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Does it matter if it's a "Y2K effect"?


by Tom Atlee - Dec 26,1999


For months I've been bemoaning to myself the fact that we probably won't be able to tell for sure what's a Y2K effect and what's not. I woke up a few minutes ago with the realization that it doesn't matter -- at least for those of us concerned either about community preparedness or making a more healthy culture. The real issue on ANY kind of disruption is that our culture is becoming progressively less resilient and more vulnerable to serious disruptions, widespread suffering and even total collapse. Among the reasons for this are four that relate to Y2K. The first three generate the last one. These factors are:

a) our system's use of success criteria (e.g., profit, growth, speed, efficiency, etc.) that don't measure quality of life
b) our system's competitive bias
c) our system's inclination towards short-term thinking
d) our system's overdependence on technology

I know there are many other factors that could be woven into this story of what's happening to us. But I offer these four as basic, easy to communicate, and productive to address. They fit together into a single dynamic that gave us Y2K and will continue to generate similar problems. Here's how I'd express it:

Our focus on short-term monetary growth and efficiency
in a competitive environment makes our ever-growing
dependence on technology -- especially on vulnerable digital
information technologies -- inevitable.*

Efficiency, in particular, requires that we get rid of redundancies. Since redundancies are essential for resilience, our pursuit of efficiency drives us further into vulnerability. Ultimately it isn't the technologies, themselves, that are the problem. The problem is our DEPENDENCE on those technologies, to the exclusion of other ways of functioning.

So whenever a technological breakdown causes disruption -- and it doesn't matter whether that breakdown was caused by Y2K, terrorism, violent weather, human error, computer viruses, or any other reason -- the resulting DISRUPTION was caused by our DEPENDENCE, by our lack of resilience. The fact that this dynamic is currently built into our society suggests that it would be wise to either (1) change the system to be more resilient and less dependent on technology or (2) decide that future disruptions are inevitable and put lots of attention on making households, organizations and communities more resilient with a constant high level of vigilance and preparedness.

For those interested in further exploring the systemic sources of our dependence on technology, I have added some notes below. But the main intention of this letter is to encourage more of us to expand our focus beyond Y2K to the larger issue that Y2K is a harbinger of -- our systemic vulnerabilty because of systemic overdependency on technology. As I suggested before, some of us will choose to face this as an inevitable fact of life, as the Navy War College and some far-seeing emergency preparedness folks are doing. Others of us will choose to try to change the dysfunctional dynamics, themselves, in an effort to help our society become healthier.

I suspect both approaches are very much needed now. Regardless of which approach we use, let's not worry about whether each technology-based disruption is "caused by Y2K" before we speak out about it. ANY technology-based disruption is good reason for widespread preparedness and/or social change efforts.




* Aside from the more obvious examples like just-in-time inventories and computerized railroad switching, the example of how Y2K was almost fixed comes to mind (as reported in the January 1999 Vanity Fair). In the early 1970s Bob Bemer and other leading programmers made a very concerted effort to get the Federal Government to adopt a four-digit-year standard for its own operations. Nixon turned them down twice. The major factor against them, apparently, was the Pentagon, who had more computers than anyone else in the world, was preoccupied with the Vietnam War (talk about a competitive environment!) and didn't want the expense of fixing all those computers with no short-term, real-world benefit. Had the federal government adopted a four-digit standard, any company that wanted to do business with them would have had to go along, and the practice would have spread -- by market forces alone -- to the rest of the country and the world. But since the federal government kept a 2-digit standard, the whole economic system was biased towards it. Furthermore, any company which invested significant resources into Y2K corrections would be investing in something that didn't generate any current market advantage. So the short-term competitive market was a major factor in companies waiting until very late in the game to get rolling on Y2K fixes. In the last year or so, since so many other companies had to get cracking on Y2K, what was a competitive disadvantage before became competitively neutral (in markets where everyone was doing it) or turned into a competitive advantage (in markets where only a few companies were doing it, but the competitive pay-off would come soon, i.e., in 2000).


