My Millennium, Myself

In all the concern over computers, the power grid, the global economy and their built-in glitches, one thing has become clear: Coping with this vast known quantity that is the year 2000 is like religion. People believe what they want.The result is that people are the greatest variable going.No one really knows how we, collectively and individually, are going to react in the days and hours before and just after the stroke of midnight -- especially if a few little or big things do go wrong.And then there's the issue of how other people will react to those reactions. And so on.County Mental Health tells us, for example, that most of the people experiencing extreme anxiety about Y2K are the type who experience extreme anxiety anyway. If it wasn't Y2K, it would be something else. (But yes, the agency will stock extra meds and have a 10 percent increase in staffing for the Y2K weekend.)Fry's Electronics, meanwhile, says their rise in sales of Y2K-related products surged about six to 12 months ago. Sales of Check 2000 PC software are still brisk, and surely a few folks (the same ones who will do their shopping on Christmas Eve) are waiting until the last minute, but Fry's isn't expecting a panic.While some people are going to just stay home and take it easy on the big night -- figuring it could be nice to wake up on Jan. 1, 2000, without feeling tired and irritable -- others are planning to party like it's, well, 1999. Cruises, all-night parties, celebrations in remote and high places. Because, what the heck, it is 1999. And some folks just love a party.Bay Area artist Mickey McGowan, who keeps a collection of Americana called the Unknown Museum, thinks there's an overriding calmness because he and others of this generation come well-prepared for the ominous question mark of Y2K."I've been through the atomic scare with bomb shelters, I've grown up with the fear of California breaking off and falling into the ocean all my life," comments the collector of '50s, '60s and '70s Americana. "Y2K is just a drop in the bucket."For people who have been writing "19" before the year for their entire lives, it's a thrill to be among the generation that gets to yank the number off the front of the millennium. But beyond this, Y2K is at this point an almost existential question. It's a chance to find out who, underneath it all, we really are. Who are you in the new millennium anyway?The DeniersJ. Douglas Allen-TaylorAmid the mounting sturm und drang over the possible collapse of the U.S. and most of the known world at the turn of the "K," there are an unknown number of people who are following the old American tradition of saying "it ain't necessarily so."And some who are not saying it.Most Y2K skeptics are consumers voting with their feet, simply refusing to participate in the madness. They aren't taking their savings out of the bank, they aren't stocking up on water and canned goods, and they aren't priming the wicks on newly purchased kerosene lamps. They can be readily identified in public by a sort of tightening of the jaws and a glazed look that comes across their faces whenever they see another article about the millennium bug, such as this one. Others of this "silent brigade" are mainly business owners who don't want to put out the cash to Y2K fix-it consultants. "Eighty-five percent or more of small businesses have not done anything [about the Y2K problem]," a Y2K consultant told the Business Journal of San Jose last year. "There's a tremendous sense of denial among small businesses that this is going to impact them."Though it may sound like an ostrich-in-the-sand approach, many knowledgeable people agree. Their comments reflect a large dose of skepticism about either the information technology industry itself or the government that regulates it."Despite mounting evidence that Y2K is unlikely to create major disruptions, either to the computing infrastructure or to society at large, the big numbers and dire forecasts are likely to continue being quoted," writes commentator Geoffrey James, author of Success Secrets From Silicon Valley. Calling much Y2K crisis commentary "disinformation" and "simply lies," James writes, "Let's face it, this won't be the first time that computer-industry hype has far outstripped reality, and to be sure, it probably won't be the last."InfoWorld columnist Bob O'Donnell reported that at last year's Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, "analysts and other industry watchers ... were vehement in their critiques of those who claimed the Y2K sky was falling because of embedded systems [that is, a ROM-stored specialized computer system that is part of a larger system or machine]."Critics charge that some predictors of a smooth turn of the century are actually making money off of their optimistic predictions. Earlier this year, brokerage firm PaineWebber issued a "Y2K O.K." report that said the banks