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The Millennium Contagion Is Your Mental Software Year 2000 Compliant? by Aaron Lynch Thought contagions are beliefs that program for their own copying in humans much as computer viruses do in computers. Their self-spreading effect explains the techno-apocalypse ideas swirling around the Y2K bug, including secular hell-doomsday ideas, logic-resistant strains of myth, and embedded rumors. Knowing this can help everyone, and prevent the panicked departure of programmers and other key personnel just when we need them most. POST ROLLOVER COMMENTARY NOW AVAILABLE

If digital electronics had arrived 100 years earlier, then the multifarious hodgepodge of problems we call Y2K would have gone by a completely different name, perhaps Y19C, Y1900, or even C-20. As a century rollover problem, it only strikes by coincidence at the dawn of a millennium. Calling it a century bug does not in any way diminish its importance or the need to fix it: it remains a very real mess with costly consequences and an unforgiving deadline. Yet we also have a "bug" that really does relate to the turn of 1000 years. It does not lurk amid the transistors or databases, the ROM memories or old vacuum tubes. It inhabits the minds of human beings. Not a problem with how our brains track time, it arises from a weakness in how we share information amongst each other. It is the millennium contagion--the millennium thought contagion.

Thought contagions resemble computer viruses in one key respect: they "program" for their own transmission. Such beliefs self-propagate by inducing evangelism, abundant child raising, and dropout prevention. Beliefs harnessing these human functions most effectively out-propagate the "weaker" variants. Evolving like life forms through natural selection, thought contagions vie for ever stronger influence in human lives.

The similarities to biological evolution even inspired Zoologist Richard Dawkins to coin the word "meme," rhyming with "dream," to denote a gene-like or virus-like unit of culture. Memes range from socially positive to outright destructive, much as microbes run the gamut from beneficial to harmful. Especially powerful in matters of religion, sexuality, reproductive issues, family life, and health, meme contagions reach deeply into our personal lives. An increasingly robust theory known as memetics can express this in mathematical and symbolic terms without biological metaphors. However, it does not take equations to see that memes exert major effects on the information health of society.

A classic example of thought contagion comes from Christianity, which has a large complex of memes motivating adherents to spread the faith. The idea that unbelievers go to hell moves believer to spread the faith to anyone they care about. This idea spreads faster in combination with various other beliefs. For example, the hell meme combined with a "love your neighbor" meme inspires adherents to convert more than just friends and family, indeed anyone yet unconverted. Memetic evolution does not "care" if it is mixing a negative idea like hell with a socially positive, beneficial meme like neighborly love. All that matters to memetic evolution is the result: more converts won per host per year than for the competing Pagan and Jewish beliefs.

Combining with a third belief that "the end is near" spreads even faster still, by telling adherents that the time is running out to "save" friends and loved ones. Many evangelical sects believe that the end is near, and they rank among the fastest growing varieties of Christianity in modern times. Taking the idea very seriously, they even name the time leading up to apocalypse with a proper noun: the End Times. Ancient Christians also thought that time was very quickly running out, and this belief helped Christianity out-propagate Paganism and Judaism. Initially, the idea served a purpose to those who viewed the end of time as better than Roman rule. That got the idea started and accepted by an early audience. From there, it took on a life of its own by urging believers to hurry their efforts to "save" others.

After Christianity spread across Europe, the apocalypse belief lost much of its contagion. The preaching it inspired would mostly reach those already converted and those who had heard but rejected the message. With persuadable adults scarce, the main avenue to spreading the faith became child raising. So memetic evolution tilted further toward the big family doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, which where already spreading in Roman times. Because the hell idea still moved people to pass the faith to their children, it never faded. And as generations grew up with no experience of early evangelism or failed doomsaying, fresh waves of doomsday fervor could again sweep the continent. Major outbreaks happened before the year 1000 and the year 1033, as documented by scholars at the Center for Millennial Studies. Lesser outbreaks focused on dates all the way up to the present. But the more memorable the apocalypse date, the longer people retained it and the more easily they spread it. This favored ideas of apocalypse on the century and on the millennium. The Biblical book of Revelation played a big part, by prophesying an End Times era of a thousand years. Just one little detail held beliefs in check: the world refused to end on schedule. So the apocalypse memes hardy enough to pass down over the generations asserted an imminent end, but without a definite date. This keeps some sense of urgency while preventing the dropouts that happen whenever a precisely scheduled doomsday does not happen.

