The real Y2K bug

Published on Saturday, May 8, 01999  •  25 years ago
Written by Paul Saffo for Salon.com

There are two millennium bugs lurking in our future -- one in our computers and the other in our culture. The calendar glitches in our machines will cause more than their share of mischief. But the culture bug will have vastly greater impact on our lives -- and unlike our computer headaches, the culture bug can't be patched with a few lines of code. The good news is that the culture bug may also be a feature: Along with the problems it delivers, it will also yield some unexpected benefits.

This cultural Y2K bug stems from our human fascination with boundaries. We trace figures in the clouds, draw borders on the landscape -- and slice time's continuum into arbitrary chunks as small as seconds and as large as millennia. Thus, the temptation to invest our greatest hopes -- and deepest fears-- into the moment the old year rolls into the new is all but irresistible. And zeros amplify this inclination: The greater the number of zeros in a year to come, the sooner we get nervous and the longer it lasts. Decades make us twitch, and century-ends can change the trajectory of popular culture -- as happened 100 years ago, when centennial-struck citizens in Europe and America spent the better part of the 1890s contemplating what was to come. The moment survives in our vocabulary, with fin de sicle being synonymous with a mood of sophistication, world-weariness and fashionable despair.

Now, like cherries on some cosmic slot machine, the three zeros of the new millennium are rolling into view -- and if history is any guide, their impact could be felt in some unexpected ways. While computer nerds race to fix the machines, the approach of New Year's Day 2000 will serve up no end of larger surprises affecting global society. Here are a few to contemplate in the months ahead.

An apocalyptic mania?

The last time we crossed a millennium, a horde of apocalypse-struck European peasants disrupted a century of social history. Despite the entreaties of Pope Sylvester II and the religious intelligentsia, the common folk experienced a steadily rising fear in the 990s, taking it on faith that the judgment day, the "nightfall of the universe," was at hand. Visits to Jerusalem in the year 999 soared to record highs as pilgrims descended on that city like an invading army. Of course, that is exactly what the peasants later did, launching the Crusades in hopes of recovering the Holy Land from the unbelievers in anticipation of the second coming of Christ.

At first blush, this sort of calendar-induced social upheaval could never happen today. But scratch the surface of our sophisticated global culture and you will discover a current of millennial fatalism worthy of the most ignorant of medieval peasants. The bestseller of the 1970s was Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," a biblically based tale of the coming end. It was but the first in what has become a burgeoning industry of authors and TV preachers pandering to millennial anxieties and superstitions.

The millennium has emerged as a steady sub-theme of Christian belief in this decade. In 1990 for example, that religious superstar, the Rev. Billy Graham, joined other ministers in noting the similarities of the Gulf War with apocalyptic biblical prophecy. More recently, pollsters found that fully one-quarter of Americans think that the apocalypse might be upon us.

So far, at least, publics at large have treated the millennium with only passing interest, but individuals and smaller communities have taken more drastic steps. This decade has seen a steady stream of millennial cults pop up around the world, eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of the end. So far at least, they remain on the fringe, but any number of unexpected events could move the fringe into an unwelcome mainstream. The most troubling scenario is that otherwise-minor Y2K computer glitches could be the catalyst that gives these fears focus and forward momentum. Already in the United States, the prospect of the Y2K bug has been seized upon by some Christian fundamentalists as one more proof of the coming end, a reason to abandon cities for a survivalist lifestyle in remote rural areas.

The wild card in this scenario is a general public illiteracy when it comes to understanding technology issues. What seems a prudent word of caution to computer experts can become an alarmist message in the popular media, with utterly unexpected effect. Add in a media hungry for the next story after Monica and advertisers eager to capitalize on millennial anxieties, and simmering fears could gather a life of their own. An early indicator in this regard is Art Bell, late-night radio talk-show host and wacko groupie who has augmented his usual fare of bigfoot, UFOs and faces-on-Mars balderdash with liberal helpings of Y2K Cassandras. The last time Bell got stuck on a topic, his promotion of guests spouting nonsense about a spacecraft hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp pushed the Heaven's Gate cult into mass suicide.

The Internet and its immense power for spreading rumors adds an unprecedented level of uncertainty when it comes to anticipating a possible mass mania. The proliferation of Y2K sites on the Net is matched only by the growth of sites with more explicitly apocalyptic themes. An unharmonic coincidence of otherwise insignificant Y2K glitches and public overreaction could turn minor problems into major public hysteria.