won't fail, electrical power won't shut off, telephones will ring and trains and planes will run, and concluded that, in fact, "addressing the Y2K problem will likely benefit the economy in that it leads to greater information processing capabilities and ultimately boosts productivity." In reply, consultant William Ulrich told TechWeek that "PaineWebber has a vested interest in making everything sound rosy; their job is getting people to buy stocks." Such critics don't come into this fight with clean hands, though; Ulrich himself is co-author of The Year 2000 Software Crisis book series which, presumably, sells more books the more people believe there will be a year 2000 software crisis.A seemingly odd addition to the naysayers concerning a Y2K meltdown is the John Birch Society. Speaking to the issue on their website, the Birchers declare that, "[d]espite the dire predictions from many corners proclaiming the advent of a new Dark Ages, a survey of the evidence indicates that no such disaster is about to befall the United States." But a closer inspection of their arguments shows that the poster children for conspiracy theorists have not given up their view that shadowy hands are seeking to shape mankind's future. Commenting on the prediction by an international economist that the millennium bug has a 60 percent chance of causing a worldwide recession, the Birchers said, "He uses his analysis of the Y2K problem to propose internationalist and collectivist policies," and accused Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair of orchestrating "an attempt to create ... a sovereignty shredding international agency" using the bug "as a pretext."The ModeratesTraci HukillIt's like the whole nation took a big fat Valium.A year ago, one-third of the respondents to a Gallup poll on Y2K fretted that there would be "major problems" resulting from computer glitches in 2000. By August 1999 that number had dropped to 11 percent and about three-quarters of respondents were breezily defining themselves as "somewhat concerned" or "not too concerned" about the phenomenon. In the intervening months, moderation had stepped in with a winning smile to save the day from boneheaded panic.But like sensible shoes and good mental health, moderation is a bit pedestrian."It's an awful term. It doesn't sit well with me at all," says Tim Litvin, an optomechanical engineer working in Mountain View and a Metro-identified Y2K Moderate. Asked to revise his label, Litvin considers for a moment."'Existentialist?' he replies. "Maybe 'cautious realist.'"More elegant terms, to be sure. But for the purposes of gross generalizations about Y2K, "moderate" describes most people pretty well. The Moderates are the ones who plan to have a normal amount of cash on hand come New Year's Day. They're the ones who believe that something somewhere will go wrong (for example, three-quarters of the Gallup poll respondents are "not confident" that Third World governments have it together), but whatever it is they're pretty sure it won't disrupt their daily routines. They're the ones who are determined to behave as if nothing were amiss -- by, say, making transoceanic flights during the first week of the new millennium."I've been planning a Y2K vacation for 10 years," says Litvin, who hopes to be with his sweetheart "naked in the ocean in Hawaii" for the big moment. "As far as flying on Jan. 1, I wouldn't even be worried about that. We're coming back on Jan. 2 because that's the longest we could stretch it out."Litvin refuses to be prodded into any confessions of stockpiling canned goods or water or even backing up his files at work."I've got files backed up on CD, but I just do that naturally," he says. Continuing, he figures, "The bigger grids are probably pretty stable at this point. There may be some minor systems failures, but I think they'll quickly resolve themselves."Slight pause for effect. Then:"It's the cannibals that worry me most."Travel agent Margie Chain thinks most customers are "more or less realistic" about the dangers of air and sea travel in the New Year."Some people think Jan. 1 all the ships are going to sink," she giggles. "But I think that's a small percentage of the people."Her employer, Cupertino Travel, specializes in trips to Hawaii, and those are all sold out for the upcoming holiday season. New Year's Day was one of the very last days to sell out this year, but Chain says that's absolutely normal."Through all the 20 years I've been in business, that's pretty much true," she says, "because everyone wants to be out celebrating the night prior."Chain notes that she's heard more people say they wouldn't want to be in a ship on New Year's Day than wouldn't want to be in an airplane. She's not sure why, either; if anything happened, she says, "You'd be in the same boat as anybody else."The UtopiansDavid Templeton"CHICKENS," intones author Shepherd Bliss, an admittedly "hopeful" Y2K Utopian. "Chickens," he repeats. "They will be a vital part of the solution after the Y2K collapse." Bliss has been carting some of his chickens around the state this year, as a visual aid to his fascinating, highly motivating Y2K preparation lectures."Think about it," he says calmly, convincingly. "Chickens are good for eggs, they're good for meat -- and they're excellent for entertainment!"Have you ever watched a chicken? They're hilarious! We'll need new forms of entertainment in the future -- because there will be no more power source for our televisions and other entertainment devices."Along with chickens, adds Bliss, we'll also need to stockpile plenty of books and stories, and all of our musical instruments."Music and books will be important for entertainment, of course," he says, laughing. "But if things get bad, you can't eat them."Bliss -- his original name -- is a noted author, New Age philosopher, Sonoma County landowner and innovative organic farmer. While certain others await the year 2000 with varying degrees of dread or ambivalence, Bliss counts himself among the Utopian-idealists who -- while fairly convinced that Y2K will spell the end of civilization as we've known it recently -- have chosen to approach the new millennium not with fear but with joy and anticipation.Utopians -- ranging from guarded optimists like Bliss to the gleeful Luddites and anti-technology anarchists -- tend to be Utne Reader subscribers and back-to-the-landers, fans of Ernest Callenbach's 1975 classic Ecotopia, in which Washington, Oregon and Northern California secede from the U.S. and form a perfect agrarian society without cars or advanced technology.Since the culture at large seems wildly uneager to adopt such a lifestyle willingly, the Y2K Utopians are counting on the millennium bug to force the issue, yanking us, kicking and screaming if need be, back to a simpler and purer way of life."Y2K is a blessing," says Bliss. "I think it's a gift. It's what people have been praying for. We've been on a collision course with this planet for decades. Y2K will, potentially, reduce the level of human violation of the Earth -- because we will no longer have the destructive technological tools that we've been using."Of course, not everyone is going to be ready for such a back-to-nature shift. That's why the Utopians have been engaged, over the last several months, in a massive, well-organized, Internet-fueled educational effort, holding community meetings in libraries and churches, going door to door in some cases, spreading the word that times may be a-changin', and it's time to make plans. Such Y2K evangelists have been circulating handy how-to lists, gardening tips, practical suggestions about alternative energy sources for cooking and light, and the like. In addition to storing up supplies, developing agrarian skills and planning for emergencies, Bliss says he's reverted to an even more primitive way of life."I've been getting to know my neighbors," he laughs. "You don't want to wait till the middle of a crisis to make friends. You need to make friends before the crisis."That community-building notion is perhaps the most energizing element of the Y2K Utopians, who -- unlike their more singular survivalist cousins -- are stressing that it will take an entire neighborhood or community, working as one, to combat the deadly dangers of Y2K."What we are witnessing is the beginning of a movement," Bliss enthuses. "Possibly the most significant social movement since the civil rights and women's movements."Frankly," he says, "I've never been more excited in my life."The ScorekeepersWill HarperI admit it: I am Y2KO'd.I have read all I want to know about Bubba in his bunker with his shotgun and a year's worth of beef jerky. Bring on the apocalypse already.Y2K is everywhere. Dozens of news organizations maintain Y2K update sites: the Mercury News, USA Today, CNN, CNET, Wired and the venerable New York Times.On any given day Y2K weblogs link dozens of stories from around the world on the issue. On Nov. 8, listed 57 stories to peruse.ABC is even breaking tradition by limiting Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve to a paltry 30 minutes because it wants to devote around-the-clock coverage to the millennium and Y2K.Now allow me a brief digression here. I just read a poll that surveyed 1,000 Americans in October and asked, "Which kinds of people are most likely to cheat?" Respondents identified journalists as the third most likely group to cheat, behind only lawyers and politicians.I mention this because no matter how extensively the media have covered Y2K, there is likely a significant level of distrust of that coverage.Take Wyoming software geek Mike Adams, the founder of Y2Knewswire, an online subscription magazine highly skeptical of any government or industry claims of Y2K compliance."The stories we're seeing now are reassurance stories," Adams