Y2K and Millennialism

The Approach of the CMS

Richard Landes

February 1999


Y2K represents one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the history of recorded civilization:

The fallout from this event — political, economic, social and religious, is incalculable. In one sense, Y2K could provoke the most powerful and global (i.e. intensive and extensive) millennial moment in the recorded history of humanity. Even if it passes without too much damage, it will profoundly mark our culture, if only in the field of risk-management. How people respond — roosters and owls — and how they interact will define the nature of this moment in global history.

So far the two liveliest community responses to Y2K at the level of citizen-commoner (as opposed to the technical and managerial levels), have been from the evangelical-fundamentalist Christian and New Age communities. Each in its own way, has a millennial response to a perceived apocalyptic threat:

From the perspective of the millennial historian, this is a fascinating configuration. We have a particularly powerful, global example of a millennial wave that promises to follow the classic historical pattern: one person’s messiah is another’s Antichrist. One could merely watch the fantastic dance of death play itself out yet one more time, observing the stages whereby early enthusiasm and optimism give rise to powerful public expressions of solidarity, then turn, as events begins to frustrate each group's expectations, to mutual scapegoating and self-destructive hostility.

The problem that we scholars face is that we inhabit this world that we study, and suffer from its failures, no matter how wondrously complex and profound the dynamics we get to "observe" are. Thus, it seems to us at the Center for Millennial Studies - a research institution set up to study and record the patterns of millennial behavior, past and present - that we cannot study from a (fundamentally misconceived) dichotomy of subject and object, or observer and actor. We must become involved in helping this particular millennial movement into paths of mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. To that end, the Center for Millennial Studies aspires to a role as conceptual advisor and catalyst for mainstreaming the insights of our field in order to avoid the worst and bring out the best of millennial dynamics.

The now widely known Y2K computer crisis plays into certain acute "apocalyptic" belief systems — the looming catastrophe, the urgent need for action, the disastrous results of ignoring prophecy, the millennial possibilities of transforming society that come with this "challenge." Curiously (but typically for millennial times), this is language shared by both premillennial Christians and New Agers, two groups who, as noted above, view each other with considerable hostility and contempt. The symbols of the two attitudes towards looming prophecy — the apocalyptic rooster crowing about an imminent dawn, and the anti-apocalyptic owl hooting for silence in the middle of the night — describe, with equal accuracy, the secular world of Y2K as they do in the religious world of the coming rapture. Their apocalyptic rhetoric (the owls call the roosters chicken littles, the roosters call the owls ostriches) dominates and hampers much of the discussion. Interestingly enough, the entirely technical Y2K remediation effort shows clear signs of being a millennial movement in its own right. It has proven itself to be subject to many of the same hopes and fears, denials, preachings and fervent conversion experiences, and accelerations of intensity at the approaching date, normally associated with movements around charismatic religious figures.

Y2K, however powerfully it may work as a secular apocalyptic prophecy, works all the more so as a religious one. About a third of the US population believes that we now live in the apocalyptic time, when great, even catastrophic changes will transform our world. This population includes most prominently those who believe in the "end times" or "Day of the Lord" of Biblical prophecy. Extreme variants of this belief have played their part in the tragedies of Jonestown, Waco, Aum Shinrikyu, Hamas, Heaven's Gate and Oklahoma City. Quieter and more popular variants can be found in mainstream and para-churches, among New Age believers, UFO watchers and conspiracy buffs, among pessimists contemplating our environmental problems, and among various Jewish messianic groups.

This belief is not new. It has found powerful voice in all variants of monotheism, from the 6th century BCE for the Jews, from their inceptions for the Christians and Muslims. Modernity has not only not slowed the phenomenon, it has, in many cases intensified it, and produced secular variants. The Millerites of 1843 astounded "modern" Americans with their irrationally self-destructive behavior; the hysterical apocalyptic conspiracism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion moved effortlessly from the religious (Tzarist Russia) to the secular (Nazis and Stalinists and Arab Nationalists) back to the religious (extreme currents of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity); the ‘60s produced a form of millennial anticipation (the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius") that provoked major incidents around the globe in 1968-9.