Eschatological terrorism

In this climate of millennial angst, an extreme and addled few may decide to help the end along with acts of violence. In 1992, a would-be assassin broke into the estate of Ronald Reagan, convinced that the former president was the antichrist of biblical lore. Overtly millennial overtones marked the notorious Oklahoma City bombing, which was conceived in part as revenge for the U.S. government's assault a year earlier on a community of apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists holed up in a compound in Waco, Texas. And the worst terrorist event of the decade, the Sarin nerve gas attack by the Aum Shin-rikyo cult in Tokyo in 1995, was explicitly millennial in nature.

Could these events be both harbinger and inspiration for a new kind of eschatological terrorism -- acts of violence by fanatical believers in a coming end, more than willing to sacrifice their lives in the service of self-fulfilling prophecies? Technology is a wild card in this scenario, conferring ever greater power upon ever smaller groups and even individuals. The Aum cult pressed Ph.D.s into service and even scoured Africa for samples of the Ebola virus. One shudders at what a deranged chemist or physicist or computer genius might accomplish, working alone and utterly unknown in the months approaching the new year.

Millennial fraud

Want to commit the perfect New Year's crime? Set yourself up as a Y2K software consultant and offer your services to unsuspecting companies desperate to fix their Y2K bugs. While you are poring over their deepest software secrets, insert a trapdoor into their code that allows you to return on New Year's Day, plunder their files and cover your tracks by making the theft look like a Y2K systems crash. This scenario loses its outlandishness when one considers that in the scramble to fix Y2K bugs, companies are turning to any number of consultants who have sprung up literally overnight. And even if the primary contractor is legitimate, an unknown percentage of this Y2K work is being subcontracted to consultants all over the globe.

Or skip the hassle of programming entirely and engage in simpler, more traditional scams. Fraudsters have already stung unsuspecting consumers by asking for their account numbers under the guise of Y2K testing down at the bank. When asked earlier in this century why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied, "Because that is where the money is." If Sutton were alive today, he would be learning HTML and C++, or working the telephone.

Millennial echoes

So Jan. 1, 2000, arrives without major upset -- don't relax yet, for often as not, the greatest impact of failed prophecies comes after the putative end. Recall that the millennium-struck Crusaders first headed to the Holy Land nearly 100 years after their New Year's Eve party. When The End fails to materialize this time around, many believers will simply conclude that they got the date wrong and become more convinced than ever that the end is nigh. And one of the late arrivals is no less than movie wizard Steven Spielberg, who is rumored to be hatching a Nostradamus-based thriller scheduled for a summer 2000 release. The same man who once convinced fans to believe in "E.T." now seems eager to turn us into eschatologists.

If we are very unlucky, far from being the end of millennial anxieties, the year 2000 may simply be the start of a decade-long silly season defined by no end of cults and wackos trying vainly to make their addled prophecies come to pass. But whether or not problems materialize, we are all certain to be well and truly sick of the millennium season long before it is over.

On the bright side, our cultural millennium bug also has the potential for generating more welcome surprises. Every end is also a beginning, and thus the fin de siècle will be closely followed by the debut de siècle, a time likely to be the reverse mirror of attitudes on this side of New Year's Eve. The end of the century has stood like a barrier to our sight line of the future -- our chronological horizon has steadily compressed over the latter half of this century, remaining largely fixed on the year 2000 even as the intervening years slip away.

But the world will wake up on New Year's Day and search for a new date out on a suddenly larger horizon. The consequence is likely to be a new focus on the long term, not just by business elites but among the global public at large. Publics will look to 2020, 2100 and perhaps even further into time.

A hundred years ago, the first decade of this century witnessed a global effloresence of such contemplation of the long term. Visionary writers like H.G. Wells described the sweep of the century to come, architects drew up radical new visions for our cities and artists realized utterly new forms of creative expression. Look for the same forces to exert themselves in the first decade of the next century, with a consequent quickening of creative vision and sense that all is possible, from meeting immediate challenges to opening vast new frontiers.

Of course, even this welcome focus on the long term is not without hazard. Consider how the utopian Futurist movement, originally a literary and artistic endeavor, metastasized into a darker political movement in the 1920s and beyond. Like our ancestors a hundred years ago, we will welcome the new century with a long look forward, and then the press of the immediate will tempt us to trade the vast view for a narrower gaze. Let us hope we have the wisdom to resist that temptation in the decade to come.

First published onSalon.com in 01999.

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