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Tom Atlee's Y2K old articles archive

A Y2K-breakthrough agent's credo
The Year 2000 Problem and Social Change
From Breakdown to Breakthrough: Using Y2K to release the creative intelligence of society

A Y2K-breakthrough agents' credo

By Tom Atlee
April, 1998

I've been searching for a way to quickly communicate the seriousness of the Y2K problem AND a positive, transformational stance towards it.

My latest thought is to create a "Year 2000 Possibility Statement" which could serve as a catalyst for urgently-needed networking and dialogue? Below is a first draft. I tried to keep it relatively generic and reasonable-sounding, giving room for many different types of people to get involved, with diverse agendas. -- Tom
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-- It is very possible (very likely?) that the Year 2000 computer bug will significantly disrupt business as usual -- and the lives of millions of ordinary people like us.

-- This prospect is frightening. But it is more than that.

-- This possibility offers us, individually and collectively -- a unique opportunity to reflect on our lives and society, and to make positive changes that will improve the long run quality of life for ourselves and our children.

-- This reflection and action needs to be widespread and collaborative.

-- Such widespread collaboration can help us survive not only this crisis but others we will undoubtedly encounter in the coming decades.


-- We will work with each other, our communities and the social institutions around us, even as we care for ourselves, our families and our organizations.

-- We will actively encourage collective reflection, respectful dialogue and caring service that can help us all grow through the shared challenges of this new era.

-- We will explore ways of living that are more viable, meaningful and rewarding for us all.

-- We will expand these efforts until they become a "new business as usual" -- regardless of what happens in the Year 2000.

IF YOU AGREE, sign this form and get involved with other people who are finding ways to move beyond their denial, fear and survivalism into creating something really good together.
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Each of these items could be expanded upon, both in a web site and in booklet or flier form. This statement could appear as a full-page ad in newspapers, signed by people with big names, soliciting others to sign. Those who signed up would have access to a network of others and resources to work with on this. This project could seek funding and could be supported by contributions of participants.

The Year 2000 Problem and Social Change

by Tom Atlee
April 1998

You and I and a lot of other people are trying to make a more decent, functional, ecological society. We've all got way too much to do, to read, to think about.

So why should we pay any special attention to the "Year 2000 problem"? (That's the programming bug that will make many computers malfunction on January 1, 2000, because they'll see the millennial year slipping backwards from "99" to "00".)

After all, most people believe the Year 2000 problem (Y2K, for short) won't be a big deal. The week after New Years Day 2000 will be pretty much like the week after Christmas Day 1999.

The more I study the problem, the less I believe that. I believe there is a serious problem here hidden under a haze of ignorance, denial and PR.

More importantly, as a lifelong worker for social change, I believe that those of us who want to change society are -- thanks to Y2K -- about to encounter a significant opportunity to advance our diverse agendas. If your agenda requires that people be open to new ways of thinking and behaving, then I believe YOU should be thinking about Y2K.

Most of you will resist this advice. I understand. It is wise to be cautious, to be dubious about alarmist claims. And this is not an easy issue to nail down, to establish any certainty on.

So part of me wants to try convincing you, wants to tell you that even Business Week is alarmed (see 3/2/98 issue) and that even a man totally invested in The System, who has every reason to keep people complacent, and who is famous for understatement and caution -- Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- told Congress just this February, "Inevitable difficulties are going to emerge. You could end up with ... a very large problem." But the fact is, if you are open to finding out more about this topic, there are great places to do it. There's an essay by Paul Ray at the end of this note that gives a good introduction and a lot of web sites you could check out.

So I'm not going to try to convince you. After all, Y2K is a VERY wierd problem to work with. Its complexity, ambiguity and potentially catastrophic consequences do not lend themselves to sound-bite answers and simple assurances. Worst of all, there is very little time left before the year 2000 comes. IF it is going to be a big problem, it will become increasingly visible over the next year and reality will do all the convincing necessary. At this time -- when those of us who are taking this problem seriously are either crazy or uniquely prophetic (and it is hard to tell which!) -- what makes strategic sense to me is to work with people who are ready right now to explore the possibility that Y2K could be a useful organizing tool.