As first predicted by members of CMS on the Center's web pages as early as late 1996, there is now (February 1999) a flood of books, pamphlets and sermons identifying Y2K as a sign of the end. As we move towards the rollover deadline of January 1st, 2000, "millennial fever," benign and dangerous, is on the increase. Indeed, a number of techno-"roosters" have now begun to tone down their rhetoric for fear that social panic may prove more dangerous than the problem itself (Peter de Jaeger). Both the rhetoric and the behaviors of those affected by Y2K contain strong millennial strands, which the CMS is ideally suited both to study and to explicate. Accordingly, the approach of the CMS to Y2K has been taken up by a number of journalists, and has formed the point of departure for the strategic analysis on the impact of Y2K worldwide developed by a group from the Department of Defense. The Center for Millennial Studies has, as a result, been able to form strategic associations with groups such as The US Naval War College, The Arlington Institute, Global Action Plan, and Project Joseph; all groups at the forefront of efforts to minimize the potential negative social impact of Y2K and its apocalyptic currents.


The greatest problem with Y2K is that it presents such a realm of unknown factors. Their presence means that December 31, 1999 represents a Doomsday (Day of Judgment) as powerful as any emperor’s-new-clothes scenario. Who shall, on that day, prove a fool, and who wise, who a knave and who a dupe, and how much will it cost? This great unknown provides precisely the social arena in which roosters thrive. When the future is fact free, and there is any chance it might be devastating, the person who promises the best approach, carries great weight. Such times are times for novelties. These are and will be our days.

Y2K offers a host of opportunities amidst the very disaster: from the rapacious ones offered by torn social structures and bleeding populaces to the innovative ones which anticipate impact and manage it. Y2K represents the most expensive mistake in recorded history, and the largest uncoordinated managerial project in history.

Modern society is particularly well positioned to deal with such a situation from a highly informed point of view. We have both the intellectual traditions of inquiry to generate policies and the means of telecommunications to coordinate them. The procrastination factor, the one that this problem started with, will, above all, determine the extent of the damage. We have only belatedly begun to apply our knowledge to the problem.

Partly this derives from a (necessarily) late-breaking consensus among roosters that we have failed to respond in time, and that major breakdowns are likely, if not certain. So we begin late, but not too late to make an immense difference on the policy level. We need to mobilize our intellectual resources, think ahead of the curve, and generate the range of policy resources we may need.

The Questions:


If one thinks of Y2K as a "timequake" of unknowable proportions that will hit our culture, then one can think about its impact along two axes of a graph. The damage is a function of the intensity of the technical issue (x-axis), and the resilience of the communities that are affected (y-axis). While we are spending over half a trillion dollars (minimally) world-wide, and millions of hours of labor, trying to reduce the intensity of the technical quake, we have so far, spent virtually no money or time preparing for communal, national, and global resilience. Ironically, whereas most of us can do nothing to contribute to the technical struggle, we can all contribute to the social one. Furthermore, while every dollar and hour spent on the technical aspects of Y2K only work towards one goal — reducing the quake’s intensity, every cent and minute that go into community organizing, cultural communication and cooperation, are of dual benefit: if Y2K proves a serious problem, we are prepared; if Y2K proves to be a bump in the road we did not need to slow down for, we are, nonetheless, greatly strengthened as a people and a nation.

