by Cynthia Beal
September, 1999. It's been a bit over two years since I first
read what I
thought was an e-message spoof from Gary Glynn to several of us on an
esoteric listserv - "tick, tick, tick..." he wrote - pointing to this blip
in time we now call "Y2k". I'm counting up from the moment of my awareness,
and not down to the day of January 1, 2000 like so many others, because Y2k
is not about a moment that comes and goes for me, but instead its entry
into my world is rather a landmark of adjusted perspective that I can no
more erase from my consciousness than my first view of the photographed
earth from space.
I thought I knew what "connected" meant prior to
meeting this term, "Y2k".
But somehow, from the first moment I felt - for seeing Y2k was first a
feeling, much like the sense you develop for objects in the dark - the
events' horizons, I grasped that "Y2k" was simply a convenient name for a
nested confluence of vast processes I didn't begin to understand, whose
blythely presumed synchronicities would falter, and in that faltering whole
new relationships and streams of consequence would be born.
This, I now have learned, is "connection" - a state
of stumbling into or
reaching for one another that can resolve into both dance and damage, if
the parties hold one another loosely, and with grace.
"Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves,"
are words attributed to
Chief Seattle. His people knew about the intricate balance that nature's
forms also dance within. They knew that the cultures of peoples mimic these
forms, and that our technologies - our arts, our crafts, our utilitarian
and self-indulgent practices - imprint our minds and determine if we do or
do not possess the wisdom necessary to survive. With life out of balance,
and things or fellow beings arrayed against you because their connection
with you goes unseen, these people also knew that it could be very hard to
Two years ago I made my first forays into Peter DeJager's Year
listserv. A technically naive grocer with concern for the livelihood I'm
crafting, I vowed to try my best to do what I could to learn if the problem
was an issue for me and, if it proved to be so, I wanted to impact my work
and my community in a positive way.
I posed a request for assistance and Harlan Smith, a vocal
member of the
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility's Y2k Working Group, wrote
the Chair, suggesting "I think we should try to help this lady, though I
doubt it will do any good." Harlan proceeded to put me well on the road to
analyzing my own business' vulnerabilities, and was especially good at the
nuts-and-bolts of pragmatic, cut-to-the-chase prioritization.
He didn't take too well to my constant re-framing of Y2k as
for positive and useful life pattern changes, but I think that was
primarily because he felt the danger that faced large metropolitan areas
was very great, and that approaches like mine were a waste of valuable
time. Not because they were useless (as he once conceded during one of my
"take it easy, Harlan" lectures on the side, during which I gave him the
textbook definition of "cognitive dissonance", and he used it to good
effect thereater.), however, but because the magnitude of the challenge was
huge and I was detracting from the real work.
He believed that the Y2k risk was so great that any time available
be spent in high-gear assaults upon the deaf ears of those who had the
power to put into place solutions of scale that could really serve areas
like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. He was also sometimes of the
school that thought that optimists were less likely to
prepare. But no matter what he thought of me, and the damage he thought I
was doing with my well-intentioned POV, he always supported me, and kept me
informed when he thought I needed to know something.
Harlan died last month ago of a heart attack, and his passion
missed. I had hoped to meet him one day, and thank him in person for his
contribution to my life. I'm sure the stress of giving this problem all the
attention he could bring to the table strained his health, and I am
reminded of the great care we must all take of ourselves as we work the
various rivers we have decided to cross.
Last week I was at the post office. When the clerk's computer
seized up and
he had to re-boot it, the Operating System info screen came up. A 1988
Version of Unisys software listed its components as the system loaded.
"That's still not a compliant piece of software," I said, recognizing it
from a year ago when I first noticed it. "What's up?"
The clerk looked rueful. "Yeah, I know. And funny thing
is, we're not going
to have our new system up before the end of the year. Our machines are on
order, but they're not going to be installed before January 1st."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"I don't know. They're not telling us."
"What about all those folks who actually use the Post
Office for their
"I don't know. I guess they'll have a problem."
I think about this. I've brought it up into my community before
- this same
issue, as a matter of fact. The word, a year ago, was "They'll get it fixed
in time. There's too much at stake."
