Owls and Roosters: Y2K and Millennium's End

Richard Landes

Summer and Fall of 1998

Me: So what do you think of Y2K?

Cabdriver: I think it's a good thing.

Me: You mean it won't be so bad?

Cabbie: No, it'll probably be real bad.

But everything needs its ups and downs.

Computers haven't had their down yet.

They could use is. We could use it

Israel, summer, 1997.

Y2K: The State of the Culture

Our first reaction was passive: when we first heard the crowing of the roosters, calling us to awaken in time to ward off approaching disaster, we told ourselves that it was not a problem. We scoffed incredulously. How could a country with such can-do ingenuity like the US not handle the challenge of Y2K? (If by now, mid-1998, you don't know what Y2K is, you are informationally challenged.) We followed the owls who told us that the night was still long, that we could safely go back to sleep. The main lines of the argument are clear: those IT (Information Technology) roosters were a bunch of Chicken Littles crying "Wolf!" and make a big buck at the same time. Management would handle this one. In a world where the global market seemed to shout: "I am invincible!", the non-IT intellectual elite could easily reassure itself. Pure Adam Smith: the demand for a solution will raise the price until the right minds tackle the problem.

"But," the roosters objected, "this is a deadline. What if the invisible hand is too slow on the draw?"

"No," we shook our heads, "they'll handle it. It's not a (or, our) problem."

There is plenty of room here for the owls and the roosters of millennial time to stake out their positions. The roosters, the apocalyptic prophets of imminent transformation -- catastrophe, utopia, both -- crow about the dawning day, calling all to awaken for the great battle, to prepare for judgment. The owls, the conservative elite committed to social stability, hoot for silence, warning in hushed tones that the night is still long, the foxes about, the master asleep. Only danger can come from the rooster's crow, in the case of Y2K, the triggering of self-destructive panic. The owls, then, would have us believe that the roosters are all Chicken Littles. The roosters, in turn, would have us believe that the owls are all ostriches with their heads in the sand. Where Y2K is concerned, we find this apocalyptic dichotomy at the core of the analysis, at the core of the rhetoric.

Although we might not have known it, our initial owlish reaction - and by us, I mean that of the lay public - only recapitulated that of the managerial class - all those CEOs and government officials who, starting a decade ago, received memos warning of the potential dangers. They, like us, chose inaction, passive savings to preemptive expenses. Understandable. But... at what cost?

To believe some, fatal. To believe others, a bump in the road, maybe a busted tail pipe. But that's the rub: whom do we believe? Since the future is fact- free, even though someone out there, like some Cassandran monkey at the typewriter, has already outlined what will, in fact, occur in 2000... we just can't know who that prognosticator is, or separate out her comments from the plethora of predictions that will inundate us in the 15 months to come. Y2K presents us not only with things we know we don't know, but too many things we don't know we don't know. "Computers crash all the time," owls reassure us, "at least this time we can anticipate them." "Yes," reply the roosters, "but an undetermined (and undeterminable) quantity will happen at once. If every crash is a grasshopper, then Y2K is a plague of locusts."

And when we move from the technical to the cultural -- political inertia, competitive corporate culture, social unrest -- the unknowables multiply at a quickening rate. To be "millennially compliant" as the current lingo goes, may be a booby prize if one's clients and suppliers are not. This problem affects not just each individual corporation, but our massive interdependence puts us all in the same boat. Can the corporate world overcome the culture of competition and mutual mistrust that, under normal circumstances, has proved the cutting edge of survival?

On June 2, 1998, with just 18 months to go, the Center for Strategic and International Studies held an alarming session on Y2K, broadcast on CSPAN. Despite the august assembly of high-profile experts, the tone decidedly reflected the roosters. The metaphors were flying, some darkly humorous (trying to solve the problem now by increasing manpower is like trying to have a child in one month by impregnating nine women), others striking, like Edward Yardeni's extended one of the modern economy as the Titanic. The Titanic did not go down because the iceberg tore into its metal side. Rather it went down because the badly-made rivets had crystals in them and the iceberg tore off sheets of metal from the side of the invincible ship, right along the dotted line. The rivets of our modern economic system, this global market which, right now, sails along so powerfully, so exhilaratingly, are our computers. And they apparently have an Achilles heel at which a deadly arrow is aimed. We who find this age so interesting, exciting, challenging, who thrill to the quickening speed with which we can surf the net, contact people of like mind, and play ever-more dazzling and challenging games, are, then, like Kate Winslet, leaning into the wind created by our own miraculous technological prowess, not realizing that in our collective arrogance, we are steaming full ahead at an iceberg we refuse to look at. "No wonder people go back to see Titanic so often," notes one of the most astute millennial mavens on the Talk2000 email list, Charles Cameron, "it is a metaphor for our current condition."

The same day as the CSIS panel (June **, 1998), CBN (Christian Broadcast Network) weighed in on the problem: a professionally packaged, decidedly alarming presentation by their financial and technology editor, Drew Parkhill, a thoughtful believer who had been researching the issue for several months. He speaks well, and outlines both a practical approach to the problem -- stock supplies, download records, plan for contingencies; and, above all, a spiritual one -- accept Jesus Christ as your redeemer.

Despite the terrible news -- at best a serious recession, strong possibility of a major depression with widespread shortages worldwide -- the show's host, Pat Robertson beams delightedly. Why is this man smiling? Then, with no more than an allusion, he deftly pointed out the folly of Europe's effort to create the Euro before 2000. His audience, of course, could savor the allusion: since the Common Market and the Euro are the work of the "Beast from the Sea" described in Revelation, Y2K offers those who inhabit this eschatological universe the pleasure of seeing technology itself bite back at the Antichrist. Still more to the point: the coming Y2K-induced tribulation will create crises at every level of society. These are times that will test people's souls. The hour for the ministers to speak approaches.

The contrast between religious and secular could not be more instructive. The general initial reaction of secular folk (i.e. those not of the religious clergy nor the technical priesthood) tends towards the owl: they dismiss Y2K's doomsday predictions as so much silly prophecy-mongering. If there's anything that the last two thousand years of our history has taught us, we thought, it's how ridiculous the apocalyptic date-setters have been. Having been fed the owl's cautionary tale from earliest childhood, we were not going to be dupes of Chicken Little. And there is something of the anti-superstitious about our response: COMPUTER DISASTER 2000! - it sounds like a National Enquirer headline. As one Y2K maven, Jesse Feiler, put it, "If this were to happen on April 27, 1999, or October 19, 2001, I think people would have paid more attention, sooner." As a result of this "anti-supersitious bias," however, the secular lay aristocracy -- the managerial and political class and the intellectuals -- may have kept their heads in the sands too long: from owl to ostrich?

As so often with millennial phenomena in which a clergy (group distinguished by special knowledge) calls for a cognitive and behavioral conversion within a deadline, Y2K provokes a dual discourse: those who (believe that they) "get it" and those who (believe they can) ignore it. A familiar owlish dynamic of greeting roosters with silence comes into play: since the owls dominate dis- course during "normal time", they handle the disturbing intimations of roosters' prophecies by not deigning to respond -- like handling obnoxious younger siblings, the best thing is to ignore them. This can lead to curious, if typical, lapses in the conversation.

