Y2K Hangover and the New Millennium

By Richard Landes

The contrast seems startling. Last year, when 1999 rolled over to 2000, everyone noticed; this year seems so banal, we barely notice it’s New Year’s. . And yet, as anyone who knows about chronology has been saying for decades, it is the passage from December 31, 2000 to January 1, 2001 that takes us from the second to the third millennium according to the Common Era calendar, that of modern, global culture. Doesn’t that mean something?

Apparently not. As Stephen Jay Gould hastened to point out in Questioning the Millennium, 1000 has no "real" standing: it corresponds to nothing in nature; it is purely an invention of the human imagination, a cultural construct. The remark invited a reductivist reading: only the superstitious would attribute any "real" meaning to so arbitrary a date. And so we get for the year 2000, a replay of what "scientific" historians claim about the year 1000 — a year like any other. We seem determined to dismiss any significance to this chronological changeover.

This wasn’t true last year. At the approach of 2000 — the last New Year’s celebration of the 2nd millennium — we were whiplashed by a combination of media hype and Y2K anxiety which inaugurated the "stay-at-home" millennial new year. Declining the hype and ceding to the anxiety, people stayed put in large numbers, watching others perform on TV around the world. And the essentially uneventful passage of the Y2K computre menace confirmed it all: the paradigmatic millennial hype, an apocalyptic scenario created out of science fiction fantasy, bilking billions of dollars from gullible corporations. Nothing argued more powerfully for the foolishness of giving the millennial transition meaning, than the lessons of an apocalyptic scam of Y2K.

So now we approach this year in appropriately chastened and prosaic terms. Another year, another new year. No big deal. We’ll watch last year’s celebrations on TV reruns.

Let’s try a different perspective, one not quite so reductive, one that considers 2000 a "meaning hook" inviting us to hang as much significance as we’d like, like a gift stocking waiting to be filled. And if we chose to pass it by and leave it empty, are we then expressing the maturity of skeptics, or an silly anti-superstition which paralyzes our imaginations? After all, cultural meaning is a human invention. Why pass up this creative opportunity?

First of all, let’s note that very few generations live through a millennial cusp. Most cultures don’t count time serially. Some don’t even count time chronologically, others do, but like the Japanes, count by cyclical rhythms like the year of the ruler’s reign. And among those that do, few actually survive long enough to reach a 1000-year marker, still fewer mark more than one millennium by the same calendar. From this perspective, then, the fact that we go from the second to the third millennium according to a chronology in common use since the 8th century, seems quite remarkable.

Second, such a marker seems like a natural moment to pick up our heads from the quarterly or semestral grindstone and get some perspective. If we can do it at the end of a decade, or a fifty-year period (Jubilee), or a century, why not, a fortiori, a millennium. This seems like an ideal moment to ask big questions about the characteristics of the last millennium (an invitation to historians to bridge the gap of 1500 that separates medieval from modern). An opportune moment to think about what we need to do have the best of our cultural traits survive and thrive, and the worst get pruned back in the next millennium. Does it make sense, for example, to characterize the last millennium as the discovery of the "self", and the task of the next, the discovery of the "other"? Have you another formulation? Given that we live at a moment when social, economic, and technological change occur at speeds and with a scope never before seen in the history of mankind, at a time when cultures, religions and lifestyles are rubbing shoulders as never before, such "big thinking" would seem appropriate.

And yet, we have done everything but think big. It is as if there were a total lunar eclise at midnight and northern lights visible in Florida, and we stayed at home, channel-surfing reruns.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Election 2000, E2K. Colossal, unprecedented surplus, great changes at home and abroad, opportunities and dangers on a global scale, the Middle East catching fire under our very gaze… and neither candidate suggested any use for the surplus beyond the most banal issues and formulas, neither ventured thoughts on what big developments may be coming around the next curve. Even the candidate who had written a politically courageous book on some global issues, failed to point out the advantages of choosing someone capable of thinking big, when it was clearly his greatest virtue as a potential leader. We heard scarcely a word on the problems of cyberspace, security, privacy, global treaties on pollution emissions, new religious movements and the way that states around the world handle them, scarcely a word on the rest of the world. It was as if big-thinking were the third rail of American politics. Historians may retrospectively view E2K as exceptional precisely for how small-minded its discourse, how vapid the packaging produced by the mavens of public relations.

So we got two dissatisfying candidates among whom we could not choose. In an election with so many issues unspoken, we ended up feeling it was a toin coss. And instead, we got the most narrow and troubled results in the history of the nation. Millennial irony? If one takes the original meaning of apocalyptic (that is, revelatory), then this election, with its unhappy revelations about our inability to process matters in non-partisan fashion, from the polling booths to the acrimoniously split Supreme Court, is surely apocalyptic. And how we handle these revelations will further tell us much about the temper of our nation.

Take another example. Y2K was the great spoiler of last year’s celebrations. It managed to make uncomfortable even those who didn’t believe it was serious. It passed with barely a ripple, giving a bad name not only to the apocalyptic hysterics (Gary North), but even the technological whistle blowers (Peter de Jager). The fact that even countries that had scarcely prepared — Italy, China, Russia — survived without much hardship, suggests that the US overprepared. The problem is, we don’t really know, nor have we much tried to find out how much, or why. The surprising part about post-Y2K letdown, is how little analysts — even the ones who said it was a scam — seem interested in a retrospective analysis.