I wonder about my current responsibility to inform, now that
my own voice
of concern falls into a neat and dismissable package of one of "those Y2k
people" droning on and on about the Post Office having problems and other
vague impossibilities. I think about those people in my community who might
say "But if I'd known it was the *Post Office* I would have done
OK, folks. Consider this one more gentle nudge.
I was listening to a couple of local fellows on the radio the
talk about the fall lineup for the university football season. Everything
they said was extrapolation from pieces of fact - someone's performance
record to date, number of starts, injuries, personality, who was coaching -
it was all speculation.
I realized these guys do this because it's fun. There's something
about looking at the elements of data available, putting them together, and
speculating on the outcome - indeed, actually using the elements creatively
to *generate* the desired outcome. I also realized they do it every year,
over and over again, because they're also sometimes right. And they're
right often enough that they can show up year after year, with similar
prognostications, and be attended to, and even paid to guess about the
With Y2k, I've noticed that use of the same thought and scenario
is resoundly dismissed, precisely because the processes are speculative. I
suppose this would be the equivalent of telling all sports announcers to
stay home til after the game, and then simply analyze what did or didn't go
wrong. Why is Y2k different?
Is it because it's actually serious and it's somehow inappropriate
speculate on those things that are truly filled with potential devastation?
Do we project our capacity to intelligently shape upcoming events onto
relatively innocuous competitive acts like football, or film awards, or
Christmas retail sales records and ignore our influence upon other equally
complex arenas of our activity like powerful material-world technologies,
food and hunger issues, social transitions, or Y2k?
Is the dilemma actually about which camp y2k belongs in - sports
serious matter? Plenty of folks dismiss football watchers. Plenty of folks
dismiss social analysts. The question for me is still whether or not the
folks who need to take Y2k seriously can get out of the sports arena soon
enough and put their Ronnie Ranger hats on to solve the real problem before
the damages kick in full-tilt.
Last month, I attended one of the Federal Government's "Community
Conversations" in the nearby village community of Triangle Lake, Oregon.
Hosted by the local Grange, and powered by an intelligent dynamo named
Jeanne Trudeau, I saw a number of folks I've met over the last couple of
years who have stood up in our County, concerned about our readiness for
any emergency at all, much less simply the flak (or broadsides) from Y2k.
The President's regional representative didn't have much to
say, but was
more a placeholder in the meeting itself, and probably served to bring out
a few people that may not otherwise have come. This is the kind of
validation that a number of us have needed and, while it's late, it's also
at least - and finally - here.
We heard from the typical spread of reps that other Y2k panels
made up of, but the presentations of some of the local folk were more
candid than I've heard up til now. The very small local telco rep cited
chapter and verse of the critical systems' equipment, replacement
schedules, vulnerabilities, time frames, and contingency issues.
It wasn't all rosy, but it wasn't too late for what seemed
control. And his presentation was backed up with the local ARES/Ham
coordinator for the area, and a Ham operators list was given to the group
to incorporate in their Neighbors Emergency Aid Response handout they've
put together. There was none of this "we're so ready you don't need to be"
malarky, and that was very refreshing.
I came away from the meeting with a simple model for what will
my own stretch of county road, and the knowledge that pockets of people I
know are continuing to plan and make real useful tools that will aid and
build community. These are the sorts of arenas in which friendships are
formed, and I suppose it should be obvious that the term "friendship" can
mean exactly that - a vessel, a ship, of friendness that can carry you
across troubled times like no other vehicle can. I'll be posting it into
our Local Salon - acronym is NEAR - so check into www.efn.org/y2k after
September 20 if you're interested.
My own business is truly shooting the rapids now. The staff
is striving to
ride the discomfort of mega-mergers and cheap (or dangerous) imitation
products all around us, slicing our tiny market share to shreds. We feel
the volatility approaching, and can't tell yet if our niche is in a
backwater or ready to take the full brunt of the infrastructure's shudder.