So if you don't think this topic is worth your time right now, I ask you to keep in mind only one thing: IF, IN THE NEXT TWO YEARS, Y2K BECOMES A MAJOR TOPIC OF PUBLIC DISCUSSION, PLEASE EXPLORE IT AS A SOCIAL CHANGE OPPORTUNITY. Once you start exploring it, you'll find that the vast majority of dialogues on this subject are concerned with survival, profit, blame or despair. Hardly any are concerned with Y2K's transformational potential. And that's really a shame. So it will be up to us to realize that potential. But for now, you can carry on as you were doing. You don't even have to finish reading this email. Just
1) keep your eye out for signs of Y2K emerging as something big and
2) if you are willing, pass this on to friends for them to consider.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to explore the possibility of USING the Y2K problem for social change, please read this brief outline of why I think this is such an opportunity:

1) Many responsible experts are suggesting that Y2K may result in significant breakdowns in government services, financial systems, utility and food distribution, and just about every other socio-economic system, lasting for anywhere from a few days to many months or even years. Not just in the U.S., but worldwide. (Third World and former Soviet computers are more prone to Y2K problems -- plus these countries have fewer resources to handle the problem. Meanwhile Europe is so preoccupied with shifting its computers to its new single currency that it is way behind the U.S. in its Y2K repair programs.) If widespread systemic breakdowns occur, massive change is guaranteed. The only question is: What KIND of change will it be? Fascism is possible but some experts say it would be unlikely since the systems for centralized control will be seriously undermined. More likely are (a) chaos, probably characterized by bands of hoodlums, (b) strong local control by mafia as has happened in many parts of the former Soviet Union, and/or (c) active community control and self-reliance. Most of us would favor alternative (c) -- and there are thousands of things we could do to increase its probability. If we made good progress on (c) over the next two years, that would put us WAY ahead with many of our social change agendas!

2) The prospect of breakdowns creates openness to new technologies and thinking. It may become very clear to a lot of people that profit-driven, technologically arrogant, efficiency-based, speedy, anti-community, centralized, linear approaches to life are simply not sustainable. We have alternatives for all that -- ideas, methods, tools, actual living examples, stories... you name it! When power outages are likely (as Business Week suggests), it is a great time to sell solar power. When corporations are more interested in protecting themselves from Y2K-related libel suits than in helping communities prepare for and survive corporate-generated Y2K problems (which is increasingly the case), public consciousness becomes more receptive to the idea of public control of corporate charters and technology development. When computer failures lead to high-tech accidents (nuclear power problems, release of experimental life forms, failure of medical equipment, etc.), people may be ready to give some real thought to how we go about improving our quality of life.

3) A thorny, difficult social problem that will effect EVERYONE -- that will come into being on an exact date -- is a GREAT opportunity for public dialogue. This is my own favorate realm for transformation work. Creative dialogue is needed before, during and after 1/1/2000. Real dialogue is lifeblood of our collective intelligence -- our power to perceive and reflect on our collective situation, and to take collective action. There are powerful tools now available to make real dialogue possible -- conversations that include diverse perspectives, that wrestle with powerful questions, that mine deep group wisdom, that help participants self-organize for co-creative activity. These conversations can be set up to discuss Y2K, while making it clear that the same procedures could be applied to ANY social problem.

The year 2000 is bound to be a potent year for change no matter what. The millennial fever will guarantee that even without the Y2K computer bug. Everyone from New Agers awaiting visitors from the Pleiades to White Supremacist survivalists to Wall Street futures dealers will be acting out their dreams. The mythic field in which we all live will be bursting with possibility -- both for good and for ill. The Y2K computer bug gives a sort of common ground problem for everyone to share.

What will those of us who want a decent, sustainable society be doing with it?

From Breakdown to Breakthrough: Using Y2K to release
the creative intelligence of society

by Tom Atlee

The Year 2000 problem (Y2K) provides an excellent excuse for exploring a basic truth: Society needs both its bearish doomsayers and its bullish conservatives.

Any social system needs those who say that Threat X (such as Y2K) is dangerous. Their preparatory thinking and action constitute a resource for the rest of the system, should their dire predictions turn out to be true.

On the other hand, any social system also needs those who say that Threat X is nothing to worry about. They keep the system's resources (attention, thought, capital, etc.) from being dispersed over every seeming threat anyone might imagine.

