Apr/May 1999 Miscellany

The Other Y2K Crisis

by James J. Kopp, PhD.

The business section in the local paper includes a countdown to January 1, 2000. The popular and professional literature increasingly covers aspects of the Y2K "problem" or "crisis". My favorite World Wide Web search tool comes up with over 98,000 Web sites that contain "Y2K" as a term. These range from the U.S. Federal Government Gateway for Year 2000 Information Directories, to countless businesses providing solutions to the computer problem at the center of the crisis, and to sites offering survival products and salvation advice for the impending collapse of civilization as we know it. As convinced as I am that there will be some impact from the dreaded Y2K problem, I do not feel that the impact will be as severe or catastrophic as some predict. I am growing increasingly more concerned with a phenomenon that likely will have as widespread an impact and potentially may last for a longer period, perhaps even centuries. This is the other Y2K crisis that should be getting more attention than it is as the calendar moves on toward that magical, mystical, and mischievous date of January 1, 2000.

The issue behind this crisis is not the debate over when a century (or a decade or a millennium) begins or ends nor is it the uncertainty of what to call the inaugural decade of the new century ("the Aughts"?), both topics of discussion at the water cooler, in the coffee shop, on discussion lists, or in the literature. This looming problem, however, does share an important aspect of these issues the human element as opposed to a technological one. At issue is what will we target as the next landmark date when the year 2000 is history? There will not be another combination end-of-decade, end-of-century, end-of-millennium occurrence for, well, another thousand years (at least as long as we adhere to the calendar as we know it). How will we deal without a clear date on which to focus for another millennium?

Perhaps since the first millennial milestone was passed there has been a focus of one sort or another on the year 2000. The written record from the oft-mislabeled Dark Ages (itself perhaps a result of some Y1K crisis?) does not provide a wealth of information on any early focus on the year 2000, but as the centuries progressed there undoubtedly was an increasing awareness that this second millennial marker was approaching. In the penultimate century of the current millennium, the year 2000 became the focal point of a number of literary works, in particular those of a utopian nature. The most famous and influential of these was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, the utopian novel published in 1888 that prompted a reform movement and spearheaded a plethora of utopian works published over the next two decades. However, prior Bellamy's work, the year 2000 had been the focus of other utopian stories from the anonymous Henry Russell: or, The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand published in 1846 to James Ingleton: The History of a Social State, A.D. 2,000 by "Mr. Dick" published in 1887. Following the publication of Looking Backward, the year 2000 served as the focus of a number of other utopian works, some considered by their authors to be "sequels" to Bellamy's work, such as Donald McMartin's A Leap Into the Future, or, How Things Will Be: A Romance of the Year 2000 (1890), or other works like Julius Vogel's Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman's Destiny (1889) and Alvorado Fuller's A.D. 2000 (1890). The year 2000 also was a focus for a variety of other works ranging from interpretation of Biblical prophecies, such as G. F. Logan's The Last Great Battle; or, War Among the Nations Until the Year 2000. Britons, Prepare! (1869), to a number of works looking at cities or countries in the future, including Paris en l'an 2000 (1869), Deutschland im Jahre 2000 (1891), and Belfast in the Year 2000 A.D. (1898). The year 2000 also found its way into some lighter aspects such as G. H. Kerr's A.D. 2000, or, The Century Plants, A Comic Opera in Two Acts (1894) and J. McCullough's Golf in the Year 2000, or, What We Are Coming To (1892 and, interestingly, recently reprinted).

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the millennium was still over the horizon (or maybe the rainbow) but it continued to garner some attention in the first third of the century from Rudyard Kipling to Upton Sinclair. Kipling's "With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D." was first published in magazines in 1905 and later published as a small book. Sinclair's The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 appeared in 1924 and was reprinted (and translated) several times over the next decade. The year 2000 continued to be a focus of utopian works including F. E. Bilz' Der Zukunftsstaat: staatseinrichtung im Jahre 2000 (1904) as well as translations of Bellamy's novel into numerous languages. The international appeal of the year 2000 is evident in such works as Godofredo E. Barnsley's Sao Paulo no anno 2000, ou, regeneracao nacional (1909), S. G. Fielding's Australia A.D. 2000, or, The Great Referendum (1917), and La Tunisie en l'an 2000 (lettres d'un touriste) by Louis Benjamin Charles Carton (1921). And the year 2000 was the focus of adventure stories such as William Cook's A Round Trip to the Year 2000, or, A Flight Through Time (1903) to playful essays on the sugar trade such as Le sucre en l'an 2000, le passe, le present et l'avenir de l'industrie du sucre de betteraves; essai humoristique by Joseph Saccharin (1912). It also became the focus of more somber forecasts, such as Frederick Robinson's The War of the Worlds: A Tale of the Year 2,000 A.D. published as the world was going to war in 1914.