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In addition to being part of our habitual ways of thinking and behaving, these factors in non-resilience are built into our system in or driven by lopsided social dynamics, for example:

a) Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the total amount of money spent in the economy) is the primary measure of economic health and, therefore, of human well-being. This statistic ignores very significant realities, such as what that money was spent for (e.g., weapons, toxic cleanups, etc.), the sometimes destructive effects (e.g. pollution, destruction of communities, etc.) that may have been involved in generating that economic activity, what people (e.g., parents, volunteers) and nature (e.g., forests, honeybees) are producing outside the money economy (i.e., "for free"), etc. GDP is such a poor indicator of human well-being that things could be getting worse in all our lives (anxious and rushed, no time even for loved ones, more poor and homeless people, more pollution and environmental threats) and the GDP would still go up -- OR our quality of life could be better (simpler, more engaged with each other and life, more people getting their basic needs met, healthier environment) and the GDP could be going down. This same dynamic plays out in corporations, where "fiduciary responsibility" laws and contracts force company thinking to take profits into account above all else.

b) Our investment-driven market creates (and even glorifies) a very competitive environment. The game is designed so that almost anyone who isn't trying to outdo a competitor loses. The same is true of our politics: the simple fact of being ethical, competent, creative and responsive as a politician is no guarantee of success; in fact, if you aren't willing to aggressively undermine your opponents, you won't likely get far, because your opponents will be busily undermining you. Our majoritarian, two-party political system makes the competitive approach inevitable: Whoever gets 51% of the vote wins. (In consensus-based systems, such as those explored on my website, conflict is resolved not through a winner-take-all battle, but through a shared search for deeper/broader understanding of the issues and interests involved.) Also, throughout our society, there are games and contests designed to have winners and losers, pushing people to compete, either directly or through surrogates (like sports teams). [Note: I'm not saying here that competition is bad. I am pointing out that our society has a bias towards competition that gives competition inordinate influence. Cooperation and competition are both problematic when they exclude the other and most benign and useful when they are integrated or balanced with each other.]

c) Perhaps the most amazing and vulnerable of economic dependencies on computers is the massive daily automated trading in currencies, where hundreds of billions of dollars slosh around the globe 24-hours a day, following the opening money markets, guided primarily by the vigilant computers tracking micro-changes in the relative values of currencies. This huge abstract money snowball gathers more and more money to it as it rolls, and a significant technological problem could blow it up, with vast reverberations throughout the global financial system. The short-term view in this system is the microsecond; long-term thinking is not where it's at. On a more mundane level, the attractiveness of a company for investment is based largely on its quarterly profits and the current stock price. While thoughtful investors look deeper, the mass gamesmanship of the stock markets rides on shallow, short-term statistics such as these. This has a profound influence on the thinking inside the company, which is dependent on those investors, many of whom wouldn't even care if the company folded -- as long as they got out with a profit beforehand. In another sphere, the rhythm of our political process -- based on elections every two to four years -- means that political leaders have to focus on immediate, rather than long-term, policy outcomes. This tendency is exacerbated by politicians' dependence on corporate and popular opinion, both of which are conditioned to short-term thinking by the marketplace. There are few institutional influences in our culture biased towards long-term thinking. The Supreme Court is probably the most significant exception, although its domain is restricted to Constitutional issues; there is no Supreme Court for resilience, sustainability or the public welfare.

d) Our economic system supports the natural human tendencies towards self-interest, recreation, comfort, convenience, longevity and abundance more than the natural human tendencies towards connection, meaning, leisure, nature, health and joy -- because the former are more easily marketed, while the latter are much more difficult to successfully commodify. Because technology supports primarily speed, mechanistic efficiency, and the satisfaction of the first set of human desires, any company or agency which uses an effective new technology has a competitive edge in the marketplace, forcing other companies and agencies in that market to adapt the latest technology. There are virtually no systemic dynamics -- except rising public resistence and the disruptive potential of things like Y2K -- that slow or monitor the adoption of technology.

As an aside, I'd like to note that citizen consensus councils ( ) could provide a very healthy balancing influence on all four of these social dynamics.