Apocalyptic: a hidden dimension to the Y2K problem

by Charles Cameron

I am writing this article for two groups of people: roughly speaking, the subscribers to the Y2K and T2K mailing lists. The "Y2K" folk are concerned with solving the $300-600 billion computer problem mentioned in, eg: The New York Times and its follow-up piece. The "T2K" folk are concerned with various ways in which "millennial thinking" expresses itself, which range from civic celebrations of the year 2000 on the one hand to "apocalyptic" scenarios of doom -- political, secular and religious -- on the other.

I'd like to draw the attention of both groups to the fact that people who are inclined to think in "apocalyptic" terms will "read" coverage of the computer 2000 problem as another "sign of the times" -- further proof of whatever millennial expectations and anxieties they may harbor.

It is my sense that this effect may well feed back significantly into the political, economic and business arenas.

This essay is also intended for posting at the CMS web site and in the Y2K FAQ. Comments appreciated.

Millennial Expectation: the global picture

Business failures (eg of banks which are less Y2K compliant than competitors, or are rumored to be less compliant) will be widely reported in the months ahead. These reports will be read by people who treat them as business data (make financial and/or operational decisions based on them), some of whom will be panicked by them (will act in unnpredictable and often foolish ways as a result) -- but also by a very large number of people for whom they will figure in some kind of apocalyptic scenario.

Many people now living read the news not only for "information" (ie "rationally") but for "signs" (ie prophetically, for evidence that a divine or natural "plan" is reaching a point of significant change / upheaval): news of Y2K failures will be read as prime examples of such "signs of the times".

A brief scan of the Y2K FAQ fails to reveal any comments regarding the impact of increased news reporting of the problem on the religious mind-set of humankind: and yet this may be in its own way as serious as the overtly "business" aspect.

To put the matter bluntly: widespread reports of Y2K failures will feed a wide range of existing and sometimes paranoid scenarios, as further proofs of the validity of these scenarios.

The Varieties of Millennial Belief

Among the groups with "apocalyptic" scenarios whose intensity of belief is likely to be augmented:

Christians who expect the Second Coming of Christ and/or the Antichrist.
Jews who expect the coming of the Messiah.
Islamic fundamentalists eg the Intifada.
Hindus who expect the coming of the Kalki Avatar in the years 1999-2003.
Members of paramilitary militias with apocalyptic / racist undertones.
Believers in Native American prophecies such as the Hopi prophecy.
Proponents of ecological doom scenarios.
Luddites who simply view technology as a machine which is eating its makers.

These groups span the global religious and political spectra.

Considerations and emphases

Consider a few facts.

There is already a massive effort underway to "convert the Jews" to Christianity before the battle of Armageddon, in fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and this tendency is liable to cause problems in Israel as droves of Christian pilgrims travel to the Holy Land to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's birth, some of them expecting to see his Second Coming.

Messianic hopes in Judaism themselves feed directly into expansionist Israeli / Zionist political issues.

The Intifada's apocalyptic rhetoric similarly clashes with Jewish Messianic expectation.

Furthermore, Messianic hope is prominent among eg the Lubavicher hassidim, including many who are highly influential and respected in eg the world diamond market...

But not only are there large-scale religious and political movements to consider, there are also a host of smaller scale groups with a high potential for violence (which can be suicidal, as in Jonestown, triggered by governmental action, as arguably at Waco, or anti-governmental as in the Oklahoma bombing). Some of these smaller groups are religious in emphasis (eg the Branch Davidians), and some of them are political (eg the militias).

Throw in the growing sense in some Christian and militia circles that computers are somehow connected to the Antichrist, that the "Mark of the Beast" may be an implanted microchip -- and a streak of classic anti-semitism of the sort which views banks, big business and governments as locked into a Zionist conspiracy...

Psychological intensification

"Wars and rumors of wars" are spoken of Christian apocalyptic -- and in millennial times, rumors can be quite as problematic as facts, since both are grist to the millennial mills. News reports don't have to be accurate to be believed -- and unsettling reports of bank- and business-related failures, factual or exaggerated, will be lapped up as "signs of the times" by those who are predisposed to read current events in a millennial light. Economic panic may not be the only panic to consider.