Y2K is an ecumenical phenomenon in more than a prophetic sense. It does not care what your creed is, nor what your rituals are; it responds to how you treat your neighbor. As a result, Y2K offers the chance for communities to reverse the kinds of isolation and alienation that telecommuting and telecommunicating have permitted to develop, people preferring their distant friends to their neighbors. It is a chance to reestablish a sense of neighborhood, of face to face interactions that work well. It is the ideal event upon which to find ways out of the culture wars — pragmatic, inclusive, urgent. In the government's period of distraction, America has responded well to the Y2K challenge: communities have self-organized and set up task forces, thinkers have spoken, connected, and set in motion grass-roots projects. Think-tanks and government agencies have been addressing the social, psychological, and political issues on a sophisticated and complex level. The government is arriving late on a scene that could very much use your help. At the moment, there is no one claiming to be sufficiently aware and in control of the social forces at work in Y2K, that they can confidently assure people of their ability to keep these forces within the bounds of civil society. You are probably the only person who could lay claim to such an ability, but only if you address the issue in its magnitude. The social dimensions of Y2K actually offer at least as many opportunities as they do dangers. Trying to silently deal with Y2K at this point merely intensifies the dangers and misses the opportunities.

Proposed Initiatives:

A fully operative Center for Millennial Studies offers a key player in a national and then global campaign focussed on preparing for various "timequakes"; that is, events striking the social infrastructure of a society.

To that end, we offer five significant contributions in the coming campaign.

  1. To anticipate, identify and track the kinds of social movements that such a campaign will set in motion, and to offer an understanding from past cases that will permit the wisest choices of direction and will avoid the excesses that have characterized millennial movements in the past.
  2. To anticipate the points of conflict between various (often millennial) approaches to Y2K, and to prepare the kinds of resources (dialogue groups, facilitators, materials, communications) necessary to avoid violent clashes and mutual destructiveness.
  3. To research — record, analyze, and probe — the process of this Y2K campaign, so that we understand its learning curve for the sake of future movements and campaigns. This includes not only documenting the campaign itself, but also addressing those elements of our current culture that got us into our current predicaments, in particular, the relationship between people, technology, and the social impact of innovation.
  4. To engage various "constituencies" of the population to consider the nature of their activities and the impact they can and do have on the larger society at millennial moments. This we have already begun to do in collaboration with other organizations wherever possible. The following list represents those elements either actively planned or already carried out, and continues below in the suggestions for
  1. To raise the kinds of policies concerning public discussion that, from the millennial point of view, may suggest counter-intuitive approaches.


Proposal to the President: A three-day colloquium on Y2K: technical, economic, social, international dimensions.

At the moment, for example, administrations around the world are caught between wanting to fully reassure their populations about the effects of Y2K, especially where financial markets and banks are concerned, so that the anticipation of Y2K has as little disruptive effect as possible. On the other hand, governments would be remiss were they not to make contingency plans. But this obviously suggests to private citizens that they too should make such contingency plans, thus threatening banks and markets, and driving government officials to downplay and even to conceal contingency plans. The more secretly an administration pursues contingency planning, however, the more it feeds mistrust and strengthens the hand of the conspiracy-mongers. The dilemma comes at a difficult moment: until now, discretion has governed most thinking about this subject; how does one pass from silence to engagement.

Hold a three-day gathering — like the one on economic issues held before Clinton became president — inviting a good sampling of experts and activists in Y2K to come and present their report on a) their perception of the problem; b) their initiatives so far; and c) their sense of what needs to be done. In addition to the most "up-to-date" appraisal from various experts on the technical issues, attention to the social and international dimensions of Y2K will distinguish this gathering from earlier ones. The event will focus not only on the alleged dangers presented by Y2K to our society and to the international community, but also on the opportunities that it provides locally and globally.

Day I: Technical Issues: Software problems, imbedded chips, levels of preparation, implications for the potential breakdown of systems, status of preparations, means to maximize remaining efforts.

Day II: Social Issues: Implications of possible breakdowns for various sectors of economy and society, level of awareness and response among non-experts (grass-roots campaigns), role of religious discourse, relations between various citizen initiatives, and between them and governmental ones, assessing levels of social resilience or brittleness, means to maximize former, minimize latter.

Day III: International Issues: Assessing the preparations globally and the potential impact of foreign failures on other countries; assessment of social and cultural resilience or brittleness and that impact of political responses; explorations of means for coordinating responses to Y2K worldwide.

