(The following article first appeared as an editorial in the Boston Globe newspaper, under the title "The Y2K test for society"; 9 September, 1999. Included with the article was the illustration below.)
Y2K as CSAT: A Civil Society Aptitude Test
by David Kessler and Richard Landes
A lot of time, energy, and money have been spent readying the world's computers for the Y2K problem - a problem, whose seriousness experts have characterized from hoax toataclysmic.
But amid the attention paid to which computrer systems might break down, there has been little attention paid to the question of of which of our values and social institutions are most likely to break down, and which which are most able to keep us from breaking down. In short, how can society best prepare for the social effects of Y2K, whether they are created by actual computer malfunctions, expectation of malfunctions, or improper handling of actual problems.
Consider the traits that best equip us - as communities, corporations, or governments - to assess the issue of Y2K and prepare for it, and youwill find that they are the same as the values that uphold civil society: pluralism and open public discussion; willingness to allow dissenters to publicly voice their concerns; trustworthy sources of information; subordinating private to public interest when necessary; openness to grassroots initiatives; transparency/honesty in public affairs; flexibility to change one's mind, and commitment to public order and nonviolence.
Y2K is thus the perfect opportunity to see how well we embody and uphold those values - a Civil Society Aptitude Test for the United States and for the world.
Y2K is not solely a technical or psychological issue. The effect of an earthquake is measured by a combination of the intensity of the quake and the resilience (or fragility) of the structures it hits. Similarly, the impact of the Y2K "Timequake" will be measured by a combination of its technical and psychological intensities and on the resilience of the social structures these factors hit.
Analysts scoffed at world-wide remediation cost estimates of $300 billion to $600 billion a few years ago. Today, as we approach the high end of this estimate, there are many people who still feel that the problem is imaginary or purely a self fulfilling prophecy of social panic.
If the only money spent on the social dimension is spent on a campaign that simply tells us, "Don't think about it; everything is OK," does that make us resilient for this, or any other situation?
If we marginalize the pessimists, we are handing them over to the many purveyors of cover-up and conspiracy theories, who will interpret anything that occurs in the opening of 2000 as proof that they were correct.
Any money that we spend on strengthening the civil bonds of our society benefits us regardless of the stregnth 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 still those that will serve us best.
The challenge of the year 2000 then, is to take it as an opportunity for learning. If we ridicule and alienate believers in negative scenarios, we are fracturing society by undermining the principles of civil discourse. If we do and say nothing because we believe people are too gullible and hysterical or becausewe feel that commenting on the idea is beneath us, we are depriving society of our views, limiting dialogue, and allowing others to control the debate. If we take ourselves and our views so seriously that we refuse toear any criticism on this matter, we are refusing to admit our falibilty, refusing to grow, and weakening the final attribute of civil society - humor.
For the last few thousand years, religious believers have looked to the millennium's end for God's last judgement on each individual. In Y2K we find a judgement whose crux is instead the interdependency of society. Our future is in the handds of our fellow citizens.
Let's make the first lesson of Y2K - the year 2000 - that a healthy society encourages full participation and dialogue. Whether our problems are myth or reality, we need civil society. Y2K is simply showing us how much.