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Warning! Possible Collapse Due Soon!

A United Methodist Perspective

by Ezra Earl Jones

"One of the most significant questions
has to do with social relationships --
an issue that goes to the heart of the
church's identity and mission."

That title is meant to get your attention. I hope I can hold your attention long enough to convince you it is real.

But first, a couple of quick stories. This Spring I spent several days in a West African country where many people live in grass huts gathered in small compounds by family as they have for centuries -- no running water, electricity, kitchens with stoves, or bathrooms with toilets. They don't shop in stores, watch television or go to clinics or hospitals when they are sick. There are none. Everything they eat comes from the land and perhaps a few farm animals. Grain, so it will last from one harvest to another, is stored in large clay vessels to protect it from mice and the decaying moisture of the rainy season. Water is carried every day from holes dug in the river beds if the sun has dried up the running streams. There are no computers and no access to the World Wide Web. The authoritarian government has declared that the Internet is out-of-bounds.

I loved it there! Community and innate goodness were all around me. Life seemed simple even if difficult, and important things like openness, surprise, vulnerability, and wonder shown from the eyes of children (and adults too).

A couple of months earlier I had seen those same looks in the eyes of dozens of children in a remote Methodist Church in Central America. Throughout the church service they had sat quietly with their mothers (men sat across the aisle) watching our group of 15 or so strangers from other parts of the world. I am sure they had been told that we were "important" church leaders but titles like, bishop, general secretary, or president didn't mean anything to them. But it was a 'big event' following the service when we visitors wanted to take photographs. Every child wanted to be in every picture and getting the whole group together and still was only partially accomplished.

In the past I have seen a few similar cultures in Asia and the Pacific also. But not many! The whole world, for the most part, has entered into the modern technological age of email, cell phones, and scores of modern conveniences as have we (most of us) in the United States. It is staggering for me to compare the life situation of the people and cultures I have just described with that of my own and my neighbors in our newly constructed condominium complex. In this place we not only have electricity, gasoline and natural gas powering lights, lawnmowers, automobiles, and artificial logs in the fireplaces; many of the lights and appliances, both inside and out, are programmed to turn on and off by automatic eye, movement, or touch. The several detectors on the ceilings of rooms and hallways are activated by heat, smoke, cold, humidity, fumes or gaseous leaks. The clock on the VCR is automatically adjusted for daylight saving time each Spring and Fall by a public radio signal. Twice each year I check on a Sunday morning to see if it really happened, and so far it has.

Perhaps I am most amazed at the contrast as I survey the number of high-tech items in this place that are or may be controlled by computer chips: furnace, air conditioner, water heater, Jacuzzi, burglar alarm, lamps, clocks, stove, garbage disposal, refrigerator, clothes washer and dryer, radio, television, personal computer, elevator, telephone, thermostat, power-tools, breadmaker, toaster, food processor, water purifier, stereo, shaver, hairdryer, exercise bicycle and treadmill and the TV/telephone remote in each unit for unlocking the front door of the building for those we want to admit.

Enough! The contrast is clear. The issue is not which is better or which culture you or I prefer. What we do know is that it would probably be a lot harder for those of us accustomed to the high-tech world to transition to the simple agrarian society than vice-versa. The real issue is much more serious.

For those who have eyes to see, a disruption is coming across the world that will leave those without computer technology essentially untouched while possibly causing major disruption, and even collapse and devastation to those who live in technological sophistication. If it comes, it will happen in less than 18 months.

No, I have not completely lost my sanity and I have not joined a millennialist sect. I am not needing medical attention and I shudder at the possibility that I could be a false alarmist.

The issue is the year 2000 problem (abbreviated Y2K). I am becoming convinced it is real, it is serious, and it is imminent.

Surely, most readers of "Perspective" know the issue: it is the computer programming snafu that has years encoded with only the last two digits (so that 1998 is shortened to 98 and both 1900 and 2000 are shortened to 00). Nobody knows how 00 will be interpreted by computers and it may be different for different computers. Some computers may be programmed in a way that they will continue to function. Others may simply stop. Still others may go wild, destroy data, or surprise us in ways we have no way of anticipating.

