Wed, May 20, 2015 at 3:40:18 am
OMG Y2K WTF?
I stole this title from a bumper sticker I saw a while back that said something like OMG GOP WTF. ☺
I was looking through an old file recently and came across a pamphlet I saved to show my kids, called Y2K Citizen's Action Guide. Here it is:
Those of you over a certain age will remember there was quite a lot of panic in certain quarters over the Y2K bug. I had to talk quite a few people (generally smart, educated people) down from the ledge. People thought it was possible that cars would stop driving, planes would fall out of the air, the entire banking system would crash, etc. My physical therapist asked me, as a person in a technical field, how much she should worry. I said that most chips have no concern for what the date is, and they certainly don't stop because they see a date they don't expect. If your car paid the slightest attention to the date (doubtful) the most that would happen is your engine check light would go on because it thought it had been too long since maintenance was performed. Yeah, computer glitches would probably happen, but computer glitches happen all the time and nothing grinds to a halt. People run around and fix it, or come up with a work-around, and everyone carries on.
So I found this pamphlet, and did indeed show it to my kids, and we all had a good laugh. But I am kind of sad about it too. I thought, when I saved it, that after people realized how much they over-reacted they would think more carefully about things next time and listen to people who understand the issues, and just generally show more sense. But that didn't really happen. At least some of the people who scared my physical therapist now worry about what really happened on 9/11 (literally some of the same people - I know some of them). Even though the latter is a conspiracy theory and the former was just an overreaction to a real problem, the thought processes seem very similar. Something triggers a concern, and then the susceptible person goes out looking for answers. They talk to each other online. They work themselves and each other up. Epistemic closure. Groupthink. Community reinforcement. And then you get Jade Helm craziness.
And this mechanism isn't limited to any particular level of intelligence, any part of the political spectrum, or any level of, or type of, education. Engineers are entirely capable of convincing themselves that global warming isn't happening. Well-educated upper middle class white people are completely convinced that vaccinations are bad for their kids.
So, back to the pamphlet. I read some of it and looked up some of the authors and people quoted to see how they reacted to realizing how over the top they were and what they are up to today. Some of them pretty much vanished from the face of the earth (or from Google anyway). Some of them went on to other related activities. Some of them went on to completely different activities. None of them that I found are talking about the reaction to Y2K and what that means about them or people in general.
In the "vanished" column we have Paloma O. I am not going to write out her last name, because she has plainly put a lot of effort into not being searchable. The only mention of her name I found in the last ten years was a comment on an obituary. She did write a rather eloquent letter after the non-event, here:
She ran a website, helped write the pamphlet, and was extremely active in the "Y2K activist community." In the pamphlet, she talks about stock piling food and how to barter.
A "similar field" example is Steve Davis, who runs All Hands Consulting Global Emergency Management. I think he might be retired, since nothing has updated for a while, but he seems to have done this for quite a while after Y2K.
Comments at the time include saying that Y2K was the greatest challenge to ever face government in modern times, and that "Without solid processes for a coordinated response ... loss of life and widespread suffering are likely to occur."
An example of someone in a sort-of-related field is Charles Halpern, who has a wikipedia page:
He teaches mindfulness in law at Berkeley and is an author. At the time he talked about offshore rigs not being able to pump oil and credit card systems failing.
And an example of a person who went into something completely different is Gail Coopee, who is now a life coach. At the time she headed up the Snohomish County Public Utility District strategic planning, including Y2K, and is an example of the fact that sometimes the more you learn about an issue the more off the rails you go. Quote at the time:
"I'm seeing the very real possibility of the end of the lifestyle as we know it... our lives -- I'll just go ahead and cry. Our lives, I feel, are never going to be the same."
How do you not get sucked into this kind of collective delusion? I don't know. I guess pay attention to people who tell you you're being irrational. If a worry is looming too large in your life, try to get some perspective. We got through the great depression, world wars, and McCarthyism without the country breaking apart - how likely is it that executive pay or the government storing your email is going to lead to the apocalypse? For me, remembering times I was wrong and reliving the embarrassment helps me be a bit less sure of my conclusions and more open to listening to dissenting views. Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that things that seems too good, or too bad, to be true probably aren't true. It is a tough problem.
I went to an excellent talk by Chip Berlet on conspiracy theories and how to tell whether there is anything to them or not. Because sometimes there is a conspiracy - I think he mentioned the Ku Klux Klan and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for example. I haven't found anything directly on this subject on his website, but this is along the same lines: