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
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
_ _ _ _
THE YEAR 2000 PROBLEM GIVES US A CHANCE
-- 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.
_ _ _ _
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
The Year 2000 Problem and Social Change
by Tom Atlee
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
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
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
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
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
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.
SOME DYNAMICS OF SOCIETAL INTELLIGENCE
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
c) the active involvement of citizens in these information flows and dialogues,
and the ability of those citizens' perspectives to adapt as fuller understandings
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
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,
-- 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
-- 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.