‘Party Over, Oops, Out of Time’: Y2K, Technological ‘Risk’ and Informational Millenarianism

- Kavita Philip
School of Literature, Communication, and Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


- Terry Harpold
Department of English
University of Florida

Panic in the Year Zero

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Figure 1. Left: Richard F. Haines, The Christian and the Coming Millennium (1998). Image used by permission of Richard F. Haines and Discovery Publishing. Center: Albrecht Dürer, "The Opening of the Sixth and Seventh Seals," 1496/98. Right: detail. "And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." Revelations 6: 13.
Note: images with blue borders are thumbnails linked to larger images.

Rome was burning.

The fire suppression system in the Sistine Chapel thought it had been turned off for maintenance.

The note the firebomber taped to the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica said he was the Son of Kaczynski. None of this, his brief manifesto said – citing the shootings of looters in police-crippled Mexico City, the train collision in Berne, the Israeli-Palestinian bloodbath in Jerusalem – none of this would have happened if the Church had not set up a web page on the Internet. But the Church, he said, had aligned itself with the anti-Christ, the Internet. It must all be swept away.

- Andrew Burt, Noontide Night (1999)

Nearly two years after the event, many will need to be reminded of what all the fuss was about. In the final two or three years of the last century, popular discourses of informational culture grew increasingly fixated on the specter of a collapse of global computer networks, beginning on or shortly after the stroke of midnight, January 1, 2000. [1]

Y2K panic was most forceful and general in the United States – arguably not the most wired nation in the world, but perhaps (as we will suggest in this essay) the one in which computer networks are most deeply embedded in fantasy-structures of crisis and redemption. There, news stories in print and broadcast media of every major market described the perils of the “Y2K bug.” Public and secret hearings were held at all levels of government – including two conferences hosted by the United Nations – taking extensive testimony from doomsayer, apologist, and optimist alike. [2]

Unprecedented collaboration by local, federal, and international police and military forces resulted in highly publicized trial runs of military and civil service responses to Y2K disaster scenarios. Dozens of mass-market and technical books, and probably many more pamphlets and broadsides, were published, offering advice to potential victims of the coming system breakdowns and service interruptions. During the months leading up to year’s end, consumers responded by stocking up on canned goods, bottled water, candles and bullets. This metastasizing field of technical collapse and chaos spilled over into domains of popular fiction and film: nearly a dozen novels, and half-dozen major motion pictures and straight-to-video films on Y2K themes were released to U.S. markets between 1997 and 1999.

On the eve of the new year, millions of viewers and listeners drew close to their television sets, watching for the first news of a collapse of telecommunications networks that would signal the beginning of the crisis. Broadcasts of new year’s revelry around the globe were punctuated by contrasting sobre reports by journalists and industry and government officials, reassuring their audiences that no major system breakdowns had yet occurred, while cautioning them that the night was still young.

Twenty-one months later, this interleaving of hilarity and high-serious, history-marking drama would be repeated in extremis, as an homologous millenarian scenario cruelly shifted from potential to actual event. [3]

Television coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. was uncannily reminiscent of coverage of the Y2K panic, if highly compressed and inverted in its balance of anguish to joyful consumption. Flipping television channels in the days following the attacks, the American viewer was confronted by mixed, even contrary signals: nearly around-the-clock, often heart-wrenching coverage of the catastrophes of Ground Zero; speculation and recrimination regarding the perpetrators of the atttack and the risk of “blowback” from American actions; increasingly raucous calls for swift and devastating military response; these were layered with the usual commercial interruptions and a “normal broadcast schedule” on most cable and subscription networks. On the home shopping networks, news of the attacks and their aftermath was pressed into a peculiar supporting role, in the form of a continuous news feed scrolling along the edge of the screen while salespeople and minor television “personalities” promoted the latest home computer systems, revolutionary diet products, and cubic zirconium jewelry, often in the name of an American way of life that “we” could not allow “them” to undermine.

As we write this three months after the attacks, this dialogue of national trauma and redoubtable consumerism has rebalanced and moved though a kind of sublation. On most networks, outright news coverage of the “war on terrorism” is limited to the normal morning, afternoon, and evening broadcasts. But advertisements which do not seem to cite the attacks as a justification to buy this or that product are unusual. (U.S. automobile manufacturers call on consumers to keep America rolling;” the president appears in advertisements for the tourism industry, urging citizens to celebrate their freedom to travel by plane, train, and automobile; limited-edition medals, plaques, and clothing commemorating the heros of 9/11 are advertised hourly. “Now more than ever,” advertisers admonish viewers, it is important to observe the buying rituals of the Christmas season.) American flags, eagles, and tricolor ribbons appear in abundance on the clothing of talk show hosts and sitcom characters, and adorn nearly every commercial logo. Several television networks display these sigla in the corner of the screen around the clock, as if to demonstrate that the most trivial programming is also oriented by a larger narrative of national crisis and redemption.

It is too soon to estimate accurately the importance and consequences of the events of September 11, but we propose that the force of the Y2K panic and its curiously deflated aftermath may offer an index to historical and cultural significances of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In this regard, the September 11 attacks can be seen to uncannily repeat in actual terms elements of the predicted – that is, the imagined – Y2K breakdowns and their aftermath. This structure of repetition may, we think, be approached from multiple points of formal resemblance, but we will cite here only a few of the most obvious. The cultural spectacle of the attacks was bound up with a terrifying fantasy of the violent, total collapse of information and financial services, brought about by an unexpected  rupture from within. [4]   (Domestic airlines, part of the daily, unremarked, network of transportation technologies that Americans have long taken for granted, revealed inside their sleek metal forms a core of chaotic potential; a friendly technology had been infected and redirected by individuals who had lived “among us” while preserving an irreducible, terrifying difference.) The catastrophe, it seemed, “could have been avoided” if authorities had been more diligent, security agencies had more unrestricted powers, or analysts had been more cognizant of flaws in the relevant security networks and methods. A unique numeric coincidence lent itself to rich overdetermination: in most of the U.S., the numeric sequence 9-1-1 (as in “9/11”) is the telephone number of local emergency services; one often hears Americans speak of the attacks as the “events of nine-one-one,” fusing signifiers of malevolent assault, suffering and death, heroic self-sacrifice and rescue.

The attacks foregrounded a familiar trope of the modern narrative of crisis (one that is exemplified by the Y2K panic, we will argue): the collapse of an enormous, complexly-articulated form from within, around an infectious kernel that has never been fully rooted out. Y2K is widely remembered now as a brief and ultimately inconsequential interruption of informational culture’s march toward global diffusion. The crisis was, within this typical version of its telling, real – very bad things might have happened – but it was also defanged, finally inauthentic: very bad things didn’t happen after all; the crisis was domesticated by the very systems most threatened by it. On the one hand, this account is eminently reasonable: the date rollover was, as we will observe, uneventful for most people. But on the other, a certain “eventness” of this nonevent should be intriguing for critics and historians of informational culture.

