Y2K: Technology Hopes and Fears

Perhaps the most clearly defining aspect of the twentieth century has been the significant technological development that transpired and the social change that has resulted from it. The rate at which technologies have been adopted by and integrated into Western cultures in the past one hundred years far surpassed any previous period. At the end of the twentieth century, the computer became a symbol representing all technology on which Western society had come to depend. The year 2000 computer software problem threatened the reliability of the computer and, as a result, threatened the stability of the dependent relationship. In a nutshell, the Y2K software problem was the prospect that some computers would process the date 2000 as the date 1900 due to a faulty date storage system, and would either produce errors in their expected behavior or shut down completely. These computers controlled aspects of communications, electricity, transportation, finance, medicine, employment and the government. Predicted scenarios ranged from a few days of inconvenience, similar to a bad snowstorm, to that of complete global shutdown and resulting chaos over a much longer period of time.

However, none of these predicted catastrophes or resulting social chaos did come to pass. Most Y2K problems were solved before the date changed from 1999 to 2000. Some said that Y2K was a flop, a dud, a non-event. I challenge that position from a sociological standpoint. Independent of whether the world as we know it ended or not, Y2K was a significant event sociologically. According to Richard Landes (1997), there have always been subcultures that predicted a grand transformation of the world on a specific date. “However, they have always been wrong- the end has never come- but ironically, while these true believers may have been wrong, they were rarely inconsequential. The preparations that were made in advance usually produced profound social change. In other words while the apocalypse they prophesy has never come, in more pedestrian terms, millennialists often succeed: the world is a different place after them” (Landes, 1997:2). Subcultures have framed Y2K and acted on that framing in unique ways that have provided an opportunity for sociological study at the subcultural level, independent of an actual technological disaster.

The Y2K technological threat perfectly coincided with the much-anticipated change of century and change of millennium. Millennialism as a social phenomenon has been theorized (Cohn,1979;Landes,1997; Barkun,1974; Bull,1995; Grosso,1995; O’Leary, 1994; Derosche, 1979) to be comprised of the anticipatory beliefs and actions of a population in response to an imminent social change, usually a calendar change or the predicted end of the world as we know it. These beliefs and actions, although highly intermingled in the Western world with Christianity, went above and beyond religion and have been theorized to consistently apply to more and more secular groups (Lamy,1996). Millennial belief has been conceived of as emotional in nature (Landes,1997; O’Leary,1994).

The Y2K problem became an emotional issue, around which the expectations of the apocalypse formed. The apocalypse may have been viewed with trepidation or as an opportunity to re-create society, but in any case it occasionally was met with expectations and preparations, such as hoarding water, food, cash money, gasoline and ammunition, moving to a remote mountain compound, and learning specialized skills to cope with the anticipated changes. It is these expectations and preparations that I would argue are the true impetus for social change, rather than the anticipated change itself (Landes,1996).

The year 2000 (Y2K) computer software problem was framed as a technological boundary and cultural object. I documented and analyzed three subcultures’ construction of Y2K. The three subcultures are Millennial (Evangelical-Charismatic-Pentecostal) Christians, Militia-Patriot Survivalists and Computer Professionals. Each subculture interpreted, received, comprehended and explained the cultural object of Y2K. Each subculture created a subcultural filter based on previously held value and belief systems, attitudes toward technology and computers, and interpretations of their social environment to create a unique picture of Y2K. I examined how each of the subcultures framed technology through the framing of it as a technological object. Each response was located within the technological determinism vs. social determinism debate and juxtaposed with their place in the technology as utopian or dystopian.

Publications

Tapia, A., (2003), “Technomillennialism: Y2K: A Subcultural Response to a Technological Threat,” Science Technology and Human Values, Sage Publications. Vol. 28 (3), pages 483-512.

Tapia, A., (2002). “Techno-Armageddon: The Millennial Christian Response to Y2K,” Journal of the Study of Religious Research Vol. 43(3), page 266-286.

Tapia, A., (2001), “Y2K: Apocalyptic Opportunism,” (Journal of Communication and Languages. Revista de Comunicao e Linguagens), No. 30, pages 307-326.

Tapia, A., (2000), “Y2K: Apocalyptic Opportunism,” Enculturation, http://www.uta.edu/huma/enculturation/3_1/.

Tapia, A. “Y2K and Collective Millennial Action,” American Sociological Association, Anaheim, CA. August 2001. [presenter]

Tapia, A. “Techno-millennialism,” Pacific Sociological Association, San Francisco, CA. March 2001. [presenter]

Tapia, A., “Y2K: Millennial Expectations and Disappointment,” Pacific Sociological Association, San Diego, CA. March 2000. [presenter]

Tapia, A., “Y2K: Fear and Hope,” American Sociological Association, Chicago, IL. August 1999. [presenter]

Tapia, A., “Y2K: Apocalyptic Opportunism,” Pacific Sociological Association, Portland, OR. April 1999. [presenter]