observes. "But those stories aren't being researched beyond talking to the author of the press release. ... The media never investigates the [compliance] claims of companies."For instance, Adams says, when he tried to obtain documentation from the Federal Aviation Administration to back up its claim of 100 percent compliance, he was allegedly told that no news organization had asked for such documentation. The FAA, he says, ultimately refused to show him its data.AJ Lepley, managing editor of Y2K News magazine (, complains that the media have focused too much on "kook stories," which make it seem like any person making survival preparations for the New Year is a lunatic.Even in less conspiratorial segments of society, people have been unimpressed with media coverage of Y2K."The mainstream media has abrogated its responsibility to inform the public," grouses Stephen O'Leary, an associate professor at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston. "It is not covering Y2K in any substantial way."O'Leary criticizes reporters for using words like "Y2K compliance" and "Y2K ready" without knowing -- or at least telling readers and viewers -- how these terms are defined.With companies and government agencies bracing for a wave of litigation after Jan. 1, O'Leary asks, "What significance should we place on the presumably deliberate choice of words such as 'compliant' and 'ready' anyway?"Despite widespread distrust of the media, public opinion on Y2K has followed the arc of news coverage. A Gallup Poll done in December 1998 showed that 34 percent of those polled believed Y2K would cause "major problems." Not so coincidentally, at the time news stories detailing worst-case scenarios were starting to proliferate.By the end of August 1999, only 11 percent of those polled believed Y2K would cause major problems. The downshift in public concern over Y2K, O'Leary says, coincides with a change in news coverage. News stories were now parroting the reassurances of utility, government and banking officials that there would be no major problems after Jan. 1. Earlier this month, the media devoted lots of space to President Clinton's "Everything's going to be OK" declaration."There's this constant drumbeat of 'Don't worry, be happy.' ... It's not a strange idea that our public officials are lying to us," O'Leary contends. "It's happened within recent memory -- like when someone said, 'I did not have sex with that woman.' "Still, as the Online Journalism Review has pointed out, Y2K "has the potential to be the biggest non-event in the history of mankind." What if nothing happens after Jan. 1? The media, no doubt, will be blamed for sensationalizing Y2K.For all the crystal-ball prediction of what's going to happen, here's one thing you can count on: Whatever happens, it will all be the media's fault.The ProfiteersJim RendonWhen the phone rings at the Y2K Expo office, Justin Smith answers, "Hello, Rubber Stamp Affair." With only 43 days left till the odometer rolls over to 2000, chaos, gloom and doom have become a hard sell, Smith says. The bottom has fallen out of the Y2K convention business and the company has moved on to a more lucrative market: rubber stamps.Though this company's April exposition at the San Jose Convention Center was sparsely attended, Smith says that Y2K Expo has actually been a solid business, sponsoring more events than the salesman can remember. The company brought in speakers who hype the disaster scenarios associated with total computer meltdown, and vendor booths filled with the latest in dried food and solar stoves. Up till now, he says, the apocalypse has sold well.Y2K Expo is but one tiny piece of the international money machine created by the millennium bug and the cascading predictions that have followed. So many people are buying new computers that for the first time, PCs are getting more, not less, expensive. Local computer consultants say they can't keep up with the clamor for new Y2K compliant systems.The web is thick with Y2K counselors for every need. Speakers well-versed in the habits of the millennium bug can bring in up to $15,000 an engagement. Peter de Jager, who molded himself into a nationally recognized doomsday soothsayer, has co-authored a book, testified before Congress and may earn $1 million this year. (Perhaps not surprisingly, his bio is completely silent on what he did before Y2K became a problem.)The impending disaster has spawned more products than a George Lucas movie, though, granted, none quite as cuddly. There is Y2Cake, Y2K rations, Millennium the beanie baby bear and, where survivalists can buy five-pound sacks of wheat, salt mills and hand-crank grinders.Hundreds of Y2K books have hit the market in the handful of years since the acronym bubbled up through America's linguistic swamp. The self-help-style tomes offer all kinds of advice, from the sensible words Mom might offer -- keep extra water and a