What “happened” in the Y2K panic, we propose, was that a particular way of conceptualizing the temporality of the informational era was disclosed for and discussed by the lay and technical publics to an unprecedented extent. By tracing the recent history of it, we can observe this concept as it becomes the common-sense way of understanding time, space, and subjectivity in the informational era. Embedded within narratives of Y2K panic are late modern and post-industrial assumptions about what it means to be a user of technology; what it means to be a person in an era in which one must be wired up and hooked in (regardless of one’s  attitude toward these technologies) in order to be somebody. In much the same way that Lockean philosophy linked personhood to property-ownership, the informational era defines personhood in terms of networked agency, and discounts, or consigns to its irrelevant dark spaces, those who lack access to the network, or whose access is stripped from them by accident or misdeed. These definitions of agency in terms of network connectivity have been naturalized and internalized by disparate discursive communities across the spectrum from neoluddites to technofetishists. These communities have missed noticing (or misrecognized) the kernel they are passing along, even as they believe themselves to be inverting and correcting the others’ narratives of agency. [5]

We examine the Y2K panic here as a moment of blockage or irruption. By reading some of its symptoms, we propose an analysis that uncovers historical forms undergirding popular techno-scientific culture as well as the fantasy structures through which that culture persistently and anxiously misprises its conditions. This simultaneity, and the mutual constitution, of the political-economic and the fantasmatic are central to our claim. If we have entered, as many authors claim, a new politics of time (Virilio’s chronopolitics [Virilio, 2000]) or of global technology (Castell’s informational order, or Jameson’s global postmodern [Jameson, 1998]), its simultaneous newness and oldness (its truly radical sense of novelty, along with our fears that we’ve seen it all before) can only be grasped through inquiry of its multiple and often contradictory narratives of time and technology.

Reading the fantasmatic and the political-economic simultaneously helps us move towards a more complete reading of the possibilities of information technologies. In his recent book, What’s the Matter With the Internet? (2001) new media critic Mark Poster points to contradictions and contingencies in any contemporary analysis of information technologies. He correctly dismisses the naiveté of popular hyping of the Internet, while reminding us that  technophobia is not a useful critical alternative, as it is often nothing more than a kind of parochialism. “Internet globalization,” he contends, “suggests an articulation of the universal and particular at a level at once more general and more local than the nation-state. In that configuration rests the prospect for a humanity different from those of earlier times. (p. 127).

We share Poster’s interest in new forms of networked subjectivities, and much of the spirit of his hope for new liberatory possibilities emerging from them. However, we differ from Poster significantly in how we conceive the question of potential new forms of human subjectivity in the informational era. (The full reformulation of this question is, however, beyond the scope of this paper). We would argue that the pleasures of networked subjectivity emerge not when or if “we” are all plugged into a new humanity, but precisely when, and because (under present political-economic  regimes), “we” (a different “we”: not pretending to universalism) may never all be networked. Poster’s argument in What’s the Matter With the Internet? takes the form of a “despite/yet” pronouncement: despite the fact that some people do not have acccess to power and information, yet it is logically possible that (for example) English will not always be the “dominant tongue of the Internet,” because “there is nothing especially English about digital code” (p. 118); and that everybody can be wired, because the Internet is rapidly “changing in its configurations, [and] decreasing in its costs” (p. 127).

The despite/ yet form of claims such as these depend on overly simple, purely instrumental definitions of the structural phenomenon commonly called the “digital divide.” They presuppose that inequalities in access will be eliminated by the logic of techno-capitalist development and progression. The fact of persistent unequal access – a logical consequence of those forms of development – is black-boxed as an aside, a passing observation held apart from new media critics’ analyses of the transformative potential of new technologies. We, on the other hand, prefer to approach the concept of a digital divide in relation to its complex and openly inconsistent fantasmatic and historical legacy. We hold, in other words, that there is a constitutive link between contemporary historical/material structures and events and cultural imaginaries of the self, the other, and the traumatic relations of each to the other; between the pleasure of reinventing oneself in the new technoscapes and the anxieties elicited by the rediscovery of the primitive lurking within them and at their peripheries.

The specific forms of Y2K panic we examine repeat elements of older belief systems common in the West (and especially in the U.S.), which psychohistorian Charles B. Strozier (1994) has evocatively characterized as “endisms,” counternarratives of political and spiritual crisis which both oppose and extend (through events of transformation) optimistic Enlightenment narratives of agency and identity. We argue that the specific forms of endism that irrupted in the years and months preceding  December 31, 1999, are rooted in earlier secular and religious apocalyptic forms, framed by conceptual elements originating in the post-Bretton-Woods period, when informational capitalism emerges into its new mode of globally networked efficacy. Our argument will turn on a certain persistent kernel of the Y2K crisis, the pleasurable-unpleasurable excess which gave it force and which shored up its popular and scientific versions. The crisis interests us precisely because it defines and functions as an historical threshold, an exemplar of informational culture’s discourse of an end and a beginning.


Time Bomb 2000

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Figure 2. Left: Edward and Jennifer Yourdon, Time Bomb 2000 (1999). Right: Y2K - Year to Kill, Spectrum Film's 1999 direct-to-video depiction of post-Y2K anarchy. ("Those who prepared for the millennium have become the targets of those who didn't!") Image used by permission of Spectrum Films.

The technical framework of the Y2K panic was easy to understand and widely-discussed. [6] Several hundred billion lines of computer code written in the latter half of the twentieth century depended on calculations using two decimal digits to represent the years of the Common Era: “98” for 1998, “99” for 1999, and so on. The limits of this method for dates after 1999 were clear: should a computer program interpret the digits “00” to mean year 2000, or the year 1900? If a date calculation relies upon the difference between two successive years (99 – 98 = 1 year), what should happen when the difference (for example, 00 – 99) returns a negative quantity? Date calculations of this kind are essential to the data infrastructures of modern financial markets, air traffic control systems, telecommunications networks, life-support equipment, railroad and subway switching devices, power plant automation, and just-in-time manufacturing processes. Any mission-critical, date-sensitive system unable to determine the correct value of the digits “00” would be at risk for error or failure.

Programmers had long known the dangers of relying on two-digit date calculations. These, however, were judged less significant than the accrued financial savings in the cost of memory: if you trim the leading one and nine from “1999,” you’ve freed up space in which to store two more digits of some other piece of data. Programmers often use similar techniques to cram information into limited computer memory, or to minimize the amount of data that must be moved between data stores. Few imagined that programs they wrote in the early 1980s would still be in use two decades later. The extent to which modern programming techniques have become dependent on code reuse – that is, building programs out of parts of other programs constructed by someone else – was not widely appreciated. Short-term, profit-driven accounting procedures and managerial inertia blocked most corporations and governments from addressing rollover concerns until the late 1990s (Manion & Evan, 1999).

When technicians began to review programs for possible date errors, the scope of the task seemed nearly insuperable. As many as half of the date-critical programs in use worldwide relied on two-digit calculations (Dumas, 1999, p. 257). Much of the troublesome code had been written in outdated and poorly-understood programming dialects; many programs were hard-wired into embedded systems and not easily modified; many were available only in compiled versions for which the source code and documentation had been long ago discarded. [7] The lack of common conventions for naming variables and subroutines meant that programs at risk for rollover errors would have to be reviewed line by line in order to locate faulty code.