At the end of the CSIS panel, for example, one questioner raised the problem of the Euro -- itself a possibility only conceivable with computers. Wouldn't introducing it before 2000 make finding the solution to Y2K difficult and jeopardize the new currency in its infancy? "What do you say," Peter de Jaeger responded, "to people who are standing at the brink of a precipice and insist on admiring the view?" Later that month, a prominent professor at MIT tells the 25th reunion attendees to buy Euros and sell dollars. No mention of Y2K. To this day, most intelligent, informed Europeans have not asked themselves if there is any relationship between Y2K and the Euro, and if they have, they have accepted the reassurances of the elites.

This tale, I think, reflects poorly on the owl's discourse. I can understand being an owl on the issue, but not to mention it? That seems more ostrich-like. Of course a true owl will tell you: it's not even worth mentioning. As with an obnoxious younger brother: it's best just to ignore the noise. Worse, mention it and you create the possibility of panic. Some things are best left unsaid.

The problem is that the issue has two elements that make it intractable to such a discourse of silence: the stakes are high and the intellectual elite is split.

The Stakes: if we blow this one -- and according to some we already have -- we are in, some say, for a world-wide depression. And no sooner do we run over the awful details of a wave of worldwide poverty -- horror! even us -- than, along comes an institute, the Center for Millennial Studies, to point out that the last time this happened, in the 30s, a world-wide wave of omnicidal millennialism swept the globe from Europe (Germany, Soviet Union) to the Far East (Japan, China), devouring hundreds of millions in its ravenous search for power. Yes, the stakes are high.

The Split: the intellectual elite is divided along lines, which are only beginning to come into view. Whatever lines eventually appear -- and things are beginning to move rapidly -- the original and vital axis remains a split roughly along the lines of CEOs (who hold the purse strings) and Information Technology People (who have, on average, a 15 point higher IQ). That's a recipe for miscommunication in a relationship whose dysfunctional nature under "normal conditions" Scott Adams has already chronicled in every techie's favorite strip, Dilbert. It's also a warrant for widespread "free interpretation" among the rest of the population.

This is a version of the Emperor's new clothes: are we going to listen to the chamberlain and his court faction, or the kid in the street? The problem is who's who? Whose phony clothes are being peddled? The IT underwear of millennial compliance, with its purportedly huge price tag and low visibility? Or the current CEO wardrobe of full speed ahead with the familiar and highly gratifying sources of flashy new clothes. Euro? or Y2K? You pays your money, you takes your choice.

When we turn from the purely "secular" lay world to religious "non- specialists", we find many more roosters. Precisely what repels the seculars draws them in enthusiastically. At the approach of 2000, doomsday prophets thrive on anything that helps them alarm people, gets them to radically change their lives and awaken to the demands of the Lord. Y2K is manna from heaven for them, literally the Deus ex machina. For prognosticators like Gary North, whose long-standing tradition of post-millennial Christian prophecy makes him especially eager to see Y2K as a disaster for both secular culture and his pre-millennial Christian rivals, it is a natural step from sounding the Y2K alarm to survivalism: from rooster to Chicken Little? Although information is not readily available, there are strong possibilities that the way that the apocalyptic voice of Christianity at the advent of 2000 will "reach" the mainstream of our culture is via Y2K "prophecy."

The problem is, of course, whom can we believe in all this? Layfolk must turn to a discourse that almost naturally defeats them: unless we learn the detailed workings of this computoid creature, we must leave its care to the technicians, the wizards of this astounding, and wondrously new -- short? age. We seem to be dealing with a situation in which people are coming from the boiler room of our cybernetic titanic with really bad news, and the captains of our ship seem to feel there is no need to slow down a bit. "Buy Euros!"

That's the problem for me with the Y2K problem. I'm not a technician; but I am an historian, and the roosters' scenario is too believable for me to follow the owls' lead and dismiss it out of hand. What makes me nervous about owls on this one, is that, like liberals before evil, they have difficulty-imagining catastrophe, difficulty even admitting how self-destructive we human beings can be. They show little aptitude for a category like "things we don't know" and genuine aversion for one like "things we don't know we don't know." In a sense, this is the positivists' curse. Having spent so much time looking under the lamppost for a key that was in the bushes, they have become attached to the regularities of the cobblestones and uncomfortable around the less predictable dimensions of natural life. But like an apocalyptic prophecy, warnings about Y2K carry power because they are about something we can't know till it happens. The future is fact free. No one can do anything but guess. So we have to guess well.

Or not at all. If the chamberlain has reassured the emperor that his current tailors are all he needs, that his current wardrobe is exquisite, who are we to question? Who wants to look foolish? What if, in fact, the IT people are phony tailors? Every case of the new clothes involves a judgment. Every such situation is set up by our fear of looking stupid, of being taken. The problem is, when are we being taken by the roosters? And when by the owls? And in our current case, with a precision more exquisite than any medieval chronographic rooster, we find our collective judgment set for 2000.

So let me take on the role of fool. I'll be the boy in the crowd who says, "Daddy, are we sure Y2K is not a serious a problem?" I may not be a computer expert -- indeed, the technical details, like financial forms, rapidly make my eyes glaze over. But I am good at running unusual scenarios through their dynamics, at detecting what kind of rhetorical stance my sources adopt, at sensing who is paying attention to anomalies and who is ignoring them. Up to the reader to decide whether I focus on important anomalies or insignificant ones.

Ask yourself now: on a timequake scale of 0-10, where 0 is just a scratch and 10 is a world-wide recession and collective seizures more severe than the 1930s, what range do you think the Y2K "bug" might bring on? Now ask yourself why you have dismissed 10 as a possibility. Is it because it can't happen over such a stupid thing? Or that it can't happen?

Think of it. This is an irony to die for. One of the great public secrets of modern life -- we all procrastinate, and many of us, self-destructively -- is at the core of our Achilles heel, right here at the point of the millennium. Will we be brought down by a self-inflicted wound that, had we handled it at the start, would have been a scratch, but which, unattended, became a deadly infection? Will our self-destruction come not with a nuclear explosion, but an informational implosion? And how will the larger society react to the collapse of our new and so efficient forms of social organization? How right was Foucault when he argued that the underside of Weber's Protestant ethic was a psychologically devastating form of social control imposed by our forms of organizing knowledge? Anyone care to think about how much envy, resentment, and frustrated rage the wave of modernity -- e.g. in its current form of the globalizing market -- has created among those churning in its toxic wake? How will these folk respond to even a momentary lapse in the information network sustained by computers?

Those of us with tenure and jobs in the intellectual elite tend not to spend too much time on this subject. But millennial timequakes, of which Y2K may be one, tend to release what James C. Scott calls the "hidden transcripts" of culture, some of which are visionary, some of which psychotic, some both. They burst out in Germany in 1933-38 and the world has never been the same; they appeared again, in a different form in the 1960s, peaking in a global wave in 1968/9. Both times they caught most of the intellectual elite completely by surprise. Need we be so surprised again?

