Tom Atlee's latest thoughts on Y2K (Co-Intelligence Institute) Part I of II : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Part I of II... Dear friends:

I am still holding the tension, in my own mind and life, regarding what happened at the rollover. I haven't found any answers that really satisfy me. (I'm not fully comfortable even with the tantalizing argument that it was grace. Given the powerful, offhand destructiveness of our global economic engine, would a loving God intentionally help it slide through the rollover frictionlessly, further justifying its arrogance and pride, further reducing our ability to get it to reflect on its dark side and change it's ways? It seems to me that real Love from on high would have given us a serious bump in the road, with minimal death and suffering, but leaving us with a good whack on the head and broad public agreement that we'd better slow down and drive more carefully.)

As I wait and explore for clarity in this, I've been watching growing criticisms regarding the sloppy expertise of Y2K doomers and prep people. It fascinates me.

Of course, we _could_ dismiss this as the Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Hindsight is easy -- and weren't our efforts, after all, truly valiant and reasonable, given the intrisic uncertainty of it all? On the other hand, perhaps we should humbly accept such criticism: After all, so many of us were more technologically (and otherwise) ignorant and undisciplined than we could have been.

To me, both those alternatives focus our attention where it is always too ready to go -- to the straight and narrow path of our individual correctness or error -- while overlooking some mammoth issues lumbering around the tarpits on the other side of the meadow, all having to do with the nature of expertise in our collective lives, to wit:

a) EXPERTISE AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS: Most public problems -- and certainly Y2K -- are so interlinked and interdisciplinary in their causes and effects, that we might reasonably consult computer people, systems analysts, businesspeople, environmentalists, sociologists, economists, ethicists, etc., etc., etc.,.... So, in any given circumstance, we could ask: What sorts of expertise are needed? - while quietly wondering if there's any expertise that's NOT relevant...

b) EXPERTISE AND CITIZENSHIP: THE PERSONAL CHALLENGE: We tend to think of experts as people who answer questions and resolve issues. However, our experience is that experts (usually seen in the media, now frequently on the web) just raise more questions -- especially when they disagree with each other. When faced with competing experts on an important public issue (such as Y2K), what's a citizen to do?

Sometimes we just shut up, and stop engaging. Activists like Helen Caldicott call that a cop-out: After all, they say, we are THE experts on our own lives, our own values, our own needs and understandings and we can jolly well ground ourselves in those things and speak out strongly from there. We don't have to understand the intricacies of MX missiles to know they're designed to blow up cities; if we don't want cities blown up, we can say that. Many of us go a bit farther, picking some experts who validate our personal opinions, and sticking with them through thick and thin, often becoming "very informed" on an issue (or at least on our pet expert's ideas and evidence regarding it). On the other hand, we may pick an expert or group whose values and motivations we trust, and let them form our opinion, since we feel no pressing reason to doubt them. Some of us ground our ideas in the ideas of a few opinion leaders, but then venture off every now and then into someone else's territory where our thinking gets complexified and nuanced, if not thoroughly confused. Very few of us do anywhere near the organized, detailed research across the spectrum of disciplines and opinions that would be needed to be called "truly informed" on any issue.

In this Y2K movement, I've seen us use our diverse online and local networks to inform each other from many perspectives. But no one would call that mutual education rigorous! And we usually shared at least SOME blind spots, which it might be interesting to understand better...

c) EXPERTISE AND CITIZENSHIP: THE CHALLENGE TO DEMOCRACY: We democratic citizens are captains of the ship of state, right? We are supposed to make the decisions that affect our lives, right?

Well, things have gotten a bit complicated lately, a bit out of hand.... Aside from the oft-bemoaned take-over of government by wealthy interests and corporations, would we even know what to do with the government if we DID control it? When you consider the complexity of ANY issue (from youth violence to Y2K), it seems to NECESSARILY involve lots of experts and special interest groups battling on the mountaintops while we citizens swarm around the base trying to see what's going on or going fishing. This creates a crisis for democracy: In a society as complex as ours can we even actually HAVE a democracy -- a political order in which we citizens have an effective voice in the decisions that affect our lives? Really?

Looked at another way, the question itself gets pretty complicated, i.e.,: What is the proper role of expertise in a society that is supposed to be run by citizens -- especially when that society is so complex that EVERY issue requires multiple threads of expertise to understand -- and particularly when that society is so speedy, infoglutted, and filled with distractions and urgencies that few citizens have time to understand ANYTHING very deeply, let alone carry on any real dialogues with each other about it -- and furthermore, when it is so hard to tell which experts to believe, since they so often disagree and so many are paid by vested interests or are fixated on old paradigms or solutions, or are oblivious to what experts in immediately related fields are saying?

In other words, "forget it!" -- right? Time to go back to (b) and either shut down entirely or just pick our favorite expert and be done with it!

I prefer to think outside that whole unproductive box. The solution to the problem is NOT individual; it is systemic. We need to acknowledge that our society is as different from 18th century America (when our Constitution was written) as 18th century America was from Neanderthal Europe. This doesn't mean we have to get rid of the democracy we built 200 years ago; it means that we need to change its form or it will simply disappear. In fact, I think we can safely say we are watching it disappear before our eyes right at this moment, eroding away by the dynamics of expertise, corporate control of media, lobbying, fragmentation, speed, no spaces for public dialogue....

Many ways to redesign our democracy for the 21st Century are described on my website at .

However, the innovation that I think best handles this problem of expertise is the establishment of citizen consensus councils of the sort done in Denmark several times a year and piloted once successfully in the US (see ). A demographically representative (i.e., diverse!) group of citizens are convened as a panel and educated about a technical issue: They read reports and interview experts from across that issue's spectrum of expert opinion. When these ordinary citizens have all their questions answered (or have gained sufficient insight into why certain answers won't be forthcoming), they are facilitated to a consensus statement of recommendations for the government and press regarding how that technology should be dealt with in their country. Since the government convenes these citizen panels, it listens to their recommendations -- and the mass population hears about them in the media and talks about their findings: After all, here are citizen-experts -- people just like them -- who they can trust!

This approach to handling complex issues allows a sensible division of roles: Experts provide understanding of the dynamics, facts and stakes involved; citizens provide the values, every-day issues, and common sense. The experts are "on tap" to the citizens who, once they're educated, create the policy recommendations. To me all this makes eminent sense. Does it make sense to you? Does it make sense to spread the word?

(Or maybe we should wait a bit longer before telling anyone or doing anything about this. We might startle folks who woke up one morning to find their democracy actually working...)

d) TECHNICAL EXPERTISE AND THE CURVE OF Y2K: Finally, can we say anything about the various experts we've had in our "Y2K movement," now that we know that the rollover was basically uneventful (except for all the dancing and fireworks)? Of course, there were people who knew a lot LESS about the problem than we did, who predicted that "nothing would happen." But I'm not about to trade my hard-won knowledge that turned out to be wrong for their ignorant obliviousness that, by chance or grace, turned out to be right. The question is not whose ignorance was right, but who's insight was right.

So, quite specifically, we might ask: Among all those competing experts from before the rollover -- the people who knew A LOT about Y2K -- are there any who have all along promoted well-reasoned, believable rationales for a problem-free rollover? What are they saying now about what lies ahead? (The interesting question "Why didn't we listen to them rather than to all the others?" is a subset of the previous issues a-c. The fact is, we ordinary folks never have dependable means to decide who is right until after the fact -- unless we have something like a citizen's technology panel....)

Now, I openly admit that I don't frequent the technical listserves and websites and chat rooms. So my ability to answer this question is limited. However, my regular email traffic has exposed me to one interesting nominee for "Y2K expert who got it right so far" who we can use, just as a case in point here -- Dale W. Way, Y2K Chair for The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) . For months he has been posting long and complicated pieces on various forums that, because they weren't taken up by others on the forums, and because I was always pressed for time and had to struggle to understand, I didn't pay much attention to. But now that some of his well-reasoned predictions have come true, a few people are digging out his old stuff and reposting it and trying to get other Y2K technical experts to address his issues. I've decided to join their ranks. I've appended below one of Way's more novice-readable pieces, which he posted right after the rollover (thanks: But first I'm going to try the impossible: to summarize for lay folks some of what I think are his most salient points for the rollover. (I'll probably mess up, and anyone's free to correct me. I am encouraged by a quote from my friend Marianne Morgan: "It is always best to do a thing wrong the first time." So said Sir William Osler.)

Dale Way suggested that most Y2K problems would arise from math calculations that straddled the centuries. This means that programs that looked forward would have problems before the rollover; programs that operated in present time (e.g., clocks) would have problems at the rollover; and programs that looked backwards would have problems after the rollover. Some programs combine these functions, making them vulnerable both before and after rollover.

He also noted that the longer the period of time included in the calculations typical of that system, the more vulnerable it would be to problems. In other words, if a typical calculation involves times that are 10 seconds apart, then the window of vulnerability in a forward-looking system would be from 11:59:50pm until midnight New Years Eve; after that, you'd be home free, because all the dates in later calculations would be on the far side of the rollover. However, if the calculations involved a 30-year period looking both forward and backwards, problems could crop up for years on either side of the rollover.

Way identifies four kinds of system: 1) physical control system infrastructure (power grids, toxics controls, water systems) 2) on-line transaction systems (ATMs, check and credit card processing) 3) support systems (that automatically detect faults, schedule maintenance, order spare parts) 4) administrative and accounting systems (for purchasing, invoicing, personnel, payroll).

He notes that this list is in descending order of vulnerability and ease of fixing. The physical control systems tend to be more integrated, robust software/hardware combinations with coherent tasks; are better engineered and stress-tested, and therefore better understood, and usually have redundancies built in; are so clearly vital that they get lots of management attention; and tend to operate with very tiny (seconds to hours) time-windows. Therefore they are less vulnerable to Y2K glitches which, if they occur, are relatively easy to find and fix.

-- Sheri (, January 10, 2000


Do you remember what the Lord said to Job after all he went thru.He said where were you when I made the crocodile.

-- J (, January 11, 2000.

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