The most dire predictions of Y2K meltdown warned of world financial markets falling with the electrical power grid, domino-like, as midnight swept over the globe. Essential public sectors (health care, police and fire, sewage treatment) would severely contract or collapse altogether. Power, water, and food would be hoarded or rationed out in devastated cityscapes held under martial law. The remnants of civil society would retreat to walled compounds, turning their weapons on anyone from the outside trying to get in. As the crisis slid irretrievably into chaos, hi-tech workers would huddle around smoldering fires of computer paper in darkened offices, ringed by silent banks of fiber-optic cable and silicon chip.

More sanguine critics of Y2K predicted “isolated outages,” “limited rationing,” “short-term economic downturns,” the effects of which would be confined mostly to sectors of the developing world using computing technologies a generation behind most of the West and North. The impact of Y2K on services in the wired world would be contained, they argued, by the prevention efforts of civil personnel, corporate managers, and computer programmers. Things would be worse, maybe much worse, elsewhere, but the core of the network would survive. [8]

For a few countercultural critics, the impending crisis represented an opportunity to disengage late industrial society from its fascination with technological and bureaucratic solutions which have proven to do more harm than good. After a Y2K collapse, individuals would be free – or forced – to “go off the grid,” to return to “a simpler way of life,” where self-sustaining communities might be built free of dependence on the vicissitudes of the machinic. Margaret Wheatley, a Y2K activist and consultant in this vein, described the date rollover as a “great teacher.” The “amazing grace of Y2K,” observed Wheatley, is that it would transform a physical system into one of spiritual meaningfulness; it would lead humanity away from technological errancy and into the wiser circle of participant communities. [9]

A more aggressive version of Y2K opportunism was popular in radical libertarian circles. There, the predicted collapse of national governments and financial markets was welcomed as the necessary precondition of a new era of individual freedom and expression. The post-Y2K world described in Don L. Tiggre’s novel Y2K: The Millennium Bug (1998) is typical of these free marketeers’ forecasts of the global baptism-by-fire of the new order. (It seems much like the old order, only without federal oversight or income taxes.) At the end of the novel, most major cities and financial centers have been destroyed by  civil unrest and nuclear attacks. The old nation-states have disappeared, replaced by loose confederations of city-states, business concerns, and sovereign individuals. Only two years after the global trauma of the rollover, economic growth – now unhindered by the old ways of thinking – has exploded, ushering in an unprecedented age of prosperity for the fortunate survivors.

In the United States, where religious fundamentalist, patriot and racialist discourses of prophecy and conspiracy have been widely embraced for several decades, Y2K panic narratives were more often darker, fusing secular and religious-political fantasies of social collapse. [10] Dozens of titles were released by Christian publishing houses in the late nineties detailing the close connection of the Y2K bug with signs of “the last days,” extending a strain of popular premillennial dispensationalist thinking which burst on the scene in the wake of an earlier technical panic, the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s. [11] Throughout 1998 and 1999, Christian and conservative talk radio were abuzz with stories of wars and rumors of wars: global conspiracy and cover ups of the “real” extent of the Y2K problem, “proof” of secret underground military bases stockpiling food and weapons in preparation for the declaration of martial law, black helicopters in flight over remote concentration camps ready for the masses who would flee the collapse of the cities. [12] Recasting warnings by law enforcement agencies that the crisis might give opportunity to criminals and terrorists, religious conservatives described the chaos of a post-Y2K world as the perfect chance for a power grab by agents of the New World Order, the Antichrist, or some syncretism of the two. [13] Even mainstream religious figures in the U.S. were willing to go on record warning their flock to prepare for a time of troubles for the faithful. Many American evangelical and fundamentalist churches sold or freely distributed Y2K preparedness booklets and videos with a decidedly survivalist emphasis. Some offered specially-priced packages of imperishable foods, water purifiers, diesel generators, and the like to church members fearful of the coming winter. The date rollover seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of Biblical literalists living in the West: the last days are here; the Tribulation is upon us; the lives of the faithful are about to go from bad to very much worse.

The popularity of specifically religious Y2K scenarios produced mirror-image, usually (and often defiantly) secular, responses, focused on debunking evidence for an approaching Apocalypse, or emphasizing the groundlessness of special, metahistorical status for the calendar year 2000. [14] Critics writing in this genre tended to frame the crisis – if they recognized it as a crisis at all – as a purely technical phenomenon, liable to description and correction by careful and dispassionate – that is, rational-technical-secular – interventions. These responses extended into the popular scientific realm a concurrent shift in thought among historians, who have called into question the widespread claim that apocalyptic terror had gripped much of the West at the turn of the year 1000. [15]

Claims that there was nothing special about the coming date rollover other than its technical risks seem – especially in retrospect – either wisely restrained or strategically disingenuous. They often ignored or discounted the enormous cultural and psychic pressure of the coincidence of an historical moment grounded in popular traditions of absolute cultural transformation, with a clearly plausible threat generated by the modern technological order. Moreover, those who defended instrumental, rational technological responses to a mere accident of the calendar tended, we would argue, to ground their arguments in eschatological forms often strictly homologous with the most “irrational” Y2K Jeremiads. Y2K panic, as well as dismissals of the panic, in religious as well as secular versions, defined a field that, we suggest, is constitutive of the informational imaginary. In this imaginary, human history is strictly bracketed by the forces and risks specific to informational networks, and human agency is defined in relation to a capacity for centralized mastery of them.


Darkness & Light

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Figure 3. Left: Frank Simon, The Y2K Bug (1999). Center: Gustave Doré, “Babylon Fallen” (1866). “For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.” (Revelations 18:5.) Right: Grant R. Jeffrey and Angela Hunt, Flee the Darkness (1998). (From the back cover: “As the deadline looms, even closer, another source of chaos – and evil – arises from ancient roots, threatening global enslavement and terror – and doom…”).

The scythe had swept past San Francisco only half an hour before, but the intermittent blackouts and brownouts had been hitting for hours, as the U.S.’s regional grids struggled to cope with the dropouts of entire suppliers because of failed turbine control systems, confused distribution software opening remote transmission breakers, coal conveyor systems that shut themselves down, and the resulting cascade of failures as suppliers struggled to obtain power from neighbors. On top of the high demand from cold weather, some 15% of national capacity was off-line – most of it serving the East coast – because many nuclear plants had been shut down, either for failing to provide the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the required Y2K certification, or simply to be safe. There were no electrons to spare.

– Andrew Burt, Noontide Night (1999)

The cascading collapse of the power grid described by Andrew Burt in his popular 1999 novel Noontide Night is a recurring element of the Y2K panic narratives, and the one most often presumed to precipitate the spread of system failures across public and private sectors. Here we encounter a familiar tropology of the informational order, for which dark and light serve as well-worn valences for production under the regime of late capital: power/electricity/connectivity enable round-the-clock production; the compression of space-time expands human control over productive forces to unprecedented levels, bringing production to every unproductive space of the globe, light where once primitive darkness reigned. The clocks will turn over at midnight on January 1, but at one second past, time threatens to stick in the darkest night. The absence of power will make the most finely-tuned digital mechanism no more useful than a stone or tree branch, crude tools of the savage or the beast.