Let us return to the interesting fact -- one of the few about which we can be certain in this uncertain problem of Y2K — that the problem was set by procrastinators a generation ago. These were people with good short-term reasons to defer a long-ranbge problem onto another group of people; and once the precedent was started, it governed subsequent decisions. In synch with the narcissistic millennial spirit of the 60s, information technicians programmed for today. How could they know someone more methodical wouldn't come along and start from scratch? They were, after all, a pioneering generation. As Linus said to Lucy in a cartoon that ran just as the computer age was launching in the early 60s, when she criticized him for only shining the front of his shoes: "I only care about the impression I make when I come in." As one female programmer put it, a lot of this problem is the collective product of geeks who never made their beds. They were doing the same with their programming. If the product worked, no one went over it to tell them to clean up their mess, to avoid shortcuts with long-term problems.

And so, during the 70s and the 80s, wave upon wave of dazzling new software broke upon our increasingly computer-animated world, transforming the way we played, worked, and administered modern culture. Dazzling new experiences awaited whoever tuned in: hyperspeed handling of data, fantastic games, and delightful shopping, superabundant information. Then, at the turn of the 1990s, one of the five most wondrous inventions of a most wondrous millennium of invention, the world-wide-web, took off. It offered direct connections to people all over the world. With the architectural possibilities, web pages and conversational lines permitted an entirely new kind of community to appear and flourish. Like the "city of letters" created in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by printing, people who had never met became each others' most significant other in cyberspace, and often not as who they were, but as a newly invented self, an avatar. Gurus of the web, brilliant imaginative people, carried on a tradition of mutational thinking that most people thought had died with the 60s. Whole dimensions of that millennial wave, now broken, continued to churn and roll in the newly created world of computers, the most millennial of mediums at the end of this millennium.

And all the while, no one listened to the odd IT who wandered out of the boiler room with the bad news. As a result, over the decades of the 70s and 80s, the wise IT owls, considering the increasingly massive computer dependency of the current global community, morphed into roosters and began to crow in earnest. Perhaps the most famous of these roosters was Peter de Jaeger, an information technician who sounded the trumpet shrilly and with little success in the early 1990s. Still plenty of time.

What he and his fellow prophets confronted, however, was a communications crisis: how to break the bad news. The ITs found themselves in a difficult position: take a typical case at a typical mid-size bank, asking for about $50 million to solve the problem. Often enough, the person chosen to handle the problem was a middle-level executive with a mild personality. And yet he (most often he) nonetheless had to crow like a rooster to pry such sums from the executive managers and convince his co-workers that they should cooperate in a terribly time-consuming and expensive process. Given the "quarterly-bottom-line" mentality that prevailed in these years, they had to crow loudly. And yet, in speaking to the outside world, they had to soothe with owl's hoots. Rumor had it that companies were adopting policies restricting discussion of when and how they first learned about the problem. In the mid-90s, if you called a company and asked for the millennial compliance team, you got someone who, in legally guarded but rhetorically reassuring terms, told you "we're on that." Procrastination had engendered denial.

Damage estimates tripled: legal costs would run twice the actual work. Businesses at this point began to respond, the taps opened. We will not know until it's all over just who did what, when, and in many cases we won't know that. As in the case of the emperor's new clothes, we'd be crazy to take the morning-after account from the courtiers.

By this point, late 1997 early 1998, most people had heard of the problem, but didn't take it very seriously. The laity's reaction was, by and large, calm. Taking cues from owls at the top, most people took a free-rider attitude: someone else would take care of it. In our sloth of computer inebriation, we told the myth of Adam Smith's invisible hand as a quick draw that would shoot down the millennium bug. Myths are powerful: they orient us in the universe, in time; they engender both action... and inaction.

How do things look now? Only impressions are possible. Take a piece of early-1998s Y2kana: companies were spending less money than they thought they would. This scans differently in the bifurcating world-views of the endtime: for the owls, this is evidence that the roosters were Chicken-Littles and that the problem is being solved far more easily than previously thought. Here is evidence that the IT false-prophets had not managed to fool the CEO owls into spending so much money. The tailors had failed to dupe the emperor.

For roosters, it's a terrifying lull, like the calm waters around an iceberg or the tidal withdrawal before the tsunami. To the roosters, those with a sense of the enormity and deathly dull complexity of the problem, the infinite numbers of ways in which a misplaced comma can throw a program off, for them, the limited flows of funds meant that the money was not finding the right people; and the right people weren't find the money. Adam Smith was fumbling with the keys at the gate, or the strap on his holster. To the rooster, the owls look a lot like ostriches. As one IT specialist put it in mid-1998, America will fall out of a four-story building and break its legs, England out of 6 and maybe survive, the rest, out of 8-10 stories, and only the cats will survive. Of course this is a metaphor. But is it just a metaphor?

Partly it's a question of reading the "signs of the times." The June 1998 issue of Enterprise Systems Journal takes Y2K as its special focus: the contents are alarming to anyone who thinks the problem is in the owl range. Perhaps more revealing are the ads, aimed not at the layman but the managers of companies dependent -- directly or indirectly -- on mainframes. "Time is running out" (p.71) tells us little: it could be an accurate reading; it could be a snake-oil salesman trying to panic his mark. But "Stop Panicking, Start Solving" (p.49) and "You've waited long enough" (p.99) suggest that the customer base comes from a population of procrastinators just waking up. A graph on p.94, tracing the rise in cost per line of code of fixing the problem, shows how punishing procrastination really is here: from $1.10 in 1996 to $4.10 in 1999 and $6.70 in 2000. Projections to be sure, with no documentation provided. For that matter, the owl might argue, the whole issue could be a scam to scare potential customers into the nets of the advertisers. As happens in apocalyptic time, a conspiracist reading of events tempts everyone, even the owls.

How bad? On a scale from Ostrich (0) to Chicken Little (10)? Whatever the eventual answer -- itself also a function of how we now, collectively and individually read the evidence and respond -- we cannot know until the emperor parades. But if we err in following the owls, ridicule may be the least of our worries. And as soon as we open up the possibility that the bug may be serious, we open up a whole vista of disturbing scenarios.

If the modern economy can be likened to a high-flying plane, will a significant and sudden drop in speed, even if not in itself deadly, stall the engines? Worse yet, what will public reaction do to the problem? What about the growing wave of survivalism (yet another link between the technical and worlds of American culture). If the delivery dates on diesel-fueled electrical generators multiplied tenfold in the month after Y2K apocalyptic prophet and survivalist Gary North was on the news demonstrating his, does that mean we should all panic? How much stockpiling is going on? On the wings of such universal concerns, how many converts can the Patriot militia get with its 4Gs -- God, Gold, Guns, and Groceries? Do we respond individually? Or collectively? And if so, where do we start? What is the meaning of collective?