I'll be doing a set of Y2k workshops for my trade association
Provender Alliance) this October. One is entitled "Y2k is NOT Funny; What
Could Go Wrong if it Isn't Allready" (and yes, that's a pun on "all-ready",
groan) - an exploration of the doomer side of the Millennium and how we're
likely to eat through it all (or whom - remember, I'm in the food
industry); and then a second "Upside" Bit on the fixes available
short-term, how to make the most out of contingency planning through
alliance building and organizational re-invention.
We're changing our business to serve what we feel should be
the needs of
people who want to eat well in the next century without poisoning the
planet. We're positioning ourselves to function in an environment that has
higher fuel and power costs, more breaks in the distribution chain, and
rapidly shifting regulations and opportunities. These are all very
difficult things to do anyway, and attending to Y2k adds a dimension of
complexity that I hadn't planned on, but have decided to learn to enjoy.
After all, what haven't we got to lose?
There are plenty of people who still say Y2k will be a big
haven't quite figured out why they should need to say that, since it's so
obviously an unknown that merely asserting the fact reveals the foundation
of ignorance the statement is based upon.
I've also been surprised at the assumptions of those who are
careful with their words - race and class biases split the seams of
politically ueful facades with comments like "the undeveloped countries
won't be affected because they don't have computers", and "I'd love to see
the nuclear and chemical industries have lots of problems." Excuse me, but
what planet are *they* living on?
Just last week I was talking to a friend in my grocery who
is a travel
writer and reviews 4-star hotels and resorts internationally. I mentioned
Y2k to him over a year ago. He said that since then, he's been casually
asking folks about it wherever he goes. "98% of them have never heard of
it," he tells me. "I just completed a tour of Saudi Arabia and the Middle
East, and the problem's not in evidence anywhere. They didn't know what I
was talking about."
I asked him if they had a lot of computers and he looked at
me like I was
the kind of dolt I described in the paragraph above. Of course they have
lots of computers. Slam-dunk on the winter tourist industry, I guess - and
that's if they're lucky. Maybe being in a fancy off-track resort is NOT the
place you want to be over the roll-over. Who knows? But I certainly don't
want to get slapped with a "defamation of vacation" lawsuit, so I'll keep
I remain concerned about the big stuff I described in my earliest
worry-posts - you know, the viscous, hot, flowing, volatile,
complexly-chained macro-chemical gunk that belongs in automated-processor
controlled tanks, vats and pipes (if anywhere) and not in the ground, air
or water (see "Upwind, Upland, Upstream" - Fall, 1998 Earth Island
Journal.) I don't want to see, or smell, or taste, or feel, a lot of
nuclear and chemical problems - certainly no more than we already have. I
like a relatively stable biospere, and rapid changes in normally stable
elements quickly and hotly becoming something else make me nervous.
Virtually no one participates in any aspect of commerce without
the receiving end of some form of computing capacity, even if it's "only"
the emissions monitoring system of the chemical plant upwind, or a delicate
national peace brokered by intricately balanced commercial and family
It's that "connection thing" again.
Beginning two years ago, my writings on Y2k, after speaking
higher-risk no-tolerance-of failure potentials, have focused primarily upon
the most likely interruption scenarios and how they will affect those with
the least cushion to rely upon. As usual, speculation vacilates from black
to white, worst to best, sometimes without a wise enough pause in the
middle where the damages are most likely to occur.
I am an advocate of change pursued in the most traditional
- courteous, graceful, intelligent, compassionate, and realistic. We seem
to have a rather large Change looming (actually, we're smack dab in the
middle of it, and Y2k is just one of the white caps on the water), and we
need to stow gear, count heads, and put life jackets in place before we hit
the heavier seas. Who gets counted, and how we end up doing the counting,
are issues of import for me.
This does end up being the place I find myself the most testy,
constantly work to remind myself that each of us, acting on our concerns,
is doing exactly our part in contributing to the welfare of all. I don't
believe that casting those who notice something uncomfortable as "Chicken
Little" does much to help us. Our sense of concern is a radar that we must
learn to steer by and when it's interpreted as "fear", the meaning our
concern holds for us is not yet understood.