With the clarity that only hindsight may offer, we know now that the dark night that thrilled the partisans of Y2K endism did not fall. Government and local Y2K task forces and committees have been disbanded, their reports filed and largely forgotten. Many of the alarmist titles that filled bookstore shelves in the waning months of 1999 have been relegated to the remainder tables. Most of the web sites and Usenet newsgroups devoted to Y2K rumor and advice are now inactive or offline. [16] A brief surge of Y2K reminiscences in the popular press in January 2001 – mostly of the “once upon a time in a land far away” sort – appears unlikely to be repeated in subsequent years. [17] The usual explanations for the non-eventness of Y2K, and the resulting irrelevance of paper and digital traces of the work of remediation and preparation, tend to fuse technological triumphalism with good-old-fashioned historical fable: especially in the first few months of the new year, there was much talk of a bug squashed, a crisis handily averted.

It is probable that, during the months leading up to the date rollover, tens of thousands of Y2K-related personnel reassignments and new hires by corporate and government entities worldwide, and enormous expenditures of monies (somewhere between 320 and 500 billion USD) for Y2K remediation helped to limit the impact of the event. That there were widespread problems stemming from Y2K-related errors is clear. The February, 2000 report of the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Y2K lists several hundred representative “glitches” reported worldwide in the first two months of the year. These range from the merely troublesome (failed cash registers, malfunctioning slot machines); to the moderately serious (brief interruptions of electrical power, delayed funds transfers, failed traffic lights and misrouted subway trains); to the potentially grave (disabled medical diagnostic equipment, nuclear power plant system malfunctions in Spain and Russia, service interruptions of the U.S. Department of Defense satellite-based intelligence network.) [18]

That the Y2K rollover did not produce the catastrophes many had feared is less significant, we propose, than the narrative force of the psychic and political-economic crises disseminated in stories of Y2K catastrophe and remediation. In this respect, the Y2K panic may be seen as the trace of a more general structure of informational endism, in which material and cultural networks of the informational order are interleaved with the encounters of daily life in the wired world, such that these encounters are oriented by their identity with or difference from nodes of the network. The network’s peril, its support costs, and its survival are interiorized by wired subjects (consumers, users, netizens) as accidents or necessities defining the temporality of their daily lives. What “happened” in the Y2K episode was, in an important sense, the framing of a dramaturgy of this process of identification and interiorization, in an eschatological mode specific to informational capitalism.

The scope and scale of the predicted Y2K breakdowns appeared to many to exceed the kinds of technical failure and degraded performance which have become a matter of routine inconvenience for many in the wired world. Users know that the complex technologies they rely on sometimes fail, and that those failures may generate extreme, even life-threatening outcomes. Most users, however, anticipate that some agency will limit the risk of failures and the dangers they pose – governmental oversight, the pressures of the marketplace, technical-scientific advances, better training, common sense, divine intervention, and so on. Over time, users hope, failures can be eliminated from the systems troubled by them. (Though new, unforeseen failures may always be waiting around the corner.) Daily use of information technologies by users is thus grounded in a species of hopeful doublethink: users anticipate that a catastrophic breakdown is always possible (and they are free to imagine its most dire consequences), and yet they are sure that it is also always an exceptional or preventable event – in other words, the crisis is thought to be always present in potentio, but also absent, unrealized because it is unlikely if everyone is careful and lucky. Moreover, as Ann Larabee (1999) has shown, popular, journalistic, and scientific responses to disaster often work together to manage technical catastrophes so as narrativize them in “productive” ways – which means, most often, in ways that insure the survival of political and economic interests grounded in the failed technologies. Endist anxiety elicited by the prospect or experience of a technical failure doesn’t go away; it is, rather, redirected: the libidinal forces unleashed by the specter of the end become the motive energies of renewed beginnings, opportunities for lessons learned, preservation of cultural continuity, and the advancement of technical or market forces toward the next, improved version. Such practices of crisis management were common in post-Y2K analyses of the panic.

Faith that crisis, however frequent, is always an exceptional state, or that it may be turned into an opportunity for remediation and technical evolution, contains – one might say, disciplines – consciousness on the part of users of the role of  failure and imagined crisis as constitutive elements of a technical system. The critical discourse within contemporary techno-scientific institutions which has come closest to openly addressing technical failure (and Y2K specifically) in these terms is the field of “risk assessment,” “risk studies,” or, more simply, “risks.” [19] Risk analysts begin their study of technical breakdown with the assumption that instability and errancy are preconditions of any technical undertaking, and are especially likely to occur in complex computer-based systems. These systems, risk analysts observe, are inherently fragile, and grow more likely to misbehave as their complexity increases: radical decentralization of processes and interactions makes exhaustive testing of component elements difficult or impossible; unforeseen and dangerous synergisms often emerge only when all parts of a system are in play and interacting with each other; the extensive connectivity that supports expansion of a system’s functionality offers more numerous pathways by which small errors may propagate more generally through the system. [20] The growing body of literature documenting failures of critical systems suggests that distributed computer networks are especially susceptible to these effects, and that increased reliance on these networks at all levels of manufacturing and distribution, and across public and private sectors, situates a growing range of human activities at increased vulnerability to the effects of system failure. (This system-wide vulnerability is of course one of the elements which gave the Y2K panic narratives their credibility.)

Commonly absent from these and similar discussions of risk among technologists is an acknowledgement that system breakdowns signify beyond the domains of rational use and cautious remediation. Yet, this broader – to be precise, this originary – condition of failure is crucial to the production of the modern technical imaginary, conceived in the most general way. Paul Virilio’s important contributions to theorizing the accident suggest that the irreducibility of failure is exactly the conceptual kernel anchoring the facts of system vulnerability (the chief concern of risk management and remediation) to the millenarian fantasy of a threshold event (the place of the accident in the modern dramaturgy of crisis). In his writings on this subject, Virilio observes that forms of breakdown and crisis are interleaved with technological praxes such that their relation to individual technologies is not, as usually assumed by those who promote them, developmental or accidental. Rather, the modern history of technology is one of ever-broader and more extreme catastrophe, disguised as steps on an asymptotic (and illusory) climb toward technical mastery of the Real. Technical progress, in this regard, is equivalent to laying the groundwork for the next, the greater, crisis.

The innovation of the ship already entailed the innovation of the shipwreck. The invention of the steam engine, the locomotive, also entailed the invention of derailment, the rail disaster. The same goes for nascent aviation, airplanes innovating the crash on the ground, the air disaster. To say nothing of the automobile and the pile-up at high speed, or of electricity and electrocution, or especially of those major technological hazards resulting from the development of the chemical and nuclear industries. Each period of technical evolution, with its set of instruments and machines, involves the appearance of specific accidents, revealing in negative the growth of scientific thought. (2000b, p. 53)

Virilio proposes that the ever-mounting risks specific to contemporary information and production networks represent the most decisive instances of the postindustrial era’s fascination with limit-cases, its fatalistic desire for what he terms a “revolution of the end,” the general, integral accident that would threaten all human society and  life on earth. (2000a).