Here, in this unknown future now hurtling towards us with a Doppler crescendo, is the apocalyptic vortex; here the rooster's crow can shake the very foundations of what we have come, only recently, to depend on so radically, our technology of communications. Here the metaphor of falling out of buildings — itself an unsettling evocation of the suicides of the Great Crash so nicely alluded to at the end of the movie Titanic — provokes a far more radical reading of this problem. And in this reading, far from some foolish anomaly best dismissed pre facto, Y2K has much to say about Western culture and the predicament into which it has brought the entire globe at the end of its own second millennium.

What to do when some, like the President of North American Energy Resource Council, dismiss the possibility of electrical grids failing en masse, while others, armed with reports, like Richard Cowley, speak as if it is, by now, a foregone conclusion? The rise of Y2K survivalism is the tale of 1998; and it is hard to read an article like Patrick O'Driscoll in USA Today (July 1) or Kevin Paulson's in Wired (August) about it, and not feel an anxious undertoad (as Garp put it), a sense of being left out. As with the emperor's new clothes: no one wants to look foolish; Judgment Day becomes the "revelation" (in Greek, Apocalypse) of the wise and the foolish. In the aftermath of 2000, we will know who spent too much, who too little, who called it right.

The problem is, we can't wait till then. In this case, as in every case, we just can't know whom to believe and have to trust our own instincts. Thus, the irony to die for: Y2K is the most precise and remorseless "revelatory" date in the history of mankind. Whereas most calculators stuck to years, sometimes days, maybe even a dawn, Y2K has chosen to go off in the middle of the night, and a fractal nanosecond when all the digits change. How close to Paul’s "twinkling of an eye!" In the past, at least, when Doomsday did not come (say in 1000 or 1260), one could always argue that God, through the mediation of the Virgin Mary, had given mankind a reprieve. However modernity — and its secular millennium — seems to have inexorably set the time of its own Doom, its own Judgment.The sabbatical millennium: earliest apocalyptic time-bombs set for millennium's end

This is not the first time in the history of civilization that such a policy of culture-wide procrastination been followed. Indeed Y2K takes its place as only the most unusually technological of a half-dozen or more millennial "time bombs" that have punctuated the last 1500 years of Western culture. In fact, the German historian Arno Borst has argued that our computer culture comes from directly from the computus culture that first arose in the earliest centuries of the Church. And one of the main concerns of this computus culture concerned millennial calculations that occupied the Church fathers and their descendants, the monks of Western Europe, for the whole first millennium of Christian history. It turns out that the tradition of procrastinating on a problem, and creating a deadline of millennium's end, now served so well by Y2K techies, dates back to the first century of the Christian movement.

But in order to understand the origins of our millennia-long, compulsive, chronological procrastination, we must first get some background on the phenomenon of millennialism.Millennium means 1000 years (greek: chilia), and the adjective millennial has to connotations. 1) the simply chronological notion of a period of 1000 years, it has come, recently to get used in reference to the passage from one completed thousand-year period to the next according to a culture's dating system, e.g., approaching the millennial year 2000; and 2) the visionary notion that the world stands on the brink of collective salvation here in this world. This latter meaning first gave the term import in our culture, especially from early Christians who anticipated the advent of [a 1000-year-lomg] messianic kingdom in which peace and fellowship and abundance would transform society. The approach of the current millennial year has tended to confuse the two terms in popular parlance; whereas sophisticated and educated observers go out of their way to dissociate them. And yet historically, they cannot be legitimately rent asunder. Indeed, were the year 2000 CE to go by without major public manifestations of millennial enthusiasm (and violence), it will have been the first millennial year on record in the world of the Abrahamic religions, not to have provoked such phenomena.Let us start with the earliest clear articulation of the millennial vision, composed by the schools of Hebrew prophets of the axial age (sixth century BCE): And it shall come to pass at the end of days

That the mountain of the Lord's house

Shall be established as the top of the mountains, And it shall be exalted above the hills; And peoples shall flow onto it.

And many nations shall go and say:

Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

And to the house of the God of Jacob;

And he will teach us His ways,

And we will walk in His paths;

For out of Zion shall go forth the law,

And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge between many peoples,

And shall arbitrate between many nations;

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares

And the spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

Neither shall they study war any more."

But they shall sit, every man

Under his vine and under his fig tree; And none shall make them afraid... Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-3.

Now, as lofty and noble as those sentiments may seem to us — this is, after all, denominational politics aside, the goal of the UN and any other global organization — they were, at their time of first articulation, terribly subversive of the privileges of the most powerful class of people active then, the aristocracy. Here we have a manual laborer’s dream — a world where the tools of aristocratic dominance (their violent hold on the fruits of labor) are transformed into tools of agriculture, where violence has yielded to justice, where we enjoy the fruits of honest labor in joy. It also means the end of the aristocracy, the end of empire. In a sense, one can understand Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5; cf Luke 3) as an apocalyptic commentary on this passage, as a depiction of what we must do to inaugurate or enter this New Age. Similarly can one see these hopes flicker behind the vague and longing images that Karl Marx committed to writing about his communist paradise, and his moral indignation as the frustration of one bitterly disappointed. And that is the lesson we must all learn from history: as we all — Christian and non-Christian alike — know too well, this kingdom has not come on earth. For a modern Christian, with almost two millennia of historical perspective, that comes as sad but acceptable news. But did it mean the same for someone in the first generations of the first millennium, just converting to this new, exultant, and incredibly demanding new way of life? The evidence suggests that the higher the temperature of Christian religiosity, the more intense the apocalyptic and millennial elements. The movement started out this way, and it survived largely because it was repeatedly charged by new surges of messianic enthusiasm. In almost every generation for which we have documentation, we have extraordinary evidence in Christianity of the power of apocalyptic fears and hopes to sweep large numbers of people in their thrall. Even after the conversion of the Roman imperial world to Christianity (and vice-versa), earthquakes and signs in the heavens could send whole populations, from the meanest vagabond to the emperor, in mass collective acts of egregious penitence. The problem, of course, was: how to handle the delay? Now we are in a position to situate the origins of Western millennial procrastination and to interrogate ourselves on how, in the past, generations have handled the advent of millennial deadlines. As early as the first century of the Church, ecclesiastical owls, faced with roosters crowing "Now!" and "Next Year!", set the earliest millennial time-clocks by promising the return of Jesus and the onset of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the year 6000 Annus Mundi (AM), from the creation of the world. Since, the reasoning went, God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh, and, according to the Psalm "1000 years are like a day", after 6000 years of earthly travail, the sabbatical millennium will dawn. When, around 200 C.E., theologians started to use a chronology that had Jesus born in 5500 AM (I), and therefore dated the coming millennium three hundred years into the future, they could forestall the roosters of their own day. But they had set a time-bomb. Of course they would not have to deal with it; on the contrary, they left the clean up to the ecclesiastics of the last generations of the fifth century CE, i.e. the 60th century AM. Y6K was not their problem.How did the people who had to deal with problem do? Some farsighted, and ferociously anti-millennial theologians, men like Eusebius, Jerome and Augustine, developed the technique of windowing. Over a century before the millennial date actually arrived, they proposed a "correction" in the chronology: the world was, in fact, over 300 years younger, and Jesus born in 5199 (AD 1 = 5199 AM II). They thereby postponed millennium's end by another 3 centuries — 6000 AM II = 801 CE. If we follow this particular game of chronological procrastination we find an interesting string of "millennial time-bombs" that go off at the end of a series of three 1000-year markers variously calculated. Moreover, whether by coincidence or not, these dates represent some of the key "turning points" in early western culture: from the final splintering of the Western Empire in the reigns of Theodoric and Clovis in 6000 AM I (500), to its temporary revival with Charlemagne's coronation of 6000 AM II (801), to the wide array of apocalyptic and millennial phenomena around 1000. Here around 1000 and again in 1033 (1000 Annus Passionis), we find a great variety, intensity, and originality in those generations’ expressions of the millennial impulse, from the Peace of God movement to the mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem, from the imperial megalomania of Otto III and his French, peasant-born, Pope Gerbert/Sylvester II to the conversion of the European hinterlands (Scandanavians, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Croats), from the glories of monastic and canonical reform to the defiance of popular, apostolic heresies. After 1000, the calculation of chronological millennia seem to have abated, although it is not clear whether this was because the next millennial date was too far off for the roosters (500 years!), or because the owls genuinely succeeded in putting an end to matters. One might argue that, by now, such eschatological fevers had run their course, that there are only so many times the rooster can cry wolf, as it were. But the proliferation of apocalyptic dates which we can document (1033, 1065, 1076, 1096, 1111, 1186, 1200, 1212, 1233, 1250, 1260, 1300, 1313, 1350, 1360, etc.) may mean that roosters rapidly found more gratifyingly imminent calculations. Modern historians, ill apprised of this tradition in the Middle Ages, tend not to see it in their own period either. And yet, as Hillel Schwartz has shown, even the century’s turn, like some great full moon, regularly affects and shakes up the social imagination of Western culture. 1500 and 1800, for example, are both millennial dates (7000 AM I, 7000 AM II), and the behavior of the magi of the "Renaissance" and that of the protestants of the "Reformation," as well as the democratic and scientific visionaries of the Revolutions, all display the kinds of imaginative social enthusiasm that, from a medieval perspective, are characteristic "millennial" traits. William Blake may be the single most original millennial thinker in Western civilization, and he "turns" towards his mature vision — The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — in the final years of the seventh Christian millennium AM II and in response to the revolutionary fervor of the French Revolution. Was this coincidence? Should we dismiss the question out of hand?