As the year 2000 approaches, a secular hell-doomsday vision spreads the same way. This is the infectious panic swirling around Y2K. As with religious belief, ideas of "hell on earth" spur the most urgent evangelism. Many, for instance, have come to believe that electricity, water, fuel, and food supplies will collapse irreversibly. Airplanes will plunge from the skies. Nuclear weapons will launch at the stroke of midnight. And if the weapons dont fly, then financial chaos will still cause mass starvation and food riots. And so on.

Those accepting the direst predictions have a strong sense that time is running out, since they expect the catastrophe to start immediately after 1999. Survival thus depends upon evacuating urban centers, stockpiling food, drilling water wells, and so forth. But one must first believe in the Y2K cataclysm to be saved. As with the religious End Times memes, the secular strains naturally move believers to save friends and loved ones. So doomsday believers urgently spread the dire news of "what lies ahead" in January of 2000. Their extreme predictions spread well when combined with American survivalist memes, which give detailed instructions for how one can be saved. Like an evangelical religion, the meme package effectively says, "Convert, and you will live." Meanwhile, those who know that prosaic life will continue are generally unmoved to go forth and tell everyone about it.

A particular expression helps secular and quasi-secular doomsayers distinguish their message from pure religion. That is TEOTWAWKI, "the end of the world as we know it." In some, the meme arouses fantasies of joining the few survivors to inherit the world. Such a selfish appeal that helps it spread. The TEOTWAWKI idea also differs enough from earlier religious thought that adherents try to persuade people ranging from atheists to Pentecostals. The wider base of "eligible" recipients helps the meme spread faster.

Once someone acquires the Y2K "hell on earth" belief, the meme serves itself by deterring dropouts. Like the religious threat of fire and brimstone for those who renounce faith, the secular belief threatens terrible things for those who "erroneously" change their minds. These include visions of starvation, violence, and death to oneself and loved ones. Such dropout prevention helps the belief not only persist, but also spread. Persistent belief enjoys more copying than momentary belief.

When new listeners hear the "hell on earth" warnings, the meme can manipulate their thinking toward accepting it. Like religious hell memes, the Y2K hell memes imply vast suffering for misplaced skepticism but little penalty for misplaced credulity. So the memes of doomsday with hell on earth achieve the three ingredients of major thought contagion: high transmission rates, receptivity in potential converts, and persistent belief in existing converts.

The doomsday belief is also more vivid and emotionally gripping than the prosaic belief. When infected by a vivid, emotionally gripping meme, people have a hard time setting the thought aside. They keep thinking about what it means to them. And people tend to talk about what they are thinking about, if it's not too private. So the vivid, gripping meme provokes more re-tellings per week than does the prosaic, boring meme. If meme A compels 60 minutes of thought per week, and meme B compels just 6 minutes thought per week, then this alone could cause up to ten times more tellings per week for meme A. The growth advantage is compounded weekly for a very fast contagion. Like the effect that powers those vivid, gripping stories called urban legends, it adds to the contagiousness already caused by thinking that "time is running out."

Further dissemination comes from the fact that news writers, reporters, book authors, and movie producers usually prefer vivid, gripping stories. Most of us already like telling exciting stories instead of dull ones, because we crave the extra attention it brings. The only difference with media professionals is that they earn cash for the attention they generate. Those who receive boring news tips or discover bland realities usually know better than to do a story on it. Rather, when they find alarming or sensational ideas, they know they have marketable material. As writers and reporters catch news memes from each other, the effect feeds on itself to produce escalating intensity in everything from royalty scandals to urban legends. Serious topics like Y2K are often distorted by the process.

Even those of us who conscientiously refrain from sensational coverage can unwittingly impart extreme ideas about Y2K. It simply takes less time and effort to explain the worst case Y2K situation than it does to explain why the worst case often does not apply. So we can accidentally mislead readers and listeners to think that everything digital will fail at the stroke of midnight. In digital methods of measuring how fast a substation voltage is rising, for instance, most embedded systems do not need to use dates at all. Programmers can often just create a digital table of the last 1000 readings and the number of microsecond clock ticks between readings. The time difference between any two voltage readings is then the total of intervening clock ticks. Yet such technical details are harder to explain in today's quick news stories. Power companies do need to perform extensive checks and corrections of date sensitive software. But ideas suggesting that the whole power grid will automatically collapse are easier to spread than the more complicated truth. As parts of worldly hell-doomsday scenarios, these easily voiced catastrophe memes spread more vigorously still.

