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Talkin' Y2K Blues

04.14.1999 | TECHNOLOGY

—Lenny Bruce, to audiences during the Cuban Missile Crisis

If I had a crown for every lame article I've been subjected to regarding Y2K, I could buy a plate of dumplings. No really, I could. And I would store these dumplings in my cellar, right beside the cot upon which I will spend New Year's Eve with a twelve-gauge and my wiener dog, Bessie, whom I may have to eat by February. And if you think I'm anxious, you should hear my uncle Ronnie, back home.

If reports are to be believed, Americans are currently building bomb shelters at a rate not seen since the second year of the Kennedy Administration. People are pulling money out of banks, and gun sales are way up. Even registered Democrats are joining the NRA.

But is anybody really surprised that panic over the millennium roach is most extreme in the United States of America? Not only is it the most religious nation on earth, it is the most comfort stricken. Only in America could doomsday rhetoric be inspired by the loss of the national remote control. Postmodern Splenglers have pointed to America as evidence of the 'Recline of the West,' and I know of at least 150 million lazy, self-satisfied stateside fucks that would agree with them.

But there is no need to get nasty. Basically we have a computer problem here. A potentially very large computer problem, one most feared by those with the most to lose. A majority of these people live in America, of course, where a hefty percentage of the population live lives of great ease. Yes, yes, quiet desperation and all that, but mostly great ease. An ease that has been cultivated with passion over the course of the American Century, an ease measured out in countless Super Bowl sized bags of Doritos and countless hours of Network induced inactivity.

Somehow this ease, this vast GNP-produced Soft Machine, has become wired to the hilt. What you might call Convenience Capitalism has become dependant upon a vast web of integrated complex systems, all of which no doubt run like tributaries into the guts of some Mother Machine deep within the fortified bowels of the Pentagon. And for the first time since its creation, this Soft Machine is under threat. The Y2K menace is especially acute in the States, where nobody can seem to remember a time before the Soft Machine. Did such a time ever exist? The collective memory of Affluence seems to go back about as far as the first clear reception of Ed Sullivan: before that... static.

In a generally unspoken calculus, the Soft Machine is equated with life itself. It is, goddammit, the American Way. Thus nuclear war is probably less terrifying to the American mind than the scenario offered by widespread computer confusion. At least Atomic Death offers quick, painless insolvency. Even the outermost ring of suburbs would be reduced to a condition of community blacklung. Only fringers and farmers (gross, who are they?) would be around to deal with the hassles of getting the air-conditioner fixed on the Day After. Not so, Y2K.

Urban creatures of affluence, including you and me, are for the first time threatened with widespread disruption, danger and uncertainty—in short, inconvenience. Drive-thrus will be backed up, ATM's clogged, heaters shut off, alarm systems downed, a few ICBM's launched(?), airports delayed, and our precious bank accounts evaporated. Perhaps not the stuff of apocalypse for the average Russian or Ugandan, but just about unthinkable for Joe Convenience.

But there is more to the current state of American panic than simple greed, fear and Softness. At the bottom floor of this nation of Pilgrims remains a viscous layer of good old-fashioned Protestant guilt deep down, Americans have known this day was coming, and have awaited the reckoning with a sense of inevitability. From the middlemanagementoid with the house in the country and his fears that he cannot name, to the soccer mom who annually upgrades her Sports Utility Vehicle to military standards of preparedness, the luckier denizens of the richest nation on earth know they have it coming. They have benefited from the greatest party on earth at the expense of almost everybody else, and are, however unconsciously, preparing to pay the piper. Insofar as the fundamentalists dress this up in the ancient garb of prophecy, they are simply showing some pinache.

Guilt over the power and resources of the US also no doubt haunts those that have wrenched the US global regime into its current form. Despite assurances to Dan Rather Inc. that all is well and ready, officials are drenching the cloistered corridors of power with sweat. They awake at night racked with visions of a total defense grid meltdown, of Chinese warships steaming toward Taiwan and Hawaii, of Iraq successfully instigating revolution in Saudi Arabia and invading Israel: all as the Great Eagle sits helpless, banging on its trillion dollar toys trying to get them working. But alas, the Super Computers will have X's for eyes and will be flashing 1900, which is apt enough, as America in that year was still a collection of nascent banana republics with no navy and a Kaiser-sized English envy.

The four starred souls who have been so trigger happy these last several decades know that our power must wane as sure as it waxed. They know that a global sphere of influence is pushing the bounds of precedent and begging for a future hegemonic war. If only in the loneliest hour of midnight, these men have an appropriately historical sense of limits as well as an acute understanding of the circuitous path of the Geopolitical, if not the Cosmic, Shit.

Together, the generals, the yuppies, the couch potatoes, the mall rats, the frat fauna—in fact, all stripes of the materialistically content—face the same prospect as so many of our brothers and sisters to the South: fear, uncertainty, chaos, hardship. In short, Inconvenience on a decidedly Un-American scale.

OK. Assuming the worst case "scenarios" are accurate, what of it? Should we huddle terrified in the cellar with our shoebox of hard currency and cases of SPAM? Should we arm in preparation for the junglelike ATM-less society that awaits? I dare say that such a prospect is worse than death. It is unimaginative, it is cowardly, it is regressive. If we have truly become so dependent upon our machines, then let us not fear the collapse of this world, let us embrace it. Let us pursue the opportunity for renewal that lies before us. There are aspects of the great antihuman edifice we have built up this century that require us to think beyond them. Y2K perhaps gives us the chance to imagine this space and shape it. There are risks—big ones to be sure—but what of the risks of continuing on the present course?

As we continue to pursue profit at the expense of people, as we continue to churn out cars that destroy the atmosphere, as we continue to build nuclear weapons in the name of peace, as we do all of this and more, I ask: what could be more needed than a nice mean rupture in the Great Plastic Asshole that is the soul of the Modern World. Y2K just may be the wallop we need, just might be some god's hand reaching down and cutting the switch. It might shake us from our myopic obsession with our cell phones, our stocks, our precious order which is no order at all. It might make us see that this ship is heading for a glacier. Or it may in fact be the glacier itself, but, as Bill Buckley once said sanguinely regarding the risks of fighting Godless communism: "If we die, we die."

I welcome Y2K as some benevolent alien force if it will shut off our stupid machines for one moment, calm the buzz, and allow us to reflect. Our biggest enemies include our own arrogance and the distracting hum of this arrogance at work. So let me go on record as saying that if Y2K did not exist, I would be urging my hacker friends to create it.

It, and some lemonade, for the Day After.

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