It is, admittedly, difficult to track. First of all, the hooting of owls dominates in the surviving body of texts, partly because people are more cautious in what they publish than what they say, partly because, retrospectively, time proved them "right", thus guaranteeing that their texts would be preserved more often than those of the mistaken roosters. Thus, the advent of a millennial date is most often greeted by a textual silence: Charlemagne may have been crowned on the "first day" of the year 6000 AM II, but the tale was told by people who avoided that fact, and only one scribe even alluded to a "fact" that no informed contemporary (themselves included) did not know. Most modern historians, deeply dependent our clerical texts, assume that if something barely appears in their texts, it could not have held much significance to the minds of contemporaries. And most historians are so specialized in their fields that although they may note the "setting" of a millennial clock (say in 200 or 700), they seem to have ceased to follow the tale to the point when that next millennial date showed up some 300-500 years later.

Thus, the most prominent German scholar of computus, Bruno Krusch, noted the continuing fascination of the Frankish computists for the coming year 6000 as late as 727 (5926 AM II). But if he did mention it to his colleagues who were furiously debating the motivations and significance of Charlemagne’s fateful decision to become emperor on that day, they show no sign of it. Nor did he point out the remarkable coincidence anywhere in his published work. To him and his fellow positivists "scientists" this could not have significance. As a prominent scholar put it, in response to a 1994 typescript exploring the evidence for the significance of 6000 in the Carolingian imagination, "I cannot believe that Charlemagne had anything whatsoever to do with eschatological things." This is a faith statement, not a consideration of the evidence. No wonder medievalists working on the period of the 9th and 10th centuries, have difficulty keeping their eye on the hottest millennial ball, bouncing from AM 6000 to AD 1000 in only 200 years.And yet, the continuous shifting of chronologies that marks the first Christian millennium, from AM I to AM II to Anno Domini (from the birth) and Anno Passionis (from the Crucifixion), can only be understood as the product of computations from a procrastinating elite of owls. These men, who conveniently leave a record of their deeds, repeatedly sought to avoid confronting a millennial date favorable to roosters, by consistently favoring a calculation that had millennium's end some 300-100 years off. Thus they consistently dropped whatever calculation they were using as it approached its term, as it passed from their hands into the triumphal hands of the long-frustrated roosters. The owls preferred, on the contrary, to pass its advent over in silence, replicating the procrastination of earlier generations. (This is, incidentally, exactly the solution to Y2K known as "windowing," whereby the problem can be postponed by about 30 years at a time — in the social time of computers, that’s about 300 years.)

Such a reading seems a bit drastic, attributing a major role in the shaping of our cultural history to the elite’s need for and fear of millennial enthusiasm among the populace. Surely there must be another explanation. (I’m still waiting.) Perhaps it is mere coincidence. But in order for an elite to engage in elaborate and costly corrections of error, it must have some pretty powerful reasons to so act. (That is certainly the case with Y2K.) One needs, I think, some strong motives to engage in so distasteful a "correction." And, of course, none of this would have happened, were it not for cosmic inaction of the greatest Procrastinator, God Himself, who inexplicably fails to show up as advertised. But then again, it was clerics — roosters and owls — who had circulated the bulletins.

Given this pattern of chronological procrastination, clearly apparent in the first Christian millennium, it seems ironic to find that a number of characteristically millennial traits now proliferate at the advent of our current millennium, 2000 CE: roosters and owls wrangling over the significance of a coming millennial time bomb set by the comptutists of an earlier age; owls' efforts to smother the issue in silence; rising chorus of roosters crowing from below -- religious, political, cultural, scientific. Mutatis mutandis, much has changed; but underneath, as the French would say, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Millennial Transformations over the Last Millennium (1000-2000)

What marks out Western culture on this issue (Latin Christendom, Protestantism, modern Enlightenment) is that from the eleventh century onwards, demotic circles would no longer accept this procrastination sitting down. On the contrary, every time the divine promises were delayed (be it at a chronological millennium or some other time of expectation), Westerners — commoners and elites — substituted human agency in bringing about the promised messianic era. We thus find a shift from premillennialism (Jesus comes before the millennium and brings it about) to post-millennialism (Jesus comes after the 1000 years in which we humans bring it about), from the kingdom of Heaven to the utopian world. And each time a millennial date came -- 1033, 1500, 1800 -- it was marked by some extraordinarily widespread and aggressive forms of the kinds of popular, radical, and imaginative enthusiasms that, date or not, so often characterize millennial behavior. The more agency humanity assumed in bringing about the millennium, the more secular it got, and the less the prophets of the new age focused on a "date" at which "God" would supposedly "act". It may turn out that the less visible the date (1800, 1900), the more proactive the millennial forces.