Along with the general apocalypse meme, there live many little supporting Y2K thought contagions. Think of them as "embedded" thought contagions--with more of them out there than you can shake a chip at. Suppose that three people contemplate the Russian nuclear missiles, for instance. One of them concludes that the date problem will paralyze the ballistic missile fleet, leaving all missiles incapable of launch. Another concludes that things will continue as usual, and that computer glitches could not launch the missiles without humans pushing red buttons anyway--explaining why we have survived as long as we have. A third speculates that the computers will divide by a date equal to zero, leading to an error condition. And instead of a HALT instruction or program crash, the third person envisions the program still running and performing its most complicated task: targeting and launching the missiles. The first two people have more sophisticated understandings of how missile systems work, while the third person has serious misconceptions. Yet the third person has a much more gripping, vivid idea. He spends far more time thinking about it than the other two people, and therefore expresses his thoughts far more than the others do. Eventually, he concludes that he must warn people to get out of the cities and escape an imminent nuclear hell. Each person he persuades then feels motivated to warn still more in turn, in a self-amplifying cycle. After a while, nearly anyone attempting to independently research the subject encounters erroneous articles and postings.

Another "embedded" thought contagion is the idea that civilization will end if the power grid goes down--an electric apocalypse. It gains some of its credibility from the fact that no one person knows in detail why our complex society will function tomorrow, let alone on January 1, 2000. Looting did break out during the New York City blackout of 1977. And the word "infrastructure" tacitly implies that society would cave in without the power grid. But military history shows just how difficult it is to make a civilization collapse by bombing all kinds of infrastructure at once: electricity, telephone, railroads, roads, bridges, airports, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, sea ports, etc. Iraqi civilization, for instance, did not collapse despite the terrible bombing campaign it suffered in 1991, combined with embargoes and disastrous losses in Kuwait. So civilizations prove far more robust than their public utilities. Still, those who think "the end" will come from a power blackout feel more compelled to spread their ideas than those who know that societies can weather much worse adversities. Furthermore, most of today's citizens have no direct memory of how people survived the civilian hardships of a war in their home countries. In America, most of our parents and grandparents do not even have such memories. This leaves today's population more susceptible to fantastic claims about what would happen in a major power blackout--especially in America. With wide susceptibility and high communication rates, belief in the electric apocalypse spreads lightning fast.

Even the embedded thought contagions have layers of more deeply embedded thought contagions. One of these is the notion that gasoline cannot be pumped in a power failure. A mechanic could easily re-route the plumbing at the pump stand and re-power the station's air compressor with a small gasoline motor. This would get the gas flowing quickly in an emergency. But the idea that the gas won't pump without electricity is simpler to express and provokes more urge to warn others. Most listeners do not have enough mechanical know how to reject it, too. So the doubly embedded thought contagion spreads widely in the world of Y2K lore.

Embedded in many Y2K stories is a scary idea that glitches will bring the end of neighborly cooperation as we know it. Scenarios now circulating suggest that we should expect our neighbors to turn into thirsty, hungry monsters who will kill for food and water. This idea may seem more plausible in an era when most people don't know their neighbors. Yet in reality, people tend to cooperate during disasters. For instance, if a disaster really does close food markets, then people would cooperate to truck in tons of surplus grain, bartering if necessary. Still, the more vivid idea of "everyone for himself" motivates believers to warn others. Along with the warnings of social anarchy come urgent exhortations to buy guns, drill wells, and stockpile food. These ideas spread particularly well on the Internet. After all, most believers would hesitate to tell neighborhood acquaintances, in effect, "I will soon start defending my household against you with guns." But the Internet allows one to talk about defending against neighbors in a forum of non-neighbors. There, distorted views of how communities behave in a crisis can spread in synergy with other TEOTWAWKI memes.

Some embedded thought contagions start in the financial markets. Investors with the most extreme views of the Y2K threat may show more interest in technology firms that test and fix the potentially affected systems--at least until late 1999. As with all stocks, these investors become financially motivated to express their high estimations of the stocks' value to other potential investors. This helps spread extreme Y2K memes in financial circles, but may also contribute to misconceptions of Y2K as nothing but hype. Moreover, people investing in high technology stocks use the Internet more than investors in low tech companies: knowing technology enough to invest in it correlates with knowing technology enough to use it. So Y2K investors may have more skill in spreading their ideas electronically than do investors in low tech companies. Joining them are some executives of Y2K companies who also let financial interests affect their Y2K forecasts. Opposing them are the online investors who short sell Y2K stocks, and who also know how to spread their ideas electronically. They, too, have financial reasons for spreading their ideas through online investor forums and conventional publications. Some even claim that Y2K is just a "lucrative fraud." Such conflicting financial memes spread for other non-Y2K stocks as well. But with Y2K, the severest warnings sounded by executives, shareholders, and underwriters provoke evangelism even from private citizens outside the high tech investor community. Those who have already announced the end of the world cite financial articles selectively to boost credibility. Others spread the messages mainly in hope of saving people.