As the "deadline" nears, and millennial expectation rises in some circles (for these and other reasons), the psychology of individuals, groups, and "random" crowds and gatherings may all be affected. The following considerations may then become more important than they seem at present:

Millennial expectation is often exhuberantly optimistic and peaceable before the fact, but can switch very easily into an equally intense hostility in the event of the failure of predictions. This means that it is difficult to "read" a given movement's future behavior accurately from it's current "tone".

Intensified millennial expectation of whatever kind leads to a mindset in which idealism runs rampant, and extreme measures are frequently "legitimized" in the defence of (often conflicting) ideals. This means that governments and peace-keeping agencies have a valid reason to be concerned and vigilant...

Governmental attempts to monitor and/or control millennial groups feeds into paranoid scenarios within the groups themselves, replacing optimism with an embattled righteousness. This means that individual and group rights to freedom of belief must be carefully safeguarded for pragmatic as well as "constitutional" reasons... a point which tends to run counter to the need for vigilance.

The intensified psychology obtaining in "millennial times" seems quite foreign to most "rational" analysis, and is far more mood-driven and unpredictable than "normative" psychology. This means, for instance, that crowds with underlying millennial expectations are potentially turbulent in ways which eg hotel and resort managers are totally unprepared for.

Mutual awareness between "T2K" (millennial) and "Y2K" (computer) communities:

Just as CEOs tend to be initially dismissive of reports of the importance of the computer "00" problem because this kind of thing is not "business as usual", scholars of religion tend to be unaware of the dimensions of contemporary apocalypticism, since this is not the normative religion which they mostly study.

This complicates the existing communications problem posed by the fact that business tends to take an entirely "secular" approach to the Y2K problem, while those whose expertise is in the field of millennial ferment may often disregard the importance of Y2K because it's "not religious" in nature...

The purpose of this document is largely to make these two communities (those worried by a groundswell of millennial fervor and those worried by the looming computer-based business problem) mutually aware...

Words of Caution:

Religious intolerance has been historically one of the major factors in everything from pogroms to crusades, and from witch trials to wars.

Human rights, including the right to hold variant religious and political beliefs, often go to the wall in "millennial" circumstances -- and great care is therefore needed in avoiding inflamed rhetoric while discussing this subject, since it is only too easy to appear derogatory in even the most even-handed discussion of millennial beliefs...

I wish to state categorically at this point that I intend no disrespect to any belief system mentioned here: this document is intended neither as political nor religious propaganda.

This document itself can be read as a "millennial prediction", and is therefore prone to creating the very same kind of paranoid response which it attempts to dispel.

It should be borne in mind that it describes seeds of possible conflict, but that the future is fact-free and therefore far harder to predict than the past ! It describes "another angle to consider" -- but the evaluation of that angle should be sober -- neither excessive because the emotions get caught up in how significant it may be, nor insufficient, because the emotions are in denial of the problem.

I would like to draw my readers' attention to Prof. Richard Landes' forthcoming article, "An Irony to Die For: The Computer Crash of 2000 and the Western Apocalyptic Tradition", which will offer a differently weighted and more detailed exploration of these issues. It will be posted at the Center for Millennial Studies web site.

Further inquiries on the topics discussed should be addressed to Charles Cameron or the Center for Millennial Studies.

This document may be freely distributed, on condition that no part of it, including this copyright attribution and comment, is omitted. Please keep me informed...

Although this document comments on the possibility that religio-political considerations may have an impact on business, it is expressly intended as a contribution to the ongoing discussions of T2K and Y2K issues, and should not be construed as anything other than an interested independent scholar's contribution to such discussions. I doubt that it is necessary to say this, but in case it is: "reliance on or use of the information contained herein shall be at the user's sole risk."

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Copyright (c) Charles Cameron, 1997.