The owners and operators of some computer systems are hard at work reprogramming so that like the wise bridesmaids they will be prepared. Other people are not paying much attention or they have already waited too long to make the changes necessary. This is particularly true of large governmental agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and its Air Traffic Control Centers, and Social Security.

Since we live in a society that is fundamentally individualistic, the unseen problem is that each person and organization is paying attention only to its computer. (I have checked for example with our GBOD staff responsible for management information systems and they assure me that our computers are "2000 ready.") We are not seeing that our individual installations do not function alone. They are linked in countless ways with other computers. There is no such thing as "we have taken care of the issue whether others have or not."

As recently as three years ago I sat in a meeting of a dozen or so United Methodist Church leaders where the conversation was about systems, systemic thinking, how parts and processes of a system are interdependent, and how change in one part of the system can have traumatic impact on the rest of the system. One participant stated, "I believe systems is a fad." Another participant asked for the statement to be repeated -- I think to see if he heard correctly. It was heard correctly, no one challenged the statement and the conversation moved on to other subjects. I am suggesting that church leaders, all people responsible for organizations and other people can no longer allow this kind of solo perspective to prevail.

We already know the power of hackers and viruses in computer programs. We recently saw the power of one malfunctioning satellite to interrupt pagers, public radio, and other communications equipment nationwide. Who knows how the chips in all the home devices I listed above were programmed? Could a malfunction in one of them in one unit of our building cause malfunctions in others? The answer is, "We just don't know!" What if the Nashville Electric Service computers, or the companies that provide electricity to your towns, are not 2000 ready? What about power stations fueled by nuclear reactors?

Have you thought about the programs used by the banks that support your personal household, or corporate cash flow? What if ATMs don't work? or the machines with the records showing there is a balance in your account? or the credit card readers at the grocery, the gasoline service station or the department store?

Suppose some or all of this happens. How will people respond? Will there be denial, naive acceptance or maybe panic?

One of the most significant questions has to do with social relationships -- an issue that goes to the heart of the church's identity and mission. Will people be prepared for the January 1, 2000 disruption; will they react in destructive and anti-social ways; will they react as in most natural disasters to support each other and take care of the most helpless?

There is so much more to say and to do, and there is so little known about what to do, what is most important, and what are the best first steps or next steps. I write here about this issue because every church, church organization, and religious network is at risk. But the much bigger issue is that it is a human conundrum and we are on the brink of a "surprise" the nature of which cannot be predicted. Can the church among other institutions at least raise consciousness about the issue?

Some of the best, freshest, and most creative thinking stimulating my thoughts in recent years is found in Margaret Wheatley's Leadership and the New Science and A Simpler Way by Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. These two persons have now teamed up with futurist John L. Petersen to produce an honest and scary paper on this issue including suggestions for action by all of us. We cannot mass produce this paper entitled "The Year 2000: Social Chaos or Social Transformation?" but if you want a personal copy (which you can reproduce) write, email or call and I will send you a copy.

I close with these helpful comments from the paper.
What we know about Y2K:

We can't see the extent of our interconnectedness. The networks
that make modern life possible are created by technology, but they
are also masked by technology.

There aren't enough programmers or hours remaining before the
Year 2000. Time for purely technical solutions ran out.

If we are to go through this crisis together rather than bunkered
down and focused only on individual survival, leaders must begin
right now to convene us.

We urge leaders to give up trying to carry this burden alone.
The complex implications of Y2K demand that leaders support
unparalleled levels of participation -- more broad-based and
inclusive than ever imagined.

Donald G. McNeil, Jr., in a 6/21/98 New York Times article entitled "In Africa, Dreaming of a Wired World," points out that "only about 1 in 300 people in sub-Saharan Africa has a phone . . . impoverished Africans also need telephones . . . Suspicion of complex technology is high." McNeil then goes on to say "Later this year, the ultimate in phone technology is set to roll out: hand-held phones able to call from anywhere on the planet to anywhere else, thanks to new networks of dozens of low-orbit satellites. It's expensive but ideal for Africa's vast unwired spaces."

Is it really?

Think about it!

Ezra Earl Jones is the General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. This article is from the August 1998 issue of PERSPECTIVE, a periodic commentary about the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church. He can be reached through the General Board of Discipleship, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 840, Nashville, TN 37202-0840; fax: (615) 340-7019; email:; phone: (615) 340-7022.