Y2K: Invitation to a Millennial Meal

The Problem:
Y2K presents us with an unusual problem: It is a problem of international scale, of unknown proportions, with an unknowable cascade effect. It is, ironically, a simple, technical issue with almost limitless implications. It brings to the fore a level of interdependence that few of us, in our competitive world, often think about much less analyze. It is, in short, a difficult issue to wrap one’s mind around. Not surprisingly, then, most people have not bothered to do so. The vast majority of people are free riders, convinced that the problem will be handled by those whose job it is – the CIOs and the CEOs of both public and private entities whose dependence on computers demands that they fix it. In fact, unfortunately, even this managerial community only reluctantly confronted the problem: their initial response to the alarmists of the mid-1990s was skeptical, and they were understandably little eager to spend their share of the half trillion dollar price tag. Such a response merely intensified the alarm of those concerned with Y2K, leading them to publicize some of the more catastrophic scenarios in order to compel the compliance of those responsible. While this apocalyptic rhetoric succeeded in rousing the managers from their lethargy (we are now spending the upper range of the estimates by mid-1990s alarmists, $600,000,000), it also created as a by-product, a vigorously alarmist and genuinely apocalyptic discourse among secular and religious groups like the militias, the survivalists, and the apocalyptic Rapture believers.

Such a bizarre configuration has created a double reaction among the political and corporate leadership in the country. On the one hand both public and private sectors are hard at work solving the technical problem as well as possible. They are making great headway – especially in comparison with both earlier projections and with other countries around the world. But the collateral social damage has been done: American culture, with its vast and active population, its multiple and sophisticated means of communication, its complete freedom of movement and expression, has produced an important and highly vocal group of people who are arguing that Y2K is a disaster in the making. In its most extreme forms, this Y2K anxiety takes full-blown apocalyptic forms – Christian Rapture prophecy and survivalist world-wide conspiracy theories. It is difficult to assess the influence of this current, although one way to gauge it is from the concern that political and financial leaders express about it. Since early 1999, their position has been: the real problem is not the technical one, but the danger of social panic.
Such remarks have served on the one hand to reassure people about the technical, and to justify marginalizing and silencing those alarmists who might create the very problem that their prophecy foretells. But the comment is doubly misleading. First, it assumes that the two are mutually exclusive, as if the presence of exaggerated social fears somehow diminished the presence of technical concerns. Second, it suggests that we can deal with the social anxieties independently of the technical issues. This latter point leads many policy makers to believe that if we can only reassure people successfully, there won’t be any problems. The basic strategy then, is to marginalize those are afraid, to smother any expression of concern with what one Y2K activist calls "happy news."

This approach, which seems to be favored at the moment by our political leaders – give people happy news and hope they sleep through it all (keep your money in the banks and the market, don’t stockpile excessively) – is a win-lose operation which fails precisely in minimizing maximum danger. If Y2K goes by relatively quietly, we win; if it poses serious problems, we are, as a culture, in fragile shape, riddled with currents of mistrust of our leadership (conspiracy theories) and of fear of each other (ethnic, racial, community tensions). In other words, the current policy is a gamble, which, no matter how good the odds, has very large stakes.

A good way to think about Y2K is on the model of a timequake which, like all quakes, does damage according to both its intensity and the nature of the structures it hits. Fragile structures intensify the damage, resilient ones absorb them. Thus, Y2K looms as a CSAT, a Civil Society Aptitude Test. Societies that work on the principles of civility – public trust, accountable leadership, sense of mutual commitment, positive sum thinking about others, initiatives from below, good relationship between elites and commoners – will do well in dealing with Y2K both in the preparation and in the aftermath. Societies still entrenched in the principles of authoritarian cultures – severe split between elites and commoners, widespread corruption and conspiracism, hostility and repressed desire for vengeance – will do poorly in handling Y2K, neither preparing well, nor handling matters well in the aftermath.

The problem with Y2K is that even the most advanced "civil societies" are capable of handling it badly – procrastinating on dealing with it, denying and concealing problems, refusing to consider or plan for negative scenarios. In a sense, all human interaction contains a split between what people think and what they say, between what they pretend to do and what they do; all people – especially those with power – are involved in some level of corruption, exploitation, deception. The real question is not whether this exists, but how much of it, how pervasive, how weighty? How wide a gap exists between what people think and say? Y2K will bring out these "hidden" elements like a litmus test, and the wider the gap, the more fragile the culture.

If Y2K is a CSAT then we need to do two things:

1) prepare for the exam, and 2) grade the exam carefully, keeping track not only of final scores, but how those scores came about – weaknesses and strengths of various communities, cultures, societies. In order to prepare for the exam, we need to increase our social resilience, to reinforce our civic traits – public trust and open conversation, collective and mutual commitments, neighborliness. The time and effort spent on this approach offers us a win-win strategy. If Y2K poses serious problems, we are in the best possible shape to deal with them; if it doesn’t, we have strengthened our sense of community and mutual commitment. This approach suggests a different strategy from the current one. Rather than the win-lose gamble of silence, it suggests we pursue a win-win policy of strengthening social resilience by openly addressing the issue: thus, if Y2K is serious, we are prepared, if it is not, then we have in any case renewed our public commitment and rejuvenated our civic life.