Now, after a thousand years of such millennial hubris, of failed hopes in social perfection leaving behind brilliant but flawed social and technological experiments, we find ourselves with "Modernity" — a man-made millennium, the sum (some might say the cesspool) of all the unintended consequences of failed millennial movements, full of power, lacking in balance and maturity, forced to redeem itself with an ever more dazzling supply of the new, the exciting, a feverish commitment to materializing techno-promises come hell or high water. And so, at this end of the millennium, one of the most popular radio talk-show hosts in America, Art Bell, has developed the notion of the Quickening as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. By pointing to the fact that in almost every aspect of our existence, we experience a quickening of the pace, an intensification of both the demands and the productivity of our life-styles, he depicts us as caught in the pull of an apocalyptic vortex.

Despite its early and long history of association with chronology, messianic millennialism is actually independent of it. Indeed it can often come at times where no chronologies (seem to) play a role. 1968/69, as the peak year in a wave of enthusiasm for a dawning "New Age" whose impact momentarily swept up large, active crowds in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Poland, New York, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Woodstock, etc. (not to mention the riots in Detroit, Newark, Watts [LA]), does not seem to have had any chronological spur, although the vague astrological calculations (now cropping up again) that announced the 60s slogan the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius" certainly served as a temporal orientation for many.

The millennial "anarchy" of the 60s, however, represents only one pole of the belief that in the future, this world will undergo radical transformation. In the prophetic passage cited above, as a commoner's dream: it anticipates the end of the aristocracy whose members, join the laboring people, turning their weapons of dominion into tools of agriculture; the establishment of real justice among all peoples; and the ability of people to enjoy the fruits of their own labor undisturbed. This millennial vision tends to see all forms of dominion as signs of human failure, and in apocalyptic times (when the transformation is believed imminent), millennialists view such authoritarian tendencies as incarnations of ultimate evil: Gog and Magog, the Beast from the Sea, the Antichrist, the Dajal... For them the eschatological enemy is empire, evil by nature; for them millennial order comes from a widespread transformation of souls who enter a new social paradigm - a vision of holy anarchy. The political implications of monotheism for this group are democratic, their motto reads: "No king but God." No one is so exalted that he should rule as a king over his fellows.

The opposite pole of the millennial vision anticipates the coming of an all-encompassing empire that will unite mankind in an era of peace, order and uniformity. Here salvation comes in the form of a ruler who, uniting the people, puts an end to civil war and disorder and imposes on mankind a just rule. Here the enemy is chaos, the anarchy that wells up from below, the violence that threatens the delicate certainty of social order; and salvation comes with holy empire. Here the monotheist motto reads: "One God, One Ruler in this image, here on earth." These polar mottoes of the Judeo-Christian political tradition find especially acute expression under apocalyptic conditions.

The genius of Christianity lies in its tireless ability to shift between apocalyptic and normal time, to experience tsunamis of apocalyptic fervor welling up out of the timequakes that various natural and cultural disasters bring, and to emerge from the failure of apocalyptic hope still stronger than before. The tragedy of Christianity has been the historical emergence of a deep hostility between the apocalyptic roosters who tend towards the demotic, anarchic visions of the millennium, and the conservative owls, who, if they must, conceive of the millennium as an authoritarian, imperial conquest of a rowdy and chaotic mass of reluctant humanity. This apocalyptic polarization of what might be termed the fundamental political question of order and freedom — has the unfortunate tendency within Christianity to have each side viewing the other not as its alter-ego, but as the incarnation of evil, the Antichrist. This tragic self-hatred is inscribed in the discourse of the Church, in its projection onto Jews (the priests killed the prophets), and in its inquisitorial obsession with heresy. And it is not an accident that the branch of Christianity in which the millennial stream remained most vigorous -- the Latin West -- was also the place where attacks on both Jews and heretics reached inquisitorial heights.

But to focus only here, on the toxic side-effects of Christian millennialism, misses the still more remarkable tale — after all hatred is an old story. For when we look at the record, we find an extraordinarily spirited social dynamic. For good or ill, apocalyptic millennialists are early adaptors of and imaginative innovators in technology, especially communications technology. From the early Christians and their codex, to the Protestants and their uses of printing, to the Iroquois Handsome Lake and his grammar book and alphabet, to the Communists and Nazis with their totalitarian experiments, to the latest uses of the web, millennialists have constantly expanded the cultural repertory of means and modes of communication. Aerial pamphlet bombing was first used by the Anabaptists at Munster in 1533, in an effort to convince their besieging armies to defect. (Hope really does spring eternal.)

Similar millennial dynamics work in the production of time-keeping technology: in the anticipation of a dated end (like the end of the millennium), we find ever-more precise apocalyptic countdowns done in an atmosphere of computistical fever. In the aftermath, we find the technology of normative time-keeping extending with linear precision into an indefinite future. The only "scientific" field to "make progress" in that infamous "Dark Age" of 500-1000 in the West, was time measurement which solved the problem that all the science of Late Antiquity could not, that of the Easter Cycle. It is no accident, in any case, that the branch of world culture in which the millennial strain has been most active -- the West -- has also produced the most astounding and seemingly never-ending stream of innovation in communications and time-keeping technology.

What, all told, can one say about the millennial tradition in the West? From one perspective, it is a marginal phenomenon of occasionally limited influence; from another, it has been one of the most creative and destructive and historically invisible forces in our history. Over the last millennium we have experienced many waves of millennial enthusiasm — both peaceful and violent — on scales that range from local cults and movements to the collective excitement of whole regions, nations, cultures, even in the most recent centuries, to the global "community". With each failure of God to appear and deliver on his promises, western millennialists have redesigned, one might even say re-engineered their eschatological scenarios, muting divine intervention, accentuating human agency, launching vast preliminary millennial projects which turned into, mutatis mutandis (i.e. God not showing up as scheduled), the vigorously pro-active secular millennialisms of the modern age -- radical democracy, communism, Nazism, Zionism, and so on. And within the widely divergent fates of these modern and anti-modern movements, we find the dual and antagonistic strains of the demotic and the authoritarian, the egalitarian and the hierarchical, the libertarian and the totalitarian. And both strains avail themselves tirelessly, energetically, of all kinds of technology.

We now come to the end of this wondrous millennium of invention and social engineering, to a world in which the modern promise of a man-made messianic kingdom of peace, plenty, brotherhood, and true freedom, has shown the ghastly flaws of its imperfect origins, the nightmarish totalitarian scars of a Frankenstein's millennium. Unlike at the advent of the year 1000, where one had to believe in an omnipotent God of history to imagine world's end, we live in an age where our own greed and stupidity can destroy not merely our civilization, but life on the planet. In 2000 one need not believe in God to become apocalyptic; we have good scientific reasons to speculate on a cockroach’s millennium.

