A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fallout Shelter
Civilization did not collapse into computational confusion on New Year’s Eve. The worst Y2K glitch I experienced was finding all my email files suddenly dated 1944, and that was easily fixed.
What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen?
There is a self-congratulatory answer to that question: We were clever and fast and rich enough to stave off disaster. Companies and governments shelled out billions to scrap old computers and rewrite code. Emergency crews pre-tested power plants and navigation systems by running their clocks forward artificially. We were dumb enough to create the problem, but smart enough to catch it in time.
That answer lost all credibility on New Year’s Eve, as midnight rolled through Asia and darkest Russia, places advanced enough to have computers but not rich or coordinated or, perhaps, gullible enough to pour massive sums into Y2K corrections. Their lights stayed on, their trains ran, their nuclear power plants did not melt down, their websites didn’t blink. Some watchers, I suspect, were disappointed.
No place had serious Y2K problems. The whole thing was hype. The conspiracy-minded can even suspect a plot to make everyone hire programmers and buy new computers. (Why did no one sue the software companies for the cost of correcting this glaring defect in their products?)
Personally I think the Y2K bug was just an amusing millennial panic. But I do see a deeper lesson in this story. The scare was plausible. Programmers, CEOs, engineers, those who work at the heart of the technical beast took it very seriously. They were wrong about the criticality of that particular computer flaw. But the fact that they were so worried reveals a general jumpiness, a simmering distrust of the resilience of the industrial-information system. If not Y2K, then maybe something else could bring down The World As We Know It.
Or maybe not, some of my friends are now saying. Maybe our global economy is less interconnected and vulnerable than we thought. The amazing inventions that sustain our lives and comforts are pretty robust. Small failures are routine, says one online analyst, so we have had to evolve multiple levels of self-correction, including the ability to foresee and take action even against threats that turn out to be exaggerated. As the nuclear industry said after Three Mile Island, yes, the reactor went crazy, but look, we’re all still here. The system worked.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
The dedicated worriers among us point out that one patch of rough water safely navigated tells us nothing about what’s around the next bend. The Y2K glitch was simple; we even knew the exact moment when it would appear. The failure that will really expose our fragility will be the one that comes as a surprise. If not a computer bug, then a financial panic or climate change or an oil shortage or an Ebola virus or a slow, insidious pollutant or a fast, spectacular, accidental or purposeful detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
Let’s face it, the Y2K threat was plausible because a lot of us harbor a lurking suspicion that our world is some sort of disaster waiting to happen. We know how helpless we are when the electricity goes off. Many of us remember the chaos of the 1973 oil crisis, when the faucet that controls world oil flow was cranked down by just a few percent. A system dependent on long-distance transport of a few critical (and nonrenewable) resources, a system full of vital machines that the average person has no idea how to fix, a system where memory is wiped out if electrons stop flowing through power lines, a system with millions of very rich and very poor people living right on top of each other — that system is brittle. It could break.
There’s even a widely shared sense, at least among my friends, that the coming crash, whatever causes it, will be somewhat deserved and something of a relief. They speak of it with a strange combination of dread and excitement. That’s because their logistic critique of the system’s physical vulnerability is combined with a moral critique of its materialism, violence, wastefulness, pride, injustice, soullessness. Sodom and Gomorrah. Time for something to come along and smite this wickedness.
I agree with both the logistic and the moral critique, but I have always cringed at the assumption that a collapse will force human improvement. I understand the frustration that leads to such a perverse hope. But I can’t share the hope.
The most honest and helpful Y2K comment I have yet seen was posted on the Internet by a Y2K alarmist named David La Chapelle of Juneau, Alaska. He said, “Waiting for the demise of a system in order to improve it was a failure of spirit on my part. I wanted the material world to provide the magic bullet for change. I short-circuited the true evolutionary process. There is no substitute for the persistent and heartful attention necessary for personal and cultural transformation. The task before us is to reach deep into the substance of our being and bring forth the truth we wish to become.”