If the more sober prognosticators are right, the millennial odometer will turn over in 10 1/2 months with scattered disruptions, some medium-sized glitches, but hardly a disaster anywhere. About the only thing that will count as a Y2K casualty will be the vague sense of disappointment settling in on those who were hoping, deep down, for a major change. After all the excitement and anticipation, the empire of the technocrats won't have collapsed after all. Lost will be the longed-for opportunity to start over from scratch and finally bring on the Age of Aquarius.
For years sociologists and historians have predicted that millennial anxiety would bring out a record number of religious fundamentalists and right-wing survivalists joyfully preaching doomsday scenarios and hoarding food and ammunition. Far more surprising has been the manner in which a loose coalition of New Agers, veterans of the 1960's counterculture and grass-roots populists have enthusiastically embraced Y2K as a chance to cut free from their stifling addiction to The System and remake society.
This is their vision: Threatened by the collapse of the power and communications grids, the banking and financial networks, the transportation system -- all the webs imposed from on high by the technological elite -- people will join together to grow their own vegetables, energize their homes with solar cells and windmills, trade advice over the backyard fence and "empower" their neighborhoods into old-fashioned communities. It won't be just the mis-programmed computer chips turning back the clock at year's end. In the minds of these visionaries, Dec. 31, 1999, will be followed by 1900, a time before civilization was so dependent on the corporate superstructure.
"The Year 2000 computer problem is not just a technical problem, it is an opportunity for citizens to get together with their neighbors and prepare themselves, their families and their communities for the challenges that may lie ahead," the publisher and editor Eric Utne wrote recently, announcing a 360,000-copy printing of his Utne Reader "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide." A kind of "Whole Earth Catalog" for the new millenarianism, the booklet is filled with advice on becoming as self-sufficient as a Woodstock-era commune.
"As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen," Utne predicts. "We're going to get to know our neighbors. Our communities will become safer, more intimate, more resilient, more neighborly places to live."
All over the country, people will drift away from their soon-to-be-darkened computer screens and meet at the community garden for a homemade cappuccino and some organic greens. Or as Utne put it in an introduction to the guide, "Y2K is the excuse we've been waiting for to stop making so many compromises in how we know we should, and want to, live our lives." Finally, a chance to do the right thing.
While there are sensible arguments for encouraging people to prepare for the worst, some officials are worrying that the most disruptive thing about Y2K will be runs on dehydrated food, bottled water, fuel and other survival supplies. "As it becomes clear our national infrastructure will hold, overreaction becomes one of the biggest remaining problems," John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said last week.
But for some who pine for the earthy optimism of the 60's, Y2K is being greeted as something of a godsend, an antidote to the sanitized 90's. In these artificial times, the old neighborhood food co-ops have been co-opted by superchains like Wild Oats, Alfalfa's, Whole Foods, and Fresh Fields, where nostalgic baby boomers can scoop their own granola from plexiglass bins, pick up homeopathic potions and grab a couple of 16-ounce chemical-free porterhouse steaks for the grill. All that's missing is an organic liquor section.
Y2K offers the hope of returning to the real thing, Esalen-style rhetoric and all. "Using well-developed dialoguing and visioning processes involving the entire community, people could develop new ways to organize themselves with community-supported agriculture, barter and alternative currencies, solar and wind energy, holistic and complementary medicine, and co-ops of all kinds," write two contributors to the Utne guide, Gordon Davidson and Corinne McLaughlin, cofounders of the Center for Visionary Leadership in Washington, D.C. "As people realize they can mobilize their personal resources and contribute to community-preparedness efforts, they feel more confident and empowered that they can get through this."
In an article called "From Chaos to Coherence: The Emotional Challenge of Y2K," Doc Childre and Bruce Cryer of a Silicon Valley "wellness" outfit called the Institute of HeartMath, see disaster survival as an opportunity for personal self-actualization through "intui-technology": "Institute of HeartMath research shows that aligning the mind with the heart increases intelligence, enhances intuition and helps you find creative solutions in balance with the needs of other people."
One of the most enthusiastic of the Y2K apostles is Paloma O'Riley, cofounder of a Colorado-based organization named, with no apparent irony, the Cassandra Project. Like the prophetess of Greek mythology who foresaw the fall of Troy, Mrs. O'Riley travels the country holding town meetings on how to preserve food, store water in 55-gallon drums, foster neighborhood support groups and generally fend for one's self in the face of a possible shutdown. But while the Cassandra of old was cursed by Apollo to have her prophecies ignored, Mrs. O'Riley, who became enthusiastic about self-sufficiency when she left New York to homestead in the Alaskan bush, finds ready audiences of people who seem to secretly long for an extended Y2K camping experience.
"We will survive this, if we all work together," she assures her followers. "Eventually, the storm will pass and we'll wade ashore -- together."
The hardest thing to survive may be the anticlimax. A litany of horror stories in an article in last month's Vanity Fair about "the Y2K nightmare" is oddly more reassuring than alarming: A batch of chemicals at Amway was rejected because a computer figured it had expired in 1900 instead of 2000; a medical information network froze when asked to schedule a doctor's appointment in 2000. But these incidents happened years ago, demonstrating that companies have been confronting and overcoming Y2K problems all along, as has every consumer who now carries a working credit card expiring in 00 or 01. The fixes can be expensive but they are being made.
It is the nature of complex, intertwined systems that their behavior cannot be precisely predicted, so the world may still be in for a shock. Some experts warned that the first would come on Jan. 1, 1999, when many systems started dealing with dates 12 months in the future. With that occasion safely behind, the next milestone is in April for companies starting a new fiscal year, and then in September, when 9/9/99 rolls around, possibly confusing some computers.
If these dates too pass uneventfully, along with the big one on Dec. 31, then the new millenarians will be in much the same position as the old religious fundamentalists who painstakingly add up biblical generations to calculate, and then recalculate, the day of the second coming. One by one, the milestones come and go, judgment day postponed for another time.