Panic Like It's 1999
Nothing changes on New Year's Day

Watch out! We'll spend New Year's Eve dodging atomic bombs and plummeting 747s, thanks to air traffic controllers deafened by the simultaneous beep from their malfunctioning digital watches. People in Tonga will live like kings, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the glowing radiation clouds over Europe and North America.

See also...
... by David Cassel
... in the Whoa! section
... from November 11, 1999

Do we really believe these warnings that the sky is falling? It's also been high noon on my grandpa's VCR since 1988 -- but that hardly constitutes a global crisis. Panic-stricken corporations start scrambling to hire specialized technicians for the Univac mainframes they haven't touched since the 70s, and suddenly "Y2K" is headline news. Why? Because it gives cold sweats to jerks dressed in power suits.

Ooo, I'm scared. The lights in Las Vegas might flicker. Guess I should be worried that my neighborhood financial institution might lose their registry of all my T-Bills. Oh, wait -- I don't have any T-Bills.

People in wealthy neighborhoods may huddle on New Year's Eve, afraid to drive their luxury cars. Maybe they'll even suffer a power outage, unable to access their AOL accounts while their cat Muffy is forced to eat her kibble in the dark. But after that long, dark night when the ATM's go blank and the Taco Bells fall silent, my wealthy next-door neighbor will still be rich -- while I'll still be stuck making payments on my Apple IIe. I'd go bash in the window on his Porsche, but with my luck the only things that will be Y2K-compliant are the car alarms that go off in the middle of the night every time a cat walks across the hood.

Bring on the Second Coming

I'm certainly not the only one secretly hoping the world ends on December 31 (eliminating credit card debt, errors on tax returns, and next month's rent). Religious nuts can't wait for the day when their mimeographed newsletters will be the most widely-circulated periodicals on the planet. Their millenarian predictions about the end of the world are just their own set of vindictive hopes -- in this case, that Jesus will gather up the good, and then everybody else will finally get theirs.

It's all kind of like that Twilight Zone episode where the quack scientist vows he'll shine a shrinking ray on the city, turning all the evil people into three-foot midgets. His experiment works, but it only affects one person in the town -- the power-mad prophet himself. I see sheepish apologies in congregations across the heartland about the world not ending on schedule, as promised. Disillusioned teenaged churchgoers will complain that The Rapture was a big letdown, and wonder why they postponed having premarital sex.

The media is also giddy about the possibility of a technological meltdown -- because it gives them an opportunity to buttress their own importance by warning us about it. Unfortunately, their warnings have been implausible and patronizing, like an overzealous mother warning that if you're not careful about your Y2K preparedness, you could poke somebody's eye out. Except that their exhortations to panic constitute a complete reversal of mother's argument. "Oh, and I suppose if everybody else didn't jump off a cliff, you wouldn't jump, either."

The Y2K Bandwagon

But it's not just the news media. In fact, their ineffective warnings have revealed an unpleasant truth: The only people who pay attention to a story that revolves around chronometers are those who feel they can make some money off it. The ads on the envelope that holds my monthly credit card statement have already appropriated all the relevant lexicon to hawk things like the Franklin Mint's last "Dog's Playing Poker" painting "OF THE MILLENIUM!!!!"

But if there's a bright side, it's that at least it gives the generally unstable something to worry about. "Y2K is an even bigger threat than UFOs!" the desert-dwelling fringe screams, and "Oh, it's all very funny until looting street rioters smash in your windows." Of course, "they" do that now. It's called breaking and entering. Our top story tonight: a newfound lack of faith in Neighborhood Watch programs. Call out the National Guard....

Of course, the National Guard is already calling for a mobilization. But they're just itching for a dry run of their "military state" exercises….

Unpleasant Truths

Maybe I just don't want to believe that those kooks passing out pamphlets at the subway are right about a global holocaust whose only survivors will be gun nuts and Mormons. I want to believe sin is heartier than that. And there's one inescapable observation. All the panicky hype-mongering comes from power-hungry paranoids jockeying for position by trying to whip large populations into a frenzy. Deep down, I'm sure they don't really believe the world is going to end on New Year's Eve; they just want to exploit the possibility that it might.

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary." -- H.L. Mencken

This psychic profiteering ultimately reminds me of a hypothetical scenario a friend described of the single person most deeply affected by the Y2K bug. It begins with a dominatrix in a Las Vegas S/M parlor playing a prank on her submissive. "Augh! My pacemaker isn't Y2K compliant!" she screams. "Guess you're gonna have to stay strapped in that swinging dildo harness until the National Guard stumbles across my corpse, drawn by the smell of my rotting flesh.

"Ha ha! Just kidding! [Whack!] You maggot....."

David Cassel is Interactive Media Editor for GettingIt. He edits our ongoing series The Internet for Assholes.