And of all the elements that contribute to our current millennial dilemma, that penetrate even the skeptical defenses of secular pragmatists, none does so more variously and originally than the computer and its astounding creation cyberspace. Here, in this quintessentially artificial realm, this supreme product of communications technology, the imagination becomes most plastic, most adept at shaping a virtual reality. Here the apocalyptic impulses — from roosters crowing, to messianic pretensions, to millennial imaginings — can take virtual flesh thanks to the wondrous powers of programming. Here flock the intellectuals, any who can overcome their technophobia, to marvel at the capacities and potentials of so magnificent a medium of detailed, artfully designed self expression and communication. New communities arise, new personalities are born -- how many multiple personalities have found a warm welcome in this world of anonymous intimacy? -- new discussions begun. Like the world of printed books in the sixteenth century, which bypassed the "medieval" universities and struck out on forbidden paths of conjecture and procedure, paths which led to our modern thought, so does cyberspace promise radical new departures in the conversation that keeps our now-global culture going, growing, changing.

Who knows what new configurations between the academic elite and the interested commoner the web will bring? Who knows what new investigations of the universe the conversation now engaging around the world will take? Will all the potential for totalitarian surveillance inherent in this technology come to fruition at the hands of a small group of authoritarians? Or are we on the verge of a new age of demotic wisdom and holy anarchy. If the former seems unduly alarmist, the latter seems unduly idealist. Surely, we will just muddle through as we always have: both kinds of roosters — Cassandras and Messiahs — will be wrong. Perhaps 2000 will be just like any other year. Perhaps, argue the owls, all this is a tempest in a tea-pot; things change slowly, gently.

If the global society we have created in the twentieth century were reasonably stable, that might be both an accurate and valuable reading. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that our mazeway (as Anthony Wallace called our collective way of approaching and dealing with social and physical reality) is facing increasingly urgent questions, with remorselessly higher stakes: How do we control our weapons of mass and sudden destruction? How do we control our "slow" technological destruction of the biosphere? Can we change our pollutionary life-styles? How do we handle the explosion of new knowledge and technology? How do we deal with people who are radically different from ourselves, especially when they live next door? How do we live with our families? How do we solve the problems of sovereignty and nationality and equity in a world that oscillates between global village and global ghetto? How do we define crime and punish it so that we create healthy communities? How do we communicate the benefits of modernity to those without it, without the terrible social and environmental toxicities that it has, traditionally, carried?

Futurists (the approach of a millennial cusp encourages such activity, even among secularists), prolifically recommend new approaches, new attitudes, new policies. Do we need them? Can't we just muddle through?

 

Which brings us back to Y2K.

The problem, as with so many aspects of millennial dynamics, concerns what we might call cognitive conversions, or paradigm shifts. All millennial thought is marginal under "normal conditions" (i.e., most of the time): too radical, too unrealistic, too wild. Then, under conditions that we still know too little about, at certain times, these millennial notions begin to move from periphery to center. At first greeted by silence, or what one Y2K maven calls the "deadspaces in the tape," marginal beliefs either die or languish for lack of attention. Every once in a while, however, one of these marginal beliefs persists and, slowly at first, but with increasing speed, breaks into the public conversation. Since we can't know in advance which of the thousands of marginal discourses should be taken seriously -- each does, after all, call for significant behavioral modification -- we justifiably treat most as beneath mention. The problem is, how and when do we (are we), as a community of public discourse, (forced to) allow a given issue like Y2k to break through the silence?

In 1947, a small group of people became convinced that UFOs had landed at Roswell. In 1997, at least 10% of the adult population of the USA believes that indeed they did, and that the US Government has been covering it up ever since. In the process, the media have played a key role in the dissemination of the conspiracist lore on whose wings this belief has arisen and which now permeates our culture. The very things (government conspiracy movies, XFiles) that one person (modern, "rational," individualistic, secular) scoffs at, another ("superstitious," emotional, in search of collective identity) approaches in awe.

How is this millennial? UFOlogy has the classic dynamics of paradigmatic incompatibility between the world that takes this stuff seriously and those who consider it ludicrous conversation; it appeals to the lonely, paranoid sense of impotence among the conspiracists as they imagine a foe of limitless evil. In fact, UFOs represent in ideal apocalyptic screen for (post)modern times: for those inhabitants of a modern, technological universe, the same people who would not dare express so naive a belief as one in a God who cares about people and intervenes in history, UFOs represent the ideal millennial screen: for those anticipating the Antichrist, we have everything from Body Snatchers to Independence Day and XFiles, for those looking for salvation, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, and everything in between, from the earliest UFO movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still to the various plots of Star Trek. And finally, as with the promises of Jesus' second Parousia, spaceships are "about to land"; the material, public manifestation of all this is imminent, the scoffers about to be put to shame. Once the UFOs have publically landed, the world will never be the same. Indeed, according to Phil Lamy, a millennial scholar working on UFOs, this may be the next world religion. It cuts across cultures, religions, continents; it is animated by a chosen people who believe that these ETs have travelled millions of light years just to examine them; who bear a message of world peace and understanding vouchsafed by these ETs. These are post-modern cargo cults, waiting for the redemptive shipment to land.

We need to ask ourselves, we the bearers of the mantle of western civilization, what means this fascination with spaceships and their passengers? How did this seemingly ludicrous and marginal phenomenon come to capture so many in our culture so profoundly that even those filled with scorn have to sit up and take notice? What implications do these beliefs -- e.g. the widespread expectation that government officials systematically lie and cover-up -- hold for future patterns of public interpretation and action? Does the fact that the vast majority of Americans think that their president looked them straight in the national fisheye and lied about Monica Lewinsky, have anything to do with what Americans believe about Y2K from the same man? What will Americans believe about Y2K as the date approaches? And what role will public opinion play in how the problem plays out?

In the final analysis, unless a series of important and probing tests of soft-ware yield convincing results (in this sense, the recent test on Wall Street, was, according to the roosters, just throat clearing), we are faced with the following situation until after January 1, 2000 (i.e. while these questions are of crucial import for our personal and social planning): we cannot know what will happen. The range, as far as I can make out, is between 3 and 10 on the Richter scale of timequakes. And human miscalculations, from panicked runs on banks to spending huge amounts of IT time launching the Euro, threaten to intensify whatever effect the computers trigger.

No single issue more exquisitely expresses the irony of post-modern culture: all the elements of an apocalyptic prophecy without a deity, the man-made Apocalypse at the end of the man-made millennium. For some, like the technology writer Fred Moody, this is "too apt a symbol to be real, too ingenious and appropriate an end to twentieth century civilization to be credible. The notion that the world will end because of a careless bit of programming of computing machines - machines, moreover, that have become the twentieth century's false gods - is something that belongs in the realm of fiction or art rather than reality or science." This is the owl's approach: such symbolism is too perfect, whereas life is inherently messy. By contrast, then, we have might have a good definition of a "Romantic" rooster — someone for whom the amazing aptness of the problem for expressing our cultural dilemmas, is precisely what makes Y2K so likely. For these exegetes, karma does come home to roost. For them, the universe is not random, and the best approach is not simply to muddle through. Since the field of Y2K will be filled with roosters throughout the coming year (and who knows what, beyond), perhaps we need some responsible voices, some constructive alternatives to the voices of denominational zealotry and conspiracism.