Virilio’s attribution of a constitutive role to technical breakdown suggests a contrarian and, we think, valuable approach to interpretation of the Y2K panic and its aftermath. A naive technophilic reading of the seeming non-event of Y2K would mistake the absence of total catastrophe for evidence of technological and bureaucratic triumph, and the inevitability of progress and the elimination of technical error. (This is the most common reading of the panic today.) Classic risk analysis of the panic would wisely avoid expectation of the eventual perfectibility of technologies, but would stop at the practical boundary of diagnosis and remediation. We propose an analysis that envisages a different and more fundamental role for technical failure: the intensity of the Y2K panic was rooted, we argue, in its essentially impractical character – that is, in an aspect of technological praxis which lies beyond questions of good design, thorough testing, and cautious implementation. The rollover problem was induced by shortsighted design, incomplete testing, and careless implementation, all of which are addressable by a risks-savvy analysis. But the fantasies of Y2K crisis – the compelling narratives of popular and technical responses to the crisis – were structured by other forces. The scope and scale of the breakdowns envisioned in the wake of the date rollover were so generalized and total that to address them as mere outcomes of the often unpredictable misbehaviors of complex technologies, is to ignore how efficiently the specter of those breakdowns dovetailed with the general condition of errancy identified by Virilio. That a systemic collapse did not occur following the rollover is, we think, irrelevant to the main thrust of our argument here: Y2K panic represented a broad cultural exercise in narrativizing conceptual aporia upon which the informational order is founded.

We depart slightly from Virilio’s analysis of technical crisis in that we find the general collapse he anticipates too proximate in form to other, albeit more naive, examples of technological endism. Virilio emphasizes the constitutive role of technical failure in the informational order, its literal and conceptual effects. The massive system-wide breakdown he predicts seems to us both theoretically and practically probable, just as the dangers of the Y2K bug were – and remain – theoretically and practically “real.” [21] His call for the construction of museums of the accident, “anti-museums” of science that expose the irreducibility of catastrophe (2000b), is, we find, a brilliant provocation that aims at the very foundations of contemporary technological utopianism. (Perhaps this essay may be thought of as a small contribution to such a museum project.) But the probability of the threats exemplified by Y2K and the other technical crises cited by Virilio does not fully account for the full force of narratives of them, the morbid fascination generated by scenarios of their consequences, and their relation to prior traditions of crisis. Virilio appears to us to have underemphasized the crucial role of excessive, “unreal” traits of the crisis narrative, in his emphasis on the real probability of ever-greater danger.

The distinction we intend here is comparable to one made by Freud very early in the development of psychoanalysis, and crucial to subsequent psychoanalytic theory: that between the “actual neuroses” [Aktualneurosen] and the “psychoneuroses” [Neuropsychosen]. [22] The psychoneuroses are the classic forms of neurosis addressed by analysis, modes of thought rooted in infantile conflicts and experiences and reactivated by subsequent events. The patient comes to analysis seeking help in making sense of her perplexing and destructive behaviors, which appear to have no obvious relation to the circumstances of her life, other than the dysfunction and unhappiness they engender. The actual neuroses often resemble the psychoneuroses in form, but their origins are eminently more “reasonable,” as they are tied to contemporary conflicts and frustrations: the effects of a physical ailment, the loss of a love object, the threat of physical violence or social disgrace. All of these may produce behavior tics or maladjustments which amount to imperfect defenses against a real danger or loss. In analysis, the psychoneuroses are treated by reflection and interpretation, the difficult work of coming to terms with the unconscious and the traces of originary trauma in the very organization of the psyche. The actual neuroses, in contrast, are most effectively dealt with by removing the offending or dangerous element in the patient’s life, or by helping her to place her suffering in a broader context. But the difficulty for analysis, as Freud quickly came to understand, is that the analysand’s symptoms are always expressions of both the actual and the original, even when the original seems not to be relevant to the present situation. The present, objective condition of suffering is  overdetermined by residues of the past; the persistence of the past is adapted all too efficiently to the conditions of the present. Any assessment of the “real” situation of the analysand must take into account an originary excess, something which makes no sense in the present, but to which everything in the present is bound. We do not mean to thus characterize the origins, diversity and scope of responses to Y2K by a crude analogy to the aetiology of individual suffering. But Freud’s recognition of the peculiar doubled temporality of the symptom seems to us a valuable model for understanding the nexus of causes behind the Y2K panic and the problem of informational endism. The force and effect of informational endism can only be grasped, we believe, if it is understood in relation to a form of the subject that is simultaneously anchored in the earliest history of late modern political economy, and in practices and conditions specific to the contemporary moment. This is not a genealogical claim. The older forms are expressed in the later forms not as fossilized traces of a developmental process, but as vital atavisms, present and efficient elements of modes of thought in which the originary and the actual are mutually determining.

Put in strictly historical terms, if a split between acceptable and unacceptable risk is one hallmark of informational endism, another is its recapitulation of themes two or three centuries old. We have argued elsewhere that a “clean versus filthy”/“civilized versus primitive” binary that structured nineteenth-century Europeans’ experiences in the tropics is recapitulated in late twentieth century narratives of technological progress, not merely as a vestige of the past, but as a trope made more resilient as it both feeds on and quells anxieties and satisfactions of globalization. [23]

Through symbolic shifts in forms of the Other over the course of modernity – from blank to monstrous to diseased – alterity was held at the limits of geography, politics, and meaning. As a marker of the margins of exploration and knowledge, the Other (human monster, unredeemed savage, filthy native) preserved the place from which the self had to be, impossibly, yet necessarily, heard and understood. Breakdowns in the representational economy of alterity – moments of crisis – marked irruptions of an unsymbolizable and unimaginable excess. The Y2K bug, conceived in terms of a religious or secular Apocalypse (apokalypsis – to unveil, to reveal) is similarly figured in the language of extremity (catastrophe or banality, world-ending syncope or much ado about nothing). These representations of the extreme are, we propose, versions of an ecstatic boundedness of the informational network promoted by its critics and its apologists. They mark the place from which we are called upon, by each party, to understand the position of subjects within an emerging informational order.

Any claim of imaginary continuity across the past several hundred years must, of course, take into account the historical specificities of that continuity, so as to avoid falling back on a mythology of the technical and its engagement with or mutation of a stable prior order – an unwired “nature,” for example. Thus we would argue only that a structural homology, grounded in the conceptual economy of informational technologies, unites putatively opposing responses to the Y2K crisis. What situates the most recent apocalyptic interlude in Western and Northern culture is its irruption in relation to an historically unprecedented expansion of global capital which is deeply enmeshed with the diffusion of the informational network. The specificity of informational endism is traceable to effects of that expansion and that diffusion.


“Party Over, Oops, Out of Time” [24]

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Figure 4. Left: Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel (1563). Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Right: Jason Kelly, Y2K: It's Already Too Late (1998). Used by permission of Jason Kelly, , and Seamus Berkeley .