In light of one of the supreme dismissals of the century that
I feel I'm
witnessing, I want to acknowledge everyone I've met (and that is so many of
you) who have the courage to act on their concerns, as well as the courage
to hear another's. Both are powerful acts, and they give me hope for this
Big in the inside-y2k news in August is a brisk dialogue engendered
web publication of a list of utilities (www.jimlord.to) whose Y2k
compliance is in question. The origins of the List, the purpose of the
List, the subjects of the List, the meaning of the List - all of these
things are currently in question, and the Spin is On in the news, but it
probably won't shift much from what we currently can see, early in the
Parts of it are data, and parts are conjecture. In a nutshell,
as of a
particular time, the creators of the list didn't know the compliance status
of utilities supplying services to about 60 of its 400 operations bases in
the US. This condition existed in an environment in which December 31,
1998, was the drop-dead date for compliance and the promised end-to-end
testing should have been thoroughly explored by now.
Some point out that the status of some of the utilities on
the list was
"unknown", and that didn't mean that the utilities were non-compliant. They
also note that the Navy didn't contact any of the utilities on the list to
get their readiness statement.
If I were making such a list, and I needed it to be reliable,
rely upon unaudited self-reported readiness statements, either. My
goodness, the Military invented the term "CYA", and the practice has become
widespread in heirarchies for a reason.
I would, however, look for evidence that utilities were participating
heavily in remediation. Had they had, or been to, preparedness or technical
workshops? Were they participating in NERC, EEI, EPRI or other instutional
reporting? Are they engaged in outreach? Have they been doing so for long
enough? Are their BODs involved? Are they likely candidates for divestment
or FOF strategies? Did they have a Y2k budget or manager or realistic
contingency plan? Is the hive buzzing, or is it asleep in the sun?
I'm not suggesting that this was the criteria used to assemble
particular list, but rather that such a list might indeed be the result of
a critical profiling project, using best available data/intelligence, and
culminating in this scenario set of about 15% potential potential
The utility list Lord released was purportedly on a public
website, but all
the Y2k pundits make the point "If it was so public, why couldn't I find
it?" This suggests there may be two "publics." That certainly is the
hypothesis of some, and the officialdom, rather than opting to say "we felt
it was public, and didn't want to push it, and here it is in an undoctored
form", is instead reinforcing the Two Publics view.
The simple existence of the Master Utility List (and you know
governmets and corporations have their own versions) is, in itself, a
strong statement revealing internal governmental disagreement about the
scope of the Y2k problem, or how to best address it. We've had plenty of
indications this disagreement exists, and we might as well read between the
lines here, "get real" about the level of uncertainty that is increasingly
visible, and keep working on solving the problem
Just recently, a 17 member organizational coalition in our
a public statement about Y2k readiness. The tone of the message ended up
being "Don't worry, be happy". The 17 members had a lot of disagreement
about what was proper or useful to convey. The county and city wanted a
stronger message, encouraging folk to prepare their systems - other
organizations wanted it much lighter, still deeming Y2k an embarassing
non-event, I presume.
The compromise seems to have created an ambivalent non-message
that can say
little of true substance, and makes it inevitable that behind-the-scenes
actions of some of the members will be grossly at odds with their public
presentation. This, in turn, can engender suspicion as the year wears on
and their actions become known, or even public anger if the problem is
bigger than anticipated but information was witheld.
Managing potential crisis as if the biggest problem is personal
the potential is, in itself, a Two Publics platform, and certainly doesn't
speak well to the process/prospect of an informed democratic populace with
Where is the ACLU on Y2k, BTW? or the Southern Poverty Law
Center? or any
of the PIRG groups - activists all, and self-avowed champions of the
underdog who, by all published government and statistical projections on
Y2k, is most likely to be harmed by the fallout of these technical
failures? My goodness, the dearth of eyes on this puppy is interesting.
OTOH, this does speak to these groups' strength - reaction after the fact -
and reminds me not to look to these organizations for insight or foresight
into prevention of social ill. That, it seems, must come from another
Jim Lord's excellent point, through all of that List business,
the US Military and other select organizations have been given the option
to plan for worst case scenarios, and the citizens vulnerable to these
problems should be (but haven't been) given that same option. I have family
in a number of the areas named that currently think this problem is quite
overblown, precisely because they *haven't* seen data like this - my family
is largely composed of high-tech types, and information isn't Information
for them until it comes from a source with scientific or technical
credibility (I know, my genetic lineage is at risk here).