Such a gathering offers a wide range of possibilities:

The range of insights and exposure to American culture at its best (and, perhaps, its worst) that will emerge from such an assembly of experts and activists, should be fascinating and vital to the formulation of a good policy.


The proposed session is not without risks, obviously.

All of these objections are short-sighted. If the second is true, the material will out in any case, and just create more virulent and aggressive panic when it does. If big business is unhappy, they are going to have to bite the bullet anyway and the longer they wait, the worse it is; let the President decide when. And finally, this may be one way to shift the election from big money buying advertisements to clear thinking producing popular policies.



Proposal for Y2K Brainstorming Series

Bring together various groups, voices, constituencies, and actors, some already active in Y2K preparation, some still inattentive, to focus attention on the coming developments and anticipate as many areas of potential dysfunction and identify and strengthen as many resources for handling them as possible. This may permit us to anticipate and address the potential "breakdowns" in communication that could have dire consequences (conspiracism, scapegoating, antichristing), and to find ways to smooth communication, coordination, and cooperation between the various components of what seems to be a wide-spread grass roots movement. Goal: maximize social resilience, minimize social fragility and volatility. Possible seminars and workshops to include:

  1. Social and Psychological Dynamics of Y2K: potential impact of psychological traits closely associated with Y2K -- anxiety, aggression, depression, denial, procrastination, panic, etc.; therapy and Y2K; social psychology and the resilience of both egos and groups; potential forms of response to Y2K-induced hardship; self-destructive forms of behavior; role of humor in emotional resilience. (Boston University, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Anxiety and Related Disorders and the Naval War College, Newport)
  2. Public Awareness, Educational Campaigns, the Media, and Y2K: assessing and tracking attitudes, pros and cons of public education campaigns, role of the media in general as a source of information, spin, contradiction, role of celebrities in any public campaign (CMS at USC, LA)
  3. Religious Currents and Y2K: Towards an Ecumenical Dialogue: inclusively ecumenical, social, moral eschatology vs. exclusionary, credal, conspiracist, and coercive eschatology; ministry and Y2K; interfaith and Y2K. (SMU, Dallas Texas)
  4. Scapegoating and Conspiracism: Sources and Social Costs: various conspiracy scenarios, secular and religious, high and low culture; ways to address suspicion; dynamics of public silence; potential flashpoints of government intervention and cultural conflict (CSIS, Washington)
  5. Y2K and the Humanities: On the Nature of Communication: Y2K is above all a communications problem: how to tell computers that 99>00, how to tell people that this is a problem that needs their attention. An unusually high degree of denial has marked Y2K from the start; rhetoric has dominated much of the language about Y2K depending on the audience addressed, trying to handle denial (alarmism) and overreaction (dismissiveness); accuracy (details) vs. honesty (assessment) in admitting to Y2K problems and delayed work, presents a immense dilemma in our ability to gauge how serious the problem. How do we now communicate these issues to the public? Story-telling and humor as means of effective honesty.
  6. Managing the Millennium: Aligning Techno-projects in the final months: given Y2K’s irreducible interdependence of systems, how to coordinate and most effectively use the IT expertise developed until now, in a global campaign of Y2K triage; managerial techniques for the first global project; cross cultural collaboration. (BU School of Management or New York)
  7. Law, Equity, and Y2K: How Should the Costs of this Mistake be Distributed?: how the law of torts and damages, as it is now applied, will handle Y2K; potential impact of Y2K legislation on the legal system; role of anticipated liabilities in multiplying misleading information; formulas for increasing honesty in assessment and acknowledgment of Y2K problems; guidelines for an equitable distribution of the costs of this mistake, and for handling disputes over responsibility. (BU Law School)
  8. Lessons of Y2K: How it Happened. How to Avoid Another. Where to go from here. Analysis of how the mistake happened; who responded best, who worst, why; consideration of future global problems and remediation projects and how best to plan and execute them (Arlington Institute).