The people got together and decided that they were going to build a tower to heaven, and God didn’t like it, so he fixed it so they could not talk to each other and that ended it… That is the paradigm of what we are dealing with here, Y2K. We are facing the possibility that after January 1 we cannot talk to each other because the world is all wired by computers, and if, indeed, that turns out to be the case, as was the case in Genesis, that will end it.

– U.S. Senator Robert F. Bennett. Congressional Record, May 11, 1998

In the Genesis story, the ancient Babylonians showed overweening pride by aspiring to build a tower that would rise up to the position of the Diety’s eye. Jealous of his vantage over the world, God brought the project to a halt by confounding the builders’ language – he fractured the field of speech into its smallest, most isolated units, each man and woman a language unto him- and herself. And so, it seemed to many in late 1999, the emergent informational network – a project which also aspires to a panoptic perspective – was endangered by the possibility that it might collapse into absolute, idiomatic isolation. This specter of radical fragmentation posed a threat not only to the practical concerns of modern production and distribution, but also to the fundamental strategies of reductive abstraction upon which efficient global production and distribution are based. These strategies are, as Enrique Dussel has observed, constitutive of modernity in that they clear the way for the conceptual fusion of technical efficiency with administrative methods of capitalism:

Modernity achieves its efficiency through simplification; through the abstraction of such elements of experience that are amenable to technologically efficient management.

This simplification of complexity encompasses the totality of the life-world…, of the relationship with nature…, of subjectivity itself…, and of community… A new economic attitude (practico-productive) will now establish itself: the economic attitude of capitalism. (1998, p. 13) 

In colonial contexts of the nineteenth century, the terror of and irresistible fascination for the primitive Other was fed by the policing of boundaries between the efficiently ordered and the chaotically confused. With the introduction of increasing complexity into the structures of the modern, however, specters of the primitive reappear, from within, in the instability of the branching systems of governance which were marshaled to master chaos. To leap to the contemporary moment: this negative dimension of complexity contributed, we suggest, to the force of the Y2K narratives of technological collapse. At stake in those narratives and in versions of them which continue to be produced is the survival of a specifically late-twentieth century (post-Bretton Woods) form of global capitalism, with the U.S. economy serving as its center and model – and a form of the subject who happily defines herself in terms of the positive products of that model – that is, a subject, who, ideally, finds herself at the center of a network by which she is able to exert reasoned influence on the world around her, and from which she is able to draw goods to satisfy her desire. [25]

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Figure 5. Yourdon and Yourdon, “The interactions between primary worlds and secondary worlds,” illustrating the ramifications of Y2K breakdown. (1999, p. 577). At the center of this graph is the idealized subject of late capital (“Your world”), joined in complex ways to a circle of “secondary” worlds (“Utilities,” “Banking/Finance,” “Food,” “Your employer,” etc.) These are joined to each other with equal complexity, and to an outer ring of innumerable tertiary worlds.

Y2K (and more generally, informational) endism turns on a negation of this figure of saturated subjectivity: the lines of connection and distribution are broken, and the idealized subject formerly located at their intersection is untethered and unanchored. Fredric Jameson’s intuition, nearly a decade ago, that the conceptual problem of the network is really a problem of conceiving an emergent political economy, seems to us strikingly appropriate to the dramaturgy of Y2K. “I want to suggest,” writes Jameson,

that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself. (1992, pp. 37–38)

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Figure 6. Left: "The Whole Internet," a popular visualization of the diffusion and interconnectedness of the global Internet. Image ©1999 Peacock Maps, <http://www.peacockmaps.com>. Used by permission. Right: Wilson Dizard's paen to the global network, Meganet (1997).

The same, mesmerizing yet bafflingly complex problem of imagining an emergent order intoxicates the euphoric cyberfetishist and terrifies the local activist, the separatist, and the religious fundamentalist. In the Y2K panic narrative, the figure of sublime connectivity – baffling, mesmerizing, intoxicating – is dissipated and reversed, so as to reveal other forms of relation which were previously strategically hidden within it. For the enthusiast of technological globalization, an uninterrupted and ubiquitous connection – in its extreme form, the science fiction scenario of uploading his consciousness into the network – traces his permanent insertion into the emergent informational order. The localist, on the other hand, wants no truck with the global; he longs to retreat into the comfort of the communitarian and/or nationalist dream of homogenous identities. Both longings are rooted in structurally homologous and mutually constitutive narratives. Perhaps most importantly, the effective contemplation of each depends on a misprision of the conditions of possibility within the orders of informational capitalism. The post-Cold War global political economy of flexible accumulation, global outsourcing, dispersed production, up-to-the-minute inventory, etc., is supported by dark spaces of non-connectivity, low-wage antiunion zones, and toxic effluence. Spaces and subjects lacking a reliable and fast connection to the emerging global network are figured within it as noise or as blanks. As noise, they are slotted to be smoothed out by the equalizers of e-commerce and teletraining; as blanks (or dark spaces), they mark an unsymbolizable residue – a pre-modern, atechnological singularity whose very naming is a threat to the scheme of globalization’s vistas of liberal-democratic subjectivity (Harpold, 1999).

The Y2K coincidence of millenarian anxieties with a landmark in the Gregorian calendar and a fault line in the informational order, however, uncovers this troublesome excess bound to the psychic machinery of history. The force of the coincidence itself appeared as a wholly technological effect. But “mere”  coincidences are never only that when they occur in millenarian schemes; in those schemes, they are a priori invested with metaphysical significance, and an easy slippage between instrumental causes and spiritual significance shapes believers’ responses to them.[26]The neighborhood activist and the fundamentalist appeared to celebrate the arrival of a radically new order as as result of the irreversible destruction of the world as we know it, but their prophecies only reaffirmed a model of the self grounded in the same post-Cold War imaginaries that also prop up the technophile’s euphoric narrative of  global connection. All three visions of survival after the crisis – romanticist, fundamentalist, and technicist – confront the fragility of, and undertake to reinstate, a self-determining subject (nurturing neighbor, Raptured Christian, or confident sysop, as required) whose agency has been – temporarily – destabilized by a paralyzing revelation of complexity.

But this reinstauration of a new subject of the network – the survivor of the collapsing informational order – comes at a cost. We must trade in our old security blanket for a wired one: our narratives of origins and of ends, of bodies and of metaphysics, are fundamentally reworked in order to accommodate the new subject.  As our new model of futurity, we get a reworked millenarianism: for our older mythic, literary-poetic horizons (the classic forms of the End Time, its religious or epic instances) we substitute a time-space environment determined by  exigencies of the network. A new chronopolitics of endism (to borrow Virilio’s evocative term), with its irrepressible data flows across all former boundaries; its chiaroscuro techniques of light and dark; and its rhythms of connection and interruption, replaces the orders of biology, empire, and exchange upon which prior forms of endism were based.

Political theorist Susan Buck-Morss discerns two kinds of threats to the sovereignty of modern regimes: one, a safe, familiar enemy, analogous to the Christian sinner, who follows the script of disobedience to an established order; the second, far more dangerous: the “absolute” political enemy, analogous to the non-Christian heretic, who “challenges the very notion by which the identity of the collective has been formed.” She describes this absolute enemy with Hegel’s phrase, the “opposite of the being of opposition.”