Although there continued to be a fascination with the year 2000 after World War I (as noted by some titles above), there also was a shift in the focus to one with a more "real" sense about it. Works such as Anton Lubke's Technik und mensche im jahre 2000 (1927) began to examine the coming landmark date in a more concrete fashion. The appearance of the report of the Joint Committee on Bases of Sound Land Policy in 1929 was one of an increasing number of studies that began to forecast with a focus on the year 2000. This report highlights the questions examined by the Joint Committee: What About the Year 2000? An Economic Summary of Answers to the Vital Questions: Will Our Land Area in the United States Meet the Demands of Our Future Population? How Are We to Determine the Best Use of Our Land Resources? Clearly the year 2000, which was now within the life span of those being born, was becoming more of a reality.

In the middle third of the century, however, even though the year 2000 still was the focus of a number of works, from utopias to policy and political studies, and from dire predictions of the end of the world to such works as the French translation of one of Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat stories as Felix en l'an 2000 (1933), the immediate issues of the Depression and the Second World War appear to have created some haze of the view of this millennial milestone. In the post-World War Two years, it was often difficult to look beyond the next Cold War crisis, let alone consider the year 2000. (One must acknowledge, however, David McIlwain's [aka Charles Eric Maine] science fiction work, Crisis 2000, that appeared in 1956.) Instead the focus seemed to be on such years as 1984 as pivotal temporal mileposts.

Yet even as temperatures in the Cold War rose to dangerous levels in the 1960s and 1970s making even getting to 1984 look optimistic, the year 2000 began to creep back more into the public and scholarly consciousness. Actually, it was the year 2001 that perhaps initially snapped attention to the coming millennium, thanks to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke, but the year 2000 soon drew increased attention as well. A quick (and far from exhaustive) examination of the journal literature since 1970 in the fields of economics, education, and medicine reveals an increasing focus on the year 2000 as reflected in the titles of articles published. Collectively, there were 146 such articles published in the 1970s. By the 1980s this had increased to 488 articles and through mid-1998 there have been 571 papers published with a focus on the year 2000 in these three fields. And as we have moved toward that utopia, dystopia, or anti-utopia predicted by some of the writings of the last hundred years, we are increasingly bombarded with the predictions (grim and otherwise) of the year 2000.

But what do we do when the year 2000 comes and goes? What will be our next focal point for our fantasies, for our prophesies, for our planning? We could take an Arthurian approach (as in Clarke) and look at 2001, 2010, and 2061 as the next focal points in our odyssey, but even Clarke backed off and jumped to the next millennium with 3001: The Final Odyssey. Some organizations have cleverly used 2020 for a clear vision of the future. The Trekkers amongst us would target a Stardate some time in the 23rd or 24th century. And we could return to the utopian literature that provided so many glimpses of the year 2000 and see that some also looked beyond that date, including Louis-Sebastien Mercier's eighteenth century work, Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (L'an deux mille quatre cent quarante) or Henry O'Neill's Two Thousand Years Hence (1867). Others have looked further "hence" also, from a thousand years (Ira S. Bunker, A Thousand Years Hence or, Startling Events in the Year A.D.3000: A Trip to Mars, Incidents By the Way [1903]), to several thousand years (including Hans Christian Anderson's Thousands of Years Hence [Om aartusinder] and Milton Worth Ramsey's Six Thousand Years Hence [1891]), to half a million years (S. Fowler Wright, The Amphibians: A Romance 500,000 Years Hence [1926]).

Looking so far hence does not seem to be too likely, but undoubtedly we will be at a loss when the year 2000 is behind us and not before us. We could be seeing new psychological disorders, political uncertainty, and spiritual unrest without a new date to guide our way. It could be a struggle that may take the better portion of a millennium to sort out. This is the other Y2K crisis.


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