The Consumer Republic: Future Shock

Millennial anxiety always seemed like a bogus notion to me, a phony condition whose real-life
victims were limited to people who hadn’t yet made their reservations for New Year’s Eve, 1999.
If I had any dread of the next millennium, it stemmed from my certainty that every me-too marketer and media outlet on the planet will be licensing, co-promoting or officially sponsoring some millennial product or event. Having barely survived Seinfeld hysteria, I worried that I’d be brain-dead from boredom before the next thousand years rolled around.
Then came Y2K.
With about 500 days to go until double-zero hour, no one needs to be told that Y2K is not the name of a lubricant jelly or Web design firm. It is the acronym for the year 2000 and the havoc it will supposedly wreak on the globe.
It seems that once upon a time, back in the Brainiac Era, computer programmers decided to save precious memory by dropping the code for the first two numerals of the calendar year. All the programs and microchips that followed did the same. Thus, when the odometer flips over at the new millennium, the popular press tells us, all the hapless computers will think its 1900 and collapse in a kind of nervous breakdown.
Of course, if computers really could think, they’d surely be able to figure out that 2000 comes after 1999. The problem is that they are dumb binary beasts programmed by presumably thoughtful human beings who somehow forgot that the 20th century would eventually come to an end.
But that’s all electrons under the bridge now.
In our heads, the year 2000 is just an immaterial idea. But in our computers, it is a physical reality, a computer code. This “word become flesh” has given millennial anxiety a whole new legitimacy. While I’ve yet to start building my shelter for the coming collapse of Western civilization, I no longer find the survivalists to be quite the whacked-out cranks I once thought they were.
Consider this: The millennial bug infests zillions of embedded microchips in every corner of our infrastructure. Two to five percent of these are expected to fail, but no one knows which ones they are. Perhaps the chip that controls an important valve in your community’s water system is one of them. Will you be stocking up on bottled water come December 1999 just in case?
If you’re looking to the media to help sort out the Y2K problem for you, forget it. Now that President Clinton has put the issue on the legislative agenda–probably several years too late to do much good–coverage of Y2K has exploded. Borrowing from Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of a media virus, let’s call Y2K hype the Millennium Bug Bug, a spreading info-contagion of surveys, statistics, predictions, calls to action and reassurances.
For instance, Dr. Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, insists Y2K will usher in a recession that will make us nostalgic for the good old days of the oil crisis. His running apocalypse meter now puts the likelihood of global financial disaster at about 80 percent. Too depressing? You could always put your faith in the pooh-poohers. They point to the relative success of Wall Street’s recent bug-proofing test and dismiss people such as Yardeni as mediagenic Chicken Littles playing to the Armageddon crowd. Which side of the debate you favor says more about you than it does about Y2K. Who would you rather be: The savvy hipster who doesn’t fall for media hype or the sober realist who refuses to stick his head in the sand?
Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000. The self-styled “Paul Revere of the Information Age,” Bennett has perfected the art of flogging the Y2K issue without being an alarmist. At a National Press Club luncheon a couple of weeks ago, he said Y2K could “possibly” bring an “end to civilization as we know it”–but probably not. The power grid, he predicts, will hold–a regional brownout notwithstanding. The financial system will continue to work–given a bank failure or two. The Department of Defense will still function–as long as you don’t count ground-based missiles. The phone system will not break down–but don’t try calling Taiwan.
His is neither a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty view of Y2K. It’s the glass-tips-over-and-makes-a-mess-on-the-desk view. In other words, Y2K will not ring in the collapse of our entire industrial and commercial infrastructure, thereby plunging the globe into a massive recession. No, it will be much worse than that.
Y2K will set off an epidemic of inconveniences, screwups and glitches in millions of individual lives. I suspect this is even worse than whole-scale apocalypse. Disaster, as dozens of summer blockbusters remind us, can be thrilling.
Aggravation is just a drag.