Software companies and their underwriters have little interest in forecasting an inevitable end of civilization. Like most corporations, they plan to stay around in the next century. In contrast, survivalist merchants clearly do stand to gain by foretelling the end of normal society. These include outfits selling non-perishable food, remote real estate, survival books, generators, water wells, guns, etc. Some may masquerade as "concerned citizens" setting up alarmist web pages, while others support such web sites through advertising. Some now promote their products on radio and television, too. Still, most apocalyptic belief comes from non-commercial persuasion. People usually regard mass media sales pitches of new products with some skepticism, while most of us give more credibility to the opinions of friends and loved ones. So commercials might help spread the TEOTWAWKI belief to some people. For others, commercialization can have the opposite effect: it gives them a chance to dismiss the dire warnings as a sales gimmick. This can preempt them from catching non-commercial persuasion from their friends. Either way, survivalist merchants will continue to capitalize on demand created by grass roots thought contagion.

Conventional institutions that have already fixed their Y2K problems still have a memetic problem. If a large bank, for instance, says it has brought its information systems into compliance, cynical listeners will still doubt it. Theyll say the bank is in denial, attempting a cover up, or engaging in conspiracy. Others will sound the alarm unless they see foolishly overpriced "proofs" of compliance. These ideas are more frightening and mentally gripping than bland expectations of normal banking in 2000. So the cynical memes about the bank spread quickly on open media like the Internet. The conspiratorial variants also resist logic. The information equivalent of multi-drug resistant bacteria, there are few kinds of facts that could possibly "kill" such memes. After all, trying to refute a conspiracy theory can get you dismissed as either a victim or participant. So multi-refutation resistant strains keep the banking apocalypse meme going strong, especially in those who already like conspiracy thinking. Logic resistant strains emerge for the overall apocalypse meme as well, creating public challenges to more than just banks.

Refutation resistance also comes from regarding the non-doomsayer as a "Pollyanna." Those who learn to apply this word to anyone doubting the apocalypse can easily reject challenges to their beliefs. So they retain belief and the sense of urgency longer. That helps doomsday movements using the term spread faster. This makes the word "Pollyanna" unusually common in Y2K discussions.

The more psychological term "denial" also works this way. Used ever since Freud's four defense mechanisms, the term describes how real people often do react to threatening thoughts. Yet doomsayers can allege "denial" far easier than non-doomsayers can ever disprove it. The non-doomsayers presumably have to explain all the details of why society will function just to clear that single term "denial" from the discussion. Besides, denying denial is still denial, making it perhaps the perfect source of refutation resistance. "Denial" thus becomes central to Y2K meme complexes that people have not dropped, and helps those meme sets survive and spread.

Thought contagions permeate our online technology forums too. If an engineer knows a solution to a critical problem, she may just work diligently to solve it, perhaps marketing the fix to corporations through a new consulting business. But if someone else hastily decides that the problem has no solution, he may feel compelled to warn people in multiple forums. Others feel compelled to publicize problems that don't exist. They might, for instance, think that today's cars incorporate date information in the engine timing computers, and announce that such cars will suddenly stop at midnight. Since public Internet forums are open to postings by non-experts, the misbeliefs that inspire re-transmission are well represented. So even the "high tech" forums act as reservoirs of infection for information viruses.

Not surprisingly, some of those proclaiming the end of the world are also experts in such high technology fields as computer programming. People in many professions regard their line of work as the most important, or nearly the most important in society. Conversely, we more readily choose a profession if we already see it as very important. Programmers and electrical engineers are no exception. This can make them emotionally receptive to ideas that society will collapse if malfunctions hit whole categories of their products. Normally sharp thinkers can therefore become uncritical of extraordinary claims swirling around Y2K. Once they accept such claims, the same professional pride can lead them to spread those thoughts. Saying the world will end from a crashed product line is a roundabout, unconscious way of declaring, "My profession is crucial!" The thought contagion reinforces itself, too: once some technologists express the TEOTWAWKI meme, it becomes more credible to other technologists. Though still a minority among their colleagues, they help spread the meme to those lay people who regard technologists as automatic "experts" on the societal impact of Y2K.