This is strange. In the 1990s we had an alarm sounded by a wide range of technical experts about a global threat that would come from the unanticipated consequences to our dependence on technology. It called for huge expenses and triggered a world-wide grass-roots managerial project that cost over 200 billion dollars. And we don’t want to know in detail what happened? Who called it right, who wrong, and why? Given that this is surely only the first of such techno-apocalyptic prophecies, which call for huge amounts of time, money and global coordination to avert, shouldn’t we learn as much as we can about the last one? Apparently not. Is this seasoned skepticism, or immature anti-superstition?

Take the next Y2K style problem, of still greater stakes — global warming. The alarmists say that even if we act now, we are in for significant median temperature rises, and a vast array of unpleasant consequences — anticipated and unanticipated — that they would bring. The skeptics say that nothing has been proved, and we have as much as a decade to decide. Sounds like Y2K in the late 1990s. So what do we know about how people assessed the threat of Y2K, what were the strong and weak points of our thinking about Y2K? How do we think about a technologically altered future and they ways that technology does and doesn’t bite back? How do we, as a culture, as an emerging global community, discuss matters of such import? If we walk away from Y2K thinking that Adam Smith’s invisible hand was indeed a quick enough draw, and that the global alarmists were just profit-seeking exaggerators, then have we learned enough? And when there really is a wolf attacking the flock, will we be able to tell the difference?

We stand at the dawn of the first global millennium, something that, pace Ecclesiastes, is new under the sun. Never in history have cultures been in such complex contact around the globe, never has the culture of the aristocratic cosmopolitans had so deep an impact on the lives of commoners everywhere, and with growing importance, vice-versa. This is all unknown terrain. How do we think about it, and talk about it? How many Americans are familiar with the stakes, know how to "read" the various proponents and opponents of the wide range of issues that face us? Has the spinning that accompanied this last election prepared us to speak honestly and directly to issues of common, of global concern?

A further, "final" irony: millennialism — the religious vision of a world of fellowship, justice and abundance, not the chronological milestone — gave us our first global vision. "Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor study war again." So the idea of a global community of civil societies at peace with their own people and with each other, dates back about 2700 years, to ancient Israel’s prophets.

As with all millennial prophecies, however, violence and peace live in explosive intimacy. The future is a projection screen upon which we project our hopes and fears, and the global era that takes shape on our rapidly shifting horizon, takes many different forms, a kaleidoscope of Rorschachs. At the extremes of our culture, and constantly exerting their gravitational pull on our growing culture wars, we find the dualistic split between the global totalitarianism of the New World Order and the human freedom and peace of international democracy and human rights. If these images strike you as outlandish options, then your challenge is not to bury your head in the sands of banal time and ignore them, but to give more grounded but valuable meaning to this momentous milestone, this monument in time that is Y2K.

People have not always been so reluctant to give a millennial transition transformative status. Charlemagne tried (unsuccessfully) to relaunch the Roman empire in Y6K (6000 from the creation, 800 CE); and, according to another chronology, Dürer celebrated Y7K (1500 CE) with a startling self portrait that embodied the hubris of the modern individual. And around Y1K, in the area now called France, Europeans first discovered how to create covenanted societies, a process whose ripest fruit so far has given us the modern nation state. We who face a new century full of challenges to the old models of national sovereignty (most obviously in the Middle East), could well afford to learn from mass movement known as the Peace of God (ca. 985-1040), from both its strengths -- its ability to bring people together in peace, to foster social creativity and new experiments in sovereignty (the urban and rural communes) -- and its weaknesses -- its tendency, in frustration, to turn holy peace into holy wars (the crusades).

Then why are we denizens of Y2K, at least in our collective conversations, so paltry? Of course, not all of us insist on thinking so banally. Modern culture is nothing if not rich in conversations, and people think creatively, millennially every day. A coalition of groups in DC, for example, got Congress to declare January 1 a global holiday, the occasion for people the world over to break bread with others, to share not with those you are comfortable with, but those you don’t know well, don’t understand, have not yet listened to. The millennium meal as a global ritual for the new millennium. Not a bad idea — possible, valuable if it works, visionary in its scope and insight. Maybe some Arab-Israeli group that meets on January 1, 2001 will prove the seedbed of that solution that so escapes those still bound to the terms of the last millennium. Too late to try it this year? Imagine whom you would like to share your millennial meal with next year. All things that grow start small. We just need to water the good stuff.

So at this turn of the millennium, think big thoughts. If culture is shaped by what we chose to encourage and to discourage among ourselves, if education plays a key role in shaping a culture, what could we afford to de-emphasize, what to stress as we shape a generation that will give birth to the emerging global culture? How do we learn to listen to our inner drummers and still hear the voices of others? How do we create a form of modernity that offers freedom and stability, abundance and justice? How do we develop our cultural learning curve? How do we deal more realistically, more honestly, more constructively with each other?

These are all questions we need to address in the coming years and generations. If you haven’t started, don’t worry. It’s 2001: just the beginning of the millennium.