Power Fantasies

The strange appeal of the Y2K bug


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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