The Emperor’s New Conscience
Y2K as Civil Society Aptitude Test

David Kessler and Richard Landes
The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University

A lot of time, energy, and money has been spent readying the world's computers for the Y2K computer problem – a problem whose seriousness "experts" have characterized as everything from hoax to cataclysm. But amidst all our attention to which computer systems might break down, we have paid little to which values and social institutions might undergo severe stress. We have not much considered the social traits best suited to preparing for and handling the social effects of Y2K, whether those effects come from actual malfunctions, the expectation of malfunctions, or the improper handling of actual problems once they arise.

Consider these traits that best equip us – communities, corporations, or governments – to assess the issue of Y2K and prepare for it, and you will find that they are the same as the values that uphold civil society.

Y2K is thus the perfect opportunity to see how well we embody and uphold those values. Think of it as the global babyboomers’ Civil Society Aptitude Test (CSAT). Our CSAT.

When Y2K first became a major issue in the mid-1990s, analysts scoffed at world-wide remediation costs estimated at $300-600 billion, belittling the increasingly alarmist specialists who tried to mobilize a timely attack. Having now reportedly spent the high end of the estimate, many of the former scoffers assure us that the problem is well in hand, and that the only danger is a panicky public. Indeed, when one considers the kinds of militia survivalists and apocalyptic prophets out there using Y2K to peddle their conspiracy theories and their tribulation scenarios, we have reason to fear a possible stampede. Our leaders’ solution? Encourage people in their desire to believe that Y2K is "not a real problem" and "already solved"; discourage discussion; act as if things were well under control. Good strategy? If Y2K is indeed not a problem, yes.

But if it isn’t? A quake does damage as a function of its intensity and the resilience or fragility of the structures it hits. The impact of Y2K on society will be a function of its technical and psychological shock and the resilience of the social structures these factors hit. If Y2K does turn out to be considerably more troublesome than imagined, then probably the last thing we need is to approach it in uncoordinated ignorance.

This strategy of downplaying the problem seems worryingly undemocratic. It suggests a lack of confidence in the ability of the public to make intelligent, informed choices, need-to-know mushroom management for the new millennium. And, ironically, it is also short-sighted policy. The money spent on technical remediation may or may not turn out to have been necessary, but any money that we spend on strengthening the civil bonds of our society benefits us regardless of the strength of the Y2K "timequake". Should Y2K be a minor event, our communities will be stronger. Should Y2K prove to be more troublesome, the traits of civil society are those that will serve us best. If we, as a global society, can spend half a trillion on technical remediation, how much should we allocate to social resilience? If the "social" money is spent on PR, does that make us resilient?

The challenge of the year 2000 then, is to take it as an opportunity for learning. If we do not discuss openly negative scenarios because we believe people are too gullible and hysterical, we undermine the ideals of public education and participation. If we marginalize all the pessimists as irresponsible, we limit dialogue and leave the field open to the most irresponsible alarmists. The fifteen percent of Americans (over 30,000) who fear serious Y2K damage, represent a target population, vulnerable to survivalists and their hate-filled conspiracy narratives.

For the last 19 centuries at least, religious believers – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have looked to millennium’s end for God's Last Judgment on all humankind. In Y2K we find not the Last Judgment, but nonetheless a judgement at whose crux stands the interdependency of our society. Our future is not only in the hands of our technicians, but also of our fellow citizens, our fears, our hopes. We can make the lessons of Y2K - the year 2000 – lessons of a healthy society, one that thrives on participation and dialogue, one that, with humor and mutual commitment, discerns between myth and reality, and in doing so, creates better social realities. Y2K could be the best conversation piece of the millennium. Why do most people, our politicians in particular, not like to think about it?


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