Investing heavily in a meme makes the meme harder to shake off. People who have gone so far as to relocate, sell assets, stockpile food, and persuade friends find it hard to consider that it might have been unnecessary. Instead, they may feel fond of including themselves in the minority "smart enough" to prepare for TEOTWAWKI. This helps the meme spread, by keeping the host contagious longer. For many, recovery will not happen until the year 2000. Even after calamity fails to strike that year, some will continue believing in the wisdom of their actions as "better safe than sorry." Those who sounded the most dire warnings will even take credit for saving civilization by pressuring sluggish organizations to act.

A less drastic version of the Y2K preparation movement calls for action focused on a community level instead of moving to remote cabins. The approach is generally more constructive, but still thrives on the contagiousness of dire predictions. The main difference is that this type of Y2K movement tells its adherents that to save themselves, they must save their communities. That means going forth to persuade as many neighbors as possible in order to launch community-wide efforts. It has the benefit of making communities more disaster-resilient and competes for adherents with isolationist messages. Yet the people most motivated to spread the movement in the community are often still the ones with unrealistically dire expectations.

Sometimes, dire warnings will spur sluggish bureaucracies into fixing their software. In other cases, dire warnings will interfere with the work, by inspiring key employees to quit and head for remote cabins. Indeed, some prominent Y2K extremists actively encourage programmers to quit their jobs in 1999. And they are already having some success in 1998, according to the August 1998 Wired article "The Y2K Solution: Run for Your Life!!" In effect, it gives programmers mental software that "crashes" in an endless loop of terrifying thoughts. Apocalypse warnings also leave some administrators thinking, "If this message is true, then I have no reason to bestir myself to elaborate action, because my organization has no function in a collapsed civilization." All of this makes Y2K worse, not better. The direst warnings can also give administrators a sense that the whole thing is just hype and hysteria. In other words, irrational beliefs about Y2K act as conceptually "weakened strains," immunizing some people against the idea that there is any problem to fix at all. To the panic-stricken, these occasional "Y2K-denyers" look like captains of the Titanic--and "proof" that a catastrophe really will strike. This strengthens conviction and the urge to warn others, keeping the millennium contagion of doomsday memes as tenacious as it is infectious.

The Y2K apocalypse memes also thrive on already prevalent religious doomsaying. Endemic beliefs that "the end is near" make it easier to think that deadly sin of digital sloth will get the End started. Fundamentalists who see the fading plausibility of an End Times coming from the Soviet "evil empire" can turn their attention to the technocrats. So the belief in a technological debacle spreads vigorously in many religious circles, which have produced some of the loudest Y2K doomsayers. This includes conservative Christian activist Gary North, who widely proclaims the Y2K apocalypse in computer terms that persuade even the non-religious. Meanwhile, the secular doomsday meme renders its hosts more susceptible to religious evangelism. Many evangelicals point to the millennium bug as a "sign" that they and the book of Revelation were right all along. Religious hell memes help the evangelism work, since they imply infinite suffering for mistakenly "rejecting Christ" but little penalty for mistakenly converting. In any case, even the most atheistic doomsaying has roots in religion. After all, a religious thought contagion got us counting the years since the birth of Jesus in the first place.

When the year 2000 arrives, most evangelicals who thought the Y2K bug would play a role in the End Times will revert to the more date-neutral Adventism they held before the software story broke. We should, however, expect some extreme cults to have serious problems with a world that refuses to end. We should also expect a few groups to believe not only that the End Times are upon us, but that they have a divinely ordained role in causing it. This could mean a cluster of strange events such as the Heavens Gate tragedy and the Tokyo attack by the doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo. Some of these will happen after 2000, owing to revised estimates of the birth date of Jesus and the legacy of starting a millennium on 1 AD rather than 0 AD.

The rest of society will also have many people hearing of "the coming anarchy." Unfortunately, some will act accordingly, despite an increased police presence. Being infected with a belief that "the end is near" can make the criminal element more active, since apocalypse implies no penalty for getting caught. A few people may even try to foment chaos, for the simple reason that they have prepared so well for it and do not want their efforts and emotional investment wasted. With extremists like Gary North viewing Y2K as deliverance from an evil social order, some followers may even try to hasten the apocalypse through sabotage. Talk of "the end" can also confuse and upset children. It may steal a sense of the future from them, perhaps diminishing their incentives to prepare for adulthood.

To prevent such troubles we should counter the spread of destructive apocalypse memes long before December 31, 1999. This means explaining the viral nature of such memes to those yet unaffected, to immunize them from communicable panic.

Bringing a sense of perspective to people who already believe in millennial

-- (Ladylogic@.......), February 18, 2000

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