Ultimately, as with religious prophecy, one's basic personality plays a key role in how we receive and respond to news about Y2K. Like moths to a flame, we are drawn to the rhetoric, to the vision that suits us. I admit that the roosters make more sense to me on this one, partly because I have grave concerns about the directions and consequences of our technological juggernaut, and this strikes me as too poetic and arousing a problem to pass up. I suspect that the same people who are owls on global warming - "we don't have enough proof yet" - are also owls on Y2K. We have so few "hard facts" to work with, so much dissemblence in the self-representations of the corporations and government agencies whose action or inaction make such a difference here, that ultimately we must make a judgment call from intuition or instinct.

The perfect post-modern problem: objectivity does not exist, and we all need to examine our own psychodynamics. We must try and understand the "facts" and, at the same time, note our predispositions as we react to them. Like Heisenberg's world, the very phenomenon (like all millennial phenomena — above all a mental one) changes as we approach it. If we think of Doom as annihilation, we can always reassure ourselves that, surely, this doesn't apply to so mundane a problem as Y2K, and get on with the business of, say, the Euro. Alternatively, we can think of doom in its original, moral sense — a judgment. Here we can take the symbolism seriously, and think about what it tells us about ourselves. Here, how we handle it becomes a test of just how mature we are, and how resilient are the communities that modernity spawns. And if we phrase it that way, then, in fact, secular modernity can respond to the moral challenge. Since this is a problem set by certain human failings, perhaps we can also find a human solution.

One of the great debates of modernity is the price it exacts in social terms. Over time, modernity shreds most forms of community commitment. Its heroes are the protean figures who achieve their heights by challenging society, by walking to a different drummer, by embracing the "heresy of self-love" as Paul Zweig called it. For those who thrive under this regime, modernity offers privacy, self-fashioning individuality, excitement, unheard-of success; they view community as a suffocating closeness. For those who do not like being thrown headlong and irreversibly into this anxious world of emotional solitude and potential failure, who miss the community's collective bonds or the hierarchy's privileges, modernity means immense pain and suffering, often physical, always cognitive. The historical record indicates fairly clearly, that the community fission from which modernity derives so much of its creative energies, leaves a radioactive bitterness and anxiety in its wake. This is what the founding father of millennial studies, Norman Cohn, traced in his career: from the violent fanatics in Pursuit of the Millennium, to Europe's Inner Demons (the witch crazes) to Warrant for Genocide (the "Jewish conspiracy" and the Holocaust).

The implications of Cohn’s work on millennial phenomena have grave implications for Y2K. If, as we know, the silence of governmental authorities breeds conspiracy theory, and, as we also know, both the culture and the means of communication favor conspiracy theory, then the way the government has handled Y2K so far seems like a recipe for conspiracy. In the absence of guidance and a frank admission of just how uncertain this issue is, the government has left the field open to the worst and most virulent forms of rooster crowing. Anyone who tends to view the news in alarmist terms has no way to ground his or her anxiety to concrete and socially productive activity, not, at least, with any guidance from the government. This is not good policy.

Y2K is a supremely modern problem. It threatens precisely those who are committed to modernity and the wondrously productive technological community of anonymous dependence it has created. Those who live "off the grid" have nothing to fear; on the contrary, if Y2K is indeed a disaster, they get to say "I told you so" (at least as long as civil society holds out). Those of us who, willingly or unwillingly, participate in the marvels of plenty and entertainment that abound in this age, however, have reason to feel unnerved. We are part of this massive, anonymous, multicultural, modern "community" — never a model of stability — now threatened by a failure of our amazing new and vastly improved life-line: computers. Thus, Y2K offers either a high anxiety attack about our ontological security, or an ideal opportunity to answer some centuries-old questions — to address both the anxieties of the individual and the bitterness of a community that feels itself betrayed. Whether Y2K turns out to justify these anxieties, they are, nonetheless real. Thus, if Y2K does not force us, it invites us to identify ourselves as communities and work together to prepare for a range of eventualities. Perhaps, then, what we face is not so much a judgment, but rather an opportunity. The proper, modern, secular, redemptive approach to Y2K is to see it not as apocalyptic prophecy, but a test.

If the roosters are right, then we need to stop being passive and adopt a mini-max strategy: minimize maximum loss. We need to think about what we do if, for example, the electricity grids go down; we need to think about how we will survive for a while without computers. Even if there is only a 10% chance of widespread power failures, then we need to consider our collective options. Every expert I've asked has insisted that there will be no silver bullet, no last-minute program that, Independence Day-like, we upload at the end of the eleventh hour to save ourselves. These experts, of course, thought only of the technical side. Perhaps the silver bullet will come from the social side. The silence of the elites in potentially catastrophic matters, comes from their mistrust of the masses. Here is a chance for commoners to prove their maturity and their abilities — precisely where the elites may have failed.

If, then, as the roosters argue, we are the Titanic sailing at high speeds in iceberg-infested waters without binoculars, then every community in America needs to undertake a major life boat drill. We need to plan, at a local level, emergency preparations in which each community assesses its dependence on computers, the likelihood of various problems, and how they should respond were these services interrupted. Had the passengers aboard the Titanic done a life-boat drill the day before their unsinkable ship hit the iceberg, it might have inconvenienced, even embarrassed some of the passengers, but many more would have been saved. Not every technological tragedy need produce the selfish panic and unnecessary loss of life that the Titanic did. But we do better if we see them coming, and lay out some ground rules while we are able to think clearly, rather than in the adrenalin rush of the moment of truth. We can prepare for tests. Here is an ideal challenge to the multi-cultural community -- we are all, whatever our race, creed, orientations, class -- in the same boat.

The national life-boat drill, despite the costs, is a win-win strategy. If we do this and the roosters are right, then we will go through the coming tribulation with our collective energies awakened, with a clear sense of how to proceed. If the roosters are wrong, then we will "only" have

Not bad for a false alarm.

And so we come full cycle. This curious Achilles heel to modern computer technology actually offers us an invaluable challenge: how do communities that include a staggering range of beliefs and life-styles cohere? What social paradigms need to prevail so that technology does not continue to waste both human and natural resources as liberally as it has in the last millennium? There may be no better framework in which to think about these questions than the common-sense circles of American local communities all over the nation. Perhaps even our corporations, as they attack the technical issues, might learn some badly needed lessons in cooperation and communication. But let us not wax utopian lest others, with more coercive paradigms, do so as well.

Y2K ignored is, potentially, a gasoline bomb set to go off in a dry forest; Y2K anticipated offers a revival of a vital but ailing element of our world -- its community bonds. Does it make sense to ignore or welcome such a challenge?

As Umberto Eco almost said, "Each generation gets the millennium it deserves." None more so than our exceptionally well-endowed and exceptionally challenged one.

 

Return to Richard Landes' Home Page

Return to CMS Articles Page

Return to CMS Home Page