er BURN...BURN Mutha****er, BURN.

-- CygnusXI (noburnt@toast.net), August 03, 1999.

And Christianity was almost engulfed a few decades later by Islam.

Fortunately (I think), Islam is a Western religion with its roots firmly planted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. When the rest of Europe resisted the Muslim conquest, Christianity was saved and spread to the new world.

-- nothere nothere (notherethere@hotmail.com), August 03, 1999.

Lets go for a technical fix, Virginia. What did you have in mind?

-- dave (wootendave@hotmail.com), August 03, 1999.

I enjoyed the article. It's not one that explores the differences between the optimists and pessimists regarding whether Y2k can be fixed. It more describes how there are two opposing reasons for a desire of infrastructure collapse. One "side" desires this collapse because it dislikes government, etc. This "side" was discussed in other threads dealing with pulling a switch? The other "side" simply sees technology as a basic destructive force in life today. This side more resembles the "back to nature" movement prevalent in the 60's. "We'll all live together in communes, love, nature, etc."

-- Anita (spoonera@msn.com), August 03, 1999.

I think this is a fine discussion of two intellectual and ideological postures. But, unfortunately, what we want, desire, or wish for, will have little bearing upon what comes to pass. In the next year something will happen, or it won't. How we are prepared to cope with either (or any) scenario is the crux of the matter.

If Y2K is a 10+, will we rebuild an ideal society based upon brotherhood, respect, toleration? If Y2K is a non-event, will we party on, drain the wetlands, build more refineries, buy a new SUV?

I consider myself a member of neither of the two camps discussed above, but I admit to sharing some of the ideals and imaginations of each. I am an environmentalist. I participated in the first "Earth Day"; have grown up with the words of Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and Muir. Yet, I dare not despise technology. I have a son who was saved by open heart surgery sixteen years ago. Each time I look at him, I realize, and am once again grateful for, the gift of technology in our generation.

I'm not saying we won't, or shouldn't strive to build a more ideal society, given the chance, but rather that we must strive to, whatever the effect of Y2K.

Technology and technological missteps may be the cause of the Y2K computer problem, but the effect will be measured in lives, in mores, in changes of our ideals, and perhaps, our gods.


-- Lon Frank (lgal@exp.net), August 03, 1999.

On Gary North's www.garynorth.com website today, he has posted a great commentary that explains what the Y2K "survivalist" position is all about -- which is staying OUT OF THE WAY as the chaos and subsequent re-building is done. YOU ARE HELPING SOCIETY if you NOW prepare so that you WILL NOT be someone who will be competing for scarce resources next year, essentially being a BURDEN onto others. By preparing NOW, you may be able to HELP OTHERS then!

And this is really a "no-brainer" if there ever was one, especially since if Y2K turns out to be nothing, there is little harm done, you just have your food and toilet paper supply set thru 2005. But to admit this is to admit the possibility that there REALLY IS the possibility that a Y2K meltdown is coming, which the spinmeisters -- from all political persuasions -- don't want to do.

-- King of Spain (madrid@aol.com), August 03, 1999.

This article is of course, interesting and makes for great, goatee- pullin' conversation in your local coffee house, but unfortuntately it misses a major point: sometimes radical and sudden upheavals in society really DO happen every so often, and sometimes "progress" is not a straight line from past to present. And, of course, just when a culture hubristically proclaims that it is the End of History--too complex and/or advance to be shackled by any historical precedent (like ours)--History comes blazing back to deliver a very solid spanking.

Did anyone see the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century coming?..Europe ended up about half as populous after all was said and done. Did anyone see World War I coming?..Like a Greek tragedy, all the rusty, old empires set up the world stage for a huge battle which would leave none left standing (well, the British were still standing, but they were teetering and on the way down after that...). Did anyone see the Crash of '29 coming? The Holocaust? Did anyone have any clue that the American Civil War would be as long and bloody as it was?

I'm sure some people forsaw those events, read the "handwriting on the wall." They were known in their time as "fringe elements, kooks, radicals, subsersives, heretics, etc."

But these fringe people were more likely to survive or prosper through whatever crisis was on the horizon, having seen it in advance enough to get out of the way--or at least roll with the punches. These kooky, nutty survivors are the ones who would leave their mark on the future course of events, rebuild the world and its institutions more in their own image. They are statistically different than the normal population, intellectually, ecologically, culturally according to what population biologists call the "founder effect."

As Frank Zappa says, "Without deviation from the norm, progress would not be possible." I strongly suspect that progress is rarely seen ANYWHERE in the mainstream, but on the fringes. If y2k paranoiacs like myself are considered to be in the "fringe," perhaps that ought to be considered a compliment.

-- coproltih (coprolith@rocketship.com), August 03, 1999.

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