[B]y not behaving like the enemy, [the absolute enemy] is truly dangerous, because it threatens the legitimating imaginary system tout court. It is the absolute political enemy that threatens the existence of the collective not only (and perhaps not mainly) in a physical sense but, rather, in an ontological sense, because it challenges the very notion by which the identity of the collective has been formed. The absolute enemy becomes symbolic of absolute evil, against which no mercy is possible. (2000, pp. 33–34)

All regimes are drawn, Buck-Morss notes, into terrains of terror when confronted with the threat of an absolute enemy. Democratic regimes “construct, legitimately, a terrain in which the exercise of power is out of control of the masses, veiled from public scrutiny, arbitrary and absolute. Modern sovereignties harbor a blind spot, a zone in which power is above the law and thus, at least potentially, a terrain of terror” (8).

Institutional, allied technical and political-economic discourses, such as those of catastrophic “risk” and its accompanying safe enemy, normative failure; of technological progress and its regrettable but containable social outcome, the digital divide; and of computing systems and their inevitable errancy, attempt to contain the potential threats to the sovereignty of self and of nation-state by invoking legitimate responses to predictable misbehavior. The essential, irreducible unreasonableness of the Y2K panic narrative – and of subsequent crisis narratives that we suggest repeat its form and cultural functions – exceeded these disciplinary strategies. In the case of the September 11 attacks, the terror elicited by the spectre of an absolute enemy from within has produced remarkable, open distortions of American political and legal institutions: public officials speak openly of the utility of torture to procure information about the next attack; captured terrorists will, we are told, be tried in secret tribunals without right of counsel or appeal; the federal government’s ability to spy on and incarcerate its citizens has been summarily expanded in unprecedented ways.

In the case of the Y2K crisis, persistent traces of an excess are more subtle, in that they distort and determine conditions of the homologous crises which follow in its wake. The irruption of millenarian terror bound to the risible shortsightedness of the date rollover bug, coincident with a historically overdetermined turn of the calendar, fed both the fear of the savage Other hiding in the interstices of the network, and the firm determination to marshal the civilizing power of the network against its own instabilities. A wild zone of terror was briefly invoked, then contained, encysted, masked within the relentless diffusion of the informational imaginary: endisms are ways of invoking an end that remains. In the aftermath of this episode, our concern is not so much with whether a crisis was averted or only managed, or a false alarm sounded or heard just in time. Rather, we return to the threshold of the panic because, in revealing the contours of its absolute enemy, the emerging global collective reveals the contours of the collective identity currently being shaped as a threshold, a once-and-for-all shift. Its peculiar and contingent outlines will soon be normalized – with regard to the Y2K episode, this may already be the case: the strategic technical mutations of history disguised by the familiar positivist practices of modernity. The aporia of an almost-apocalypse allows us a brief glimpse into a fantasmatic work in progress: our technological moment, its pasts and futures.