pair of clean underwear on hand -- to the freakish ramblings of the uncle that you were always warned to stay away from -- buy guns, a water purifier and a kit to make your own jerky, and bury it all in the desert.Y2K interest is so high on that the online store created a separate millennium shop last year. Though Amazon does not disclose sales figures, Emily Glassman, an Amazon spokesperson, says the online shopping site saw a big spike in Y2K interest at the beginning of the year, and though it has waned recently, customers are still buying plenty of survival guides and computer-fix-it books.But the good times are almost over. On Jan. 2, many of those books will wind up in the recycling bin. And many companies that made a killing on Y2K are themselves beginning to look obsolete. Brian Graney, a writer with the online personal investment service Motley Fool, says the Y2K fix-it companies have tanked."In early 1998 the silver-bullet companies' [Y2K fix-it businesses] stock was going crazy," he says. "But now, most of the upgrades have been made." Stock that was once selling for $15 or $20 a share is now worth only $2 or $3 a share. There's just not much for them to do anymore. Wall Street has lost interest and is off trolling for the next big thing.And Smith may be positioned well for the next millennium. If his apocalyptic vision of Jan. 1 is correct, that next big thing may indeed be rubber stamps.The AlarmistsMary SpicuzzaMy mother was an Alarmist far ahead of her time. Back in the days before the word Y2K was cropping up everywhere from support groups to Nike commercials, she had already begun our private Armageddon stockpile.It started out small enough, tucked away on the lower level of our basement food pantry. But over time the end-of-days collection of condensed milk and Campbell's soup cans took over the cellar and stretched out into the basement hallways.When questioned about our private Book of Revelations-inspired stash, she usually responded with something like "Laugh now, but you will thank me when it's a choice between eating this and having 666 tattooed on your forehead to buy groceries."While not a traditional Y2K prophetess, dear Mom had mastered the typical frenzy of a card-carrying millennial alarmist. For alarmists will not only head for the hills in the face of Y2K, but organize and obsess enough to have plenty of canned goods, dehydrated dairy products and a healthy supply of assault rifles ready for the trip.While the most likely candidates live in Montana and can be spotted sporting heavy facial hair and plenty of plaid layers, alarmists come in all shapes and sizes. For every Freeman there's a vegan stocking up on soymilk; for every cult member there's a grandmother storing extra food for her cats.All live by those chronically parental words, "Someday you'll see I was right."So one would think that at army-surplus and thrift shops all over California, the state voted most-likely-to-fall-into-the-ocean, managers would be having trouble keeping the shelves stocked with survival gear like kerosene lamps and down sleeping bags.But alas, sales have been, in the words of one, minor to meager. "It's not as much in sales as people first expected," says Roger Bonner, owner of Mt. View Surplus in Campbell. "With Y2K purchases, we're selling maybe 15 to 20 percent more than we normally would, but not two to three times as much, which is what we thought."Customers, he says, are often quite chatty about why they're buying stacks of MREs (military-issue Meals Ready to Eat) topped off with packaged water and a space blanket. Other times, store personnel can just tell from the items in the basket: first aid kits, portable potties, water purification tablets, light sticks.He says sales of survival items have been rising steadily as the date approaches. "People are definitely procrastinating," he says, "but it's not turning out to be what we and other people expected."As Alarmists build their shelters and await catastrophe, perhaps Moderates will at least do a moderate amount of stocking up. But for now, marginalized doomsday prophets are still mocked by the media and viewed suspiciously by neighbors--at least once the weapons arsenal reaches a critical mass.Still, Alarmists can rest easy knowing those naysayers down the block will be starved out long before any good, paranoid family. In the meantime they are helping the economy, boosting the market by creating a demand for new flavors of astronaut ice cream, and starting trademark '90s careers like Y2K consultant or millennial support group leader.After all, our family never encountered any horseman of the apocalypse. But whenever canned-goods food drives came up at school, we beat the kneesocks off of our less millennium-minded peers with bags full of cream-style corn and chicken soup with stars. All thanks to old-fashioned alarmism.

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