Maintaining "need to know" status on this type of
information may turn out
to be a huge mistake - perhaps one that only a few will regret; perhaps one
that someday most of us will realize was extremely misguided.
To choose who gets the information and who doesn't is, ultimately,
triage preparedness, and I believe it is this triage, coupled with the
governmental triage that is already occuring as "mission-critical" systems
are defined by the sitting government, without public review, and
"non-mission'critical" services are allowed to fail, that has rightly
angered Jim Lord.
It is now September, 1999, and there is little time to add
to the global
harvest, expand production capacity, build warehouses, etc. and have these
activities nest neatly into the usual economic and resource flows.
At this time, the ability of our national/world community to
ramp up for
the uncertainty level we will have to move through the rollover with in
order to allow adequate individual preparations is about over, IMO. Those
who could have prepared wisely in advance, and didn't, will soon begin to
do so, and the markets of a relatively small number of items could begin to
lock up, as corporations and governments begin brokering the preparedness
of their staffs and non-expendable personnel on larger and larger scales.
I've written about this extensively in the past.
If there is an emergency, the few months of production remaining
require that the rest of the surplus be accumulated centrally so that it
can be re-distributed to those in need, wherever the hits are hardest.
My hope is that we will let the marketplace continue to do
accumulation and re-distribution in order to assure that the items flow.
This is a controversial subject, and I can't bore you all with it here,
because I am a staunch advocate of broad natural parity in distribution
systems and centralized disbursement has huge problems. But there's a
reason why black markets flourish in crises. They work. The goods get out,
instead of being locked up by politics.
If anyone is concerned about shortages of food, water, health
etc. as a result of corporate/institutional stockpiling (and it has
*always* been considered wise to buy inventory low, in advance of need or
in anticipation of shortage - this year, known as "hoarding" if you're a
citizen), I highly encourage you to become involved *now* in your food
bank, your county health services volunteer programs, your emergency prep
through your fire departments, or any of a number of currently existing
streams of support that will need to be functional no matter what the level
of disruption - from mild to high.
And, in addition, finish your own work now. I'm not kidding,
friends. If we
want to move through the next century with a lot more consciousness and a
lot less waste, we need to change together, and we might as well do it now.
People remind us continually that only about 2-3% of any population
actually prepares for even well-known emergencies or interruptions - and
this statistic is pulled primarily from a group of folks who's been fully
informed. We've had time to look around our communities, our industries and
trades, our families, our organizations, and our world. We know who *we*
are - those of us who see a problem and an opportunity, when few others do.
Not having enough of us doesn't change what we should do.
I like Douglass Carmichael's weekly reports. I don't possess
the time or
discipline to do those, but I do find myself with the odd thought now and
again. One of those, in line with the prognosticating I like to do, leads
me to speculate on what we're likely ("we" being technologized people with
strong urban/global ties) to experience because of what we're failing to
B.F.Skinner has had a rather profound impact on social thought,
and some of
his memes work through our culture like embedded systems - he has
assumptions and biases built into concepts that are used axiomatically and
have, over the last few decades, found their way into organizing structures
and basic interfaces in large organizations.
Kat Kincade, in an article in the Summer, 1999 Issue of "Communities
Magazine", recounts her experiences at Twin Oaks Community, and points out
some of Skinner's mistakes, assumptions he made about how people should be
that didn't hold up under real-world conditions. I look at her list:
"...He was wrong about mothers being willing to have their
in a community nursery; he was wrong about members being willing to leave
their government to a small group of individuals; he had failed to predict
the sexual revolution and underestimated the women's movement. But worst of
all, he was completely wrong about the four-hour [work] day."
According to Kincade, Skinner failed totally to comprehend
the depth at
which established businesses and industries must function in order to make
his proposed lifestyle possible, leading to huge economic and social
challenges for the Walden Two-based community of Twin Oaks that she helped
found 30 years ago.