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[1] Our use of the adjective “informational” to describe the nexus of late capitalism and cyberculture follows Manuel Castells’s use of the term (1996, 1–28.).
[2] For descriptions of committee hearings on Y2K held by the U.S. Senate, see: Bennett and Christopher J. Dodd (1999); and U.S. Senate Special Committee (2000).
[3] In this essay, we use the term “millenarian” and its variants to describe a (commonly religious, usually Christian) fantasy-narrative that associates the passing of a temporal threshold, a “millennium,” with a transformative irruption or event – an apocalypse, signalling the “end” of a time, a “new beginning,” etc.  This terminological distinction is seldom maintained in the critical literature on modern millenarianism. styleA classic definition of millenarianism by historian Norman Cohn lists it constant features through twenty centuries. Chief among these is that the anticipated change is always “total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth” (1970, p. 13). Political scientist Michael Barkun suggests that millenarianism is necessarily linked to the terror/euphoria binary of disaster: “The disaster utopia, transient though it may be, possesses direct links with millenarian thought. Beliefs in the millennium, too, often anticipate great disasters which must precede the final consummation – the period of upheaval referred to by medieval Jewish messianists as ‘the birth-pangs of the Messiah.’ The wave of fellow feeling seems itself to presage a fundamental transformation in social behavior” (1974, pp. 163–4.) That contemporary millennial narratives – like the Y2K panic – are nearly always taken to be millenarian at their core is evidence, perhaps, of the power of millenarian thinking in contemporary American culture, in which the late modern era is conceivable only as a radical break with or a culmination of prior eras.
[4] In the first days after the attacks, the enormous human scale of the losses suffered remained  abstract. The numbers of victims and survivors was unknown. The bodies of victims lay buried under rubble, or had been destroyed by explosions and fire. What tended to remain foremost in spectators’ minds was the unprecedented numerical count and the (literal) monumentality of the damage: the gaping hole in one side of the Pentagon, the few remaining scraps of concrete and steel where the World Trade Centers once stood. This absence – traced in stark arithemetical terms by the changing but oddly insubstantial digits of the victim count (10,000? 6,000? 4,000?) – lent a formal, theoretical character to stories of the attacks, overdetermining for all but those directly touched by them, the news of their individual consequences. Only now, several months later, when the death count has stabilized and most of the names of those who died are known, has it become possible to provisionally untangle this theoretical character of the attacks from their material, actual character.
[5] This essay is drawn from a larger work in progress, in which we examine the political economy of the  informational era and its recapitulation of prior forms of agency and alterity. One of the claims we make in the larger work is that historical investigation and critical deconstruction of moments of informational crisis – many of which we have recently lived through, and participated in – is essential to the unpacking of our futures-in-construction.
[6]That the rollover problem was arithmetically obvious and easy to describe does not fully account for the broad dissemination of stories about it, especially among a lay public with no training in programming technique or responsibilities for managing the endangered systems. Rather, it was the synergy of narratives of elementary error and of catastrophic systemic collapse that generated the force and fascination of these stories of crisis: they turn on the simplest of technical disruptions (“simple” in the philosophical or theological sense: of one irreducible substance); they appear malevolent or stupid because their binarism (on/off, right/wrong, good/bad) is absolute.
[7] A “compiled” computer program has been converted from a high-level programming language (like COBOL, FORTRAN, or Pascal) to object code, which is more efficiently processed by the computer, but  more difficult for humans to interpret.
[8] This narrative of decentralization-surviving-catastrophe has roots in the early development of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. In the event of a Soviet nuclear strike against the U.S., proponents of the system argued, an American political, military, and scientific elite connected by a decentralized, distributed network would be more likely to offer effective resistance and retaliation than if dependent on a centralized communications system.
[9] See <http://www.margaretwheatley.com/> and Laddon, Atlee, & Shook (1999). Following the rollover, apologists for the technologies faulted by Wheatley frequently offered their own version of the upside argument: “The Y2K computer dilemma… reveals just how fragile these technologies can be, and how expensive it is to fix a simple error, even when we repeat it many times. Let’s not let this happen again. Let’s learn the lessons of the Y2K computer problem and not waste precious resources on short-sighted blunders” (Kappelman, 1999; p. 94.).
[10]See: Heard (2000); Ronson (2002); Strozier (1994); Thompson (1999); Wojcik (1999); and several of the essays collected in Strozier & Flynn (1997). Manley, Gould, Finster, Parfrey & The Dalai Lama (1998), originally the catalog of a museum exhibition of apocalyptic outsider and folk art, is a fascinating compendium of pop- and subcultural depictions of millennial panic.
[11] Dispensationalism is a scheme of “prophetic” Christian history that identifies specific historical periods since Adam (“dispensations”) with events purportedly foretold by Old and New Testament prophets. Premillennial dispensationalism – the version most popular among American Christians – is concerned chiefly with the period just before the return of Christ (the millennial event), the instauration of the Heavenly kingdom, and the end of human history. Most premillennial dispensationalists believe that we are now living in the final days before Christ’s return, but they differ as to the conditions under which Christ arrives, what will happen to the faithful before and at that moment, and when the Heavenly kingdom is brought into being. (For an extended analysis of the most popular strands of contemporary dispensationalist thought, see Wojcik, 1999.) These differences were clearly relevant with regard to how Y2K was characterized and where it was located in various dispensationalist timelines of the 1990s, but that question is beyond the scope of this essay.
[12] These narratives assumed a particular virulence in  white supremacy and patriot movements, where they were entwined with long-standing predictions of a coming race war. Leading figures in these movements often traced the origins of the Y2K bug and the failure to correct it in due time to Jewish conspiracies to undermine white sovereignty, through Jews’ supposed control of world banking and the computer industries.
[13] Typical of the extremity of these scenarios are Tom Steinbach’s The Y2K Trojan Horse (1999) and Noah W. Hutchings and Larry Spargimino’s Y2K = 666? (1998). In Steinbach’s book, the Y2K crisis is the tool of a secret cabal of “one-worlders” – financiers, hi-tech gurus, and political insiders – working under the direction of a leader who may be the AntiChrist (and who appears also to be Henry Kissinger), as the first step towards the consolidation of their power over the United States, and the opening scene of the End Times. “An unintentional mistake by some of our most intelligent men… or, a planned crisis which will assure TOTAL CONTROL to those who placed an error in the works?” (190) Hutchings and  Spargimino warn their readers that they are living “in the most perilous times since the Flood.” Much like Steinbach, they propose that Y2K is the culminating event of a decades-long accumulation of control over Christians’ lives by globalists opposed to American sovereignty and in support of a revived Roman Empire, in the guise of the European Union. In an appendix to the book, Hutchings and Spargimno advance their predictions of crisis to astonishingly, absolutely terminal outcome. Noting a recent increase in overall sunspot activity and the coincidence of the 11.5-year sunspot cycle with January 2000, they speculate that the Y2K-induced Tribulation may conclude with the death of the sun in a nova explosion.  Y2K = 666? was a bestseller in U.S. evangelical and fundamentalist Christian bookstores, and Hutchings and Spargimino were frequent guests on Christian radio and television talk shows in the months leading up to the date rollover.
[14]See, for example, Gould (1999); and the “Special Millennium Issue” (7.3) of Skeptic. Hunt (1999) is a rare example of Christian evangelical debunking of the Y2K panic, arguing that the challenges of the rollover bore no necessary relation to New Testament prophecy.
[15]Landes (1999) summarizes this debate. For an extended discussion, see Schwartz (1990).
[16]Howard (2000) and Loader (2000) provide useful overviews of the variety and emphases of Y2K-themed  web sites. Howard’s ongoing effort to create a permanent archive of millennial crisis- and conspiracy-themed web sites is a valuable contribution to historical reconstruction of the Y2K panic. See his “Millennium Information Exchange,” at <http://endnear.com/>.
[17]Print and broadcast media in late 2000 and early 2001 were dominated by a crisis narrative which bears in many ways a strong resemblance to the Y2K episode: a series of fatuous errors and technological mishaps with seemingly ominous consequences for its victims; a massive redirection of legal and financial resources to support a contested remediation; an outpouring of rage and recrimination, and consequent alarm at a general loss of confidence in government preparedness; a rush to uncertain closure in the face of an unavoidable deadline. That the outcome of the troubled election of George W. Bush to the U.S. presidency must bear a determinate relation to official and popular American responses to the events of 9/11 is certain, although the nature of that relation is still unresolved. But what is perhaps clear is that the case of the disputed Florida vote signals the degree to which these irruptions of informational crisis and panic are plainly and, seemingly, naturally repeated and interconnected.
[18] In a January, 2000 survey of more than 3200 IT professionals and consumers, 30 percent reported that their organizations had experienced Y2K-related problems; 16 percent had experienced brief service interruptions; 4 percent had experienced “significant” outages. (TechWeb/CMP Media, 2000.) The accuracy and importance of these and similar reports are difficult to determine. As the authors of the Senate report note, there is no incentive for governments, corporations, or individuals to report Y2K-related problems. Most errors with only limited impact were likely dealt with on an ad hoc basis, with no effort made to notify outside parties. Given the enormous complexity of system interactions, many misbehaviors which should be traced toY2K errors were likely attributed to other causes. Concerns of security, public relations, and legal liability must also have contributed to widespread underreporting of problems. The full extent of Y2K-related errors will never be known.
[19]See Neumann (1995) for a summary description of Risks discourse, especially in computer applications. For typical examples of Risks discussions in a broad range of engineering and scientific disciplines, see: Dumas (1999), Collins & Pinch (1998), Perrow (1984) Peterson (1995), Petroski (1985 & 1994), and Tenner (1996). Petroski summarizes literature in the field in his review essay, “The Success of Failure” (2001). The Association for Computing Machinery’s RISKS Forum <http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/risks> is the primary conduit for current news in the field, including ongoing reports and analysis of system failures. For theorists of technical failure and its place in the informational imaginary, the list makes for fascinating reading.
[20] See Dumas (1999, pp. 351–52n1–3), for a concise description of the statistical correlation of systems complexity and failure.
[21]Virilio’s The Information Bomb was published in France in 1998. He mentions  the Y2K crisis several times in the book, but does not discuss it at length.
[22]See Freud (1954, Manuscript B, 66–72; Manuscript E, 88–94) and Freud (1916).
[23]Harpold (1999), Harpold and Philip (2000), and Philip (1997).
[24]The Artist, “1999.” Lyrics copyright © 1983 Warner Brothers Records.
[25]“Failure to achieve compliance with the year 2000 will jeopardize our way of life on this planet for some time to come.” (Arthur Gross, Chief Information Officer, IRS. Cited Utne Reader, ed. staff (1998, p. 4). Typical of much of the secular and religious Y2K literature, entire histories of political economy might be unpacked out of expressions of concern for the passing of “our way” of life.
[26]Thus, as Helland (2000) and Wojcik (1999) have observed, the emergence of modern technologies of mass destruction are doubly-valenced in popular evangelical and fundamentalist accounts of the end times: they serve as both tools for persecuting Christians and for making apocalyptic war, and as instruments for bringing about the end of history and the eschaton, the bursting-forth of divine Truth in the aftermath of the final conflict between good and evil.
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