The problem is, how to get people to think about Y2K. For decades to come, sociologists and psychologists will be dealing with why so many people had so much difficulty thinking about Y2K. The obvious explanations run along the lines of avoidance:

This does not mean that people don’t think about the problem, worry about it, even stockpile in anticipation. It just means that there is a significant gap between what people think and what they say. We don’t know how many people are stockpiling, partly because few who do have signs on their lawns stating: "Stockpiling for Y2K." Quite the contrary, they are more likely to stockpile ammunition than inform their neighbors.

There is always some kind of gap between thoughts and words, words and deeds. The question is, how great a gap? In the case of Y2K, the less the gap the more resilient the culture, the greater the gap, the more fragile.

How do we create an open public discussion about Y2K that engages people at a local level (as opposed to talking heads), that gets people to think constructively about the issues rather than either hide from it (ostriches) or freak out (chicken littles)? The most important general principle is to get people to think about Y2K as an opportunity, rather than as a disaster, to think of Y2K as a chance to address a whole range of problems that plague our society – alienation, isolation, lack of neighborliness, racial and ethnic tensions. It is a chance, indeed a rare and precious opportunity to rediscover our commitments to each other and civic life.

Uniting Millennial Celebration and Y2K Planning: Opening the Global Millennium

Until now, millennial celebrations – what to do on New Year’s 2000 – and Y2K have been at odds. People planning large parties (e.g. First Night) have heard about potential Y2K problems with dismay. And rightfully so: many people are canceling plans to travel, to be in large places, and preferring to stay home. If anything, the two strands of millennial observance stand at odds to each other. But this opposition may be more apparent than real, the product of a shallow approach on both sides: on the one hand, the celebrations have been notably superficial, focusing on the biggest, most expensive party; and on the other, the thinking about Y2K has been either flight or denial. And yet, there are important communities, both in the Y2K world and in the millennial celebration world that have explored more profound and creative approaches. If we can bring these two groups together, we may find a way to create a profound and collective celebration that engages, rather than avoids Y2K. This is after all, the first global millennium, and Y2K is a global problem of unprecedented proportions. The theme, then, could be marking January 1, 2000 as the dawn of the first global millennium, and our activities could focus on what kinds of awareness and interaction with our neighbors and peoples all over the world will best contribute to a world of civil society, prosperity and peaceful relations.
Humor: Why do they have female astronauts? So in case they get lost in space, at least someone will ask for directions. The same joke can be used to understand Y2K: the technicians and managers, mostly male, who are dealing with Y2K do not like to admit that they are lost. And yet Y2K, with layer upon layer of unknowns, is the ultimate in disorientation, in not knowing where you are. The bankers reaction to the Polaroid commercial about Y2K makes them the fin-de-millénaire butts of the joke "how many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? – "that’s not funny." If we have no sense of humor, we are in fragile shape.

Humor may offer the ideal "ice-breaker" for Y2K, since it has the ability to bring people together, to address uncomfortable truths in the least unpleasant ways, to criticize people without making them defensive (except, apparently, the bankers). Thus, developing a brand of Y2K humor that gently but firmly lampoons both the chicken littles and the ostriches may provide the way to begin conversations that otherwise might never go beyond people holding their real beliefs close to their chests. (See appendix for full discussion.)

Table Talk: family discussions. We hear much about the collapse of family life, of the loss of dinner-time to TV and rushed schedules, the breakdown of communication between generations. The best place to start a conversation is at home and the best question is one few of us – including me – have asked: how do we want to celebrate the millennium? If we can get people, starting among family and friends, to discuss this in the context of discussing Y2K and the new global culture that we are entering, then we will have the building blocks of a widespread, creative, and dynamic movement. From families we can hope to move to neighborhoods, from neighborhoods to communities, from communities to inter-community relations.


Appendix I:

The Millennium Meal with Others

This would be an genuinely grass roots campaign, that starts in the home and spreads outwards. The idea would be introduced by op-ed pieces in newspapers around the country (and the world?). People could then consult the website for further information and ideas. Eventually the website could serve as a link between various people organizing these meals and gatherings.

Material available:

Essays, information, links, talking points, recipes, suggestions
Audios and videos: talks, humorists, lectures
A TV special on CSPAN of Y2K humor


Bring together the resources of the best social thinkers on Y2K
Create a venue for people to speak their minds so that public discussion is open
Make use of the web for creating a positive community-centered movement
Increase social resilience


$6000 First day meeting (food, invitations, organization, some travel)
$10,000 video
$5000 publicity
$5000 overhead, organization


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