Bears, bulls and other extreme perspectives are germane to societal intelligence -- the capacity of an entire society to observe, reflect, learn, and respond coherently. In the presence of societal intelligence the tension between opposed perspectives serves a valuable function for the whole social system. As events unfold, people can get clearer on the extent to which Threat X (such as Y2K) will materialize, and more or less resources can be allocated to it. If either of the opposed perspectives were lost, a level of societal alertness and adaptability would be lost with it.

On the other hand, if all a society has available are extreme viewpoints, its collective intelligence can't function very well. Opposing views need to generate further exploration, insights and alternatives that go beyond them. If they just lock horns, they don't help at all.


Societal intelligence involves, among other things,
a) accessible information flows and feedback loops so that relevant information is broadly available
b) forums for effective dialogue where the meaning of such information can be explored
c) the active involvement of citizens in these information flows and dialogues, and the ability of those citizens' perspectives to adapt as fuller understandings emerge.

The more all three of these factors are present, the more useful will be the voices of the bears and the bulls to the collective mind, and the less likely the whole culture will find itself stuck at one extreme or another (unable to respond) or torn apart from within by the expansion of extremism in a contracting middle ground.

In the Y2K problem the discourse is still somewhat extreme. Intense discussions are occuring in widely diverse specialized groups -- from insurance companies to computer programmers, from economists to Christian fundamentalists. The voices involved tend to be either bearish or bullish. Some fear a catastrophe and others brush the problem off. There is precious little creative middle ground or dialogic space in which the merits of various perspectives can be compared and understood in nuanced ways, and more useful perspectives evolved.

This suggests a need for greater societal intelligence. To help us understand how to pursue that objective, we can look at the sort of factors that undermine the three primary conditions for societal intelligence mentioned above. Among the more obvious are:
-- lack of citizen involvement in public discourse and societal learning (whether from distraction, disillusionment, confusion, or otherwise)
-- individual and collective denial (motivated by fear, habit, ignorance, or otherwise)
-- the suppression of information that threatens special interests (by corporations, media, politicians, etc.)
-- a level of specialization that makes it difficult to know the significance of data from outside one's sphere and virtually impossible to understand how diverse pieces of the picture fit together
-- dysfunctional forms of public discourse that fail to generate public wisdom and will
-- fashion-driven information distribution (e.g., sexy news), lacking context and follow-up
-- competitive or conformist political cultures that keep public opinion from adapting to changing circumstances.

All these obstacles are present in the Y2K dialogue. Interestingly enough, the most generative information-gathering and dialogue is happening on the Worldwide Web. Although the dialogic power of these on-line conversations is primitive compared to state-of-the-art face-to-face engagements (such as study circles, open space conferences, talking circles, future searches, etc.), the on-line flow of information and search for meaning are not impeded by the constraints of mainstream media. There is ample space for those with passion to share what they know and think with others who are interested. Furthermore, the infrastructure is being created whereby face-to-face Y2K activities could be linked together through the Internet, maximizing the strengths of both modes.

Ideally, all this activity would prepare the ground for widespread, sophisticated, multi-modal public discourse. For example, representative citizens could be educated in the facts and dynamics of Y2K and then be given a chance to question experts (both bearish and bullish, and many in between) so that all factors of the problem and its implications would be brought to the surface. Professionally-edited video reports of such dialogues could be provided to stimulate discussions in religious institutions, schools, unions, etc. People involved in such discussions could participate in scenario explorations of how they, their communities, and their organizations (churches, companies, etc.) might respond to the problem.

Programs of this sort could provide a powerful alternative to the sort of ennervating battles and obfuscations on Y2K that will probably proliferate in mainstream forums as the millennium approaches.

The tranformational potential of real dialogues and scenario explorations can be enhanced by including reflection on the cultural values and assumption that led to Y2K -- and examination of alternative ways of living and of organizing society. It is likely, however, that such deep inquiry will occur in only a small percentage of dialogues we might generate. This should not deter us: the very fact that those dialogues and explorations will be occuring broadly will be itself tranformational. To the extent these meaningful conversations counter the obstacles listed above, they will release the natural collective intelligence of the citizenry. That collective intelligence is the brilliance of democracy. Adequately empowered by this crisis and our organizing, it will continue to transform the society for decades into the 21st century.

We should be grateful for such a remarkable opportunity.