He dramatically underestimated the support costs for the population
he was proposing in his 1948 novel, "Walden Two", that became a blueprint
for organizations and groups around the world. "This ignorance of practical
economics is pretty well the norm," she writes, "among ... intellectuals
who quite justifiably find fault with the society but do not have any
business background and so, unfortunately, do not really know how one would
go about creating the financial underpinning of the societies they
I tend to forget that those in government, many of those who
society, those who have always liked to carry the cultural news to us
through mass media, often do so not because they like how things are, but
because they want to spark change or have influence in some manner. In
other words, they are understandably discontent with static states, and
carry the torch of progress by choosing, selling or giving the world the
information it uses to steer a course by.
And, if they are like Skinner (whose ideas were radical in
the 40's and
50's but are commonplace enough today), they may be masters at conveying
information through their special brand of media, but they may also be so
out of touch with the awesome and complex production systems that support
their strata of operations that they fail to convey the information those
support systems need to survive.
If these folks are making any of the mistakes Skinner did -
probable some of them are, since they're from a similar milieu - they'll be
likely to show up in the areas Kincade mentions above. Since most
organizations are relying upon the mass media to communicate the direction
Y2k attention should move, I suppose we'll see a bit of after-the-fact
analysis that combs through problems of oversight generated by assumptions
such as these.
I'd look for big challenges in peoples' receptivity to group
relocation or temporary housing, centralized management through off-site
controllers, loss of autonomy to automated processes (even more than
before, since lots of new upgraded systems are even more automatic and
human-free than before), and a drastic underestimation of how much time it
takes (costs) to do something. This is all old news in Y2k land, but I
suppose it will blow through the experience-fan soon enough.
And so, finally, here's a little laundry list of the emergent
connections that have made their way more firmly into my sphere, thanks to
the technical and socio-political aspects Y2k, and the writings and
thoughts of so many of you:
* Neighborhood Emergency Aid Response teams - building connection
later, learning what we depend on, and deciding whether or not we should
* Neighborhood governance based on mutual aid and support in addition to
political and social agendas
* Citizens Technical Review Boards
* The technical infrastructure we maintain for our current daily actions -
and the brittle parts of it that we might choose to change
* Internet Communications systems for communities and friends
* The potential of publicly owned ISPs
* Multiple purpose crisis planning that both saves and changes lives
* The even greater importance of building a sustainable food system (and
how to do it better)
* Precinct Community Alliances
* The Global Action Plan - All Together, Now - and uniquely, one at a time!
* Tom Atlee and the Co-Intelligent Institute work
* The virtual "Millennium Salons", co-founded by myself and Bill Dale, and
now running under the auspices of Coalition 2000 (set up your own county
web page from the model they've provided; I am, and it's at
* The on-the-ground Millennium Salons, an irregular meeting of moving and
shaking women who knit and spin, can, organize neighborhoods, testify to
public government, garden, cook, and dream of a better world together.
* The love of dear partners and good friends, both met and un-met, who make
the world together.
We're finished with the blueberry harvest. Only three of the
chicks I got this spring turned out to be roosters - better than the eleven
out of twelve I ended up with (and eating) last year. The greenhouse is
going up. I've got a good bit of my winter food put up, and am homing in on
the second half as the grain harvests come in - hard to believe we'll be
starting fall rains in a few weeks.
Little bits and pieces of winter readiness remain - the switch
to the water
pump needs replacing, the roof needs fixing, parts need purchasing, feed
needs storing. It's a grand and abundant time, and I'm thankful for this
set of months, on the eve of the next Millennium, that have helped to set a
tone of conservation and concern for so many of us who have access to so
much more than we truly need. Will we prioritize rightly and well? That
still remains to be seen, doesn't it?
I send you all, individually, my sincere appreciation for your
contributions to our culture and our world. You are all inspiring to me. A
number of you have written, and I've not had the time to share back at you
as I'd like, but we just have to trust that all things are in their time -
and the connections have been made, regardless.
Harlan's death reminds me that we are each, perhaps, so very
brief in our
span here - or at least, so brief in our knowledge and awareness of one
another - and the trajectory that I sense at this particular peak of my
view suggests that it is the path impelled by an enthusiastic gratitude
that gives my stumble feet wings.
In community always,