Millennium bugging out

Millennium bugging out: By Janelle Brown. Year 2000 survivalists, fearing digitally induced chaos, head for the hills.

Published May 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Candace Turner used to sell industrial freezer units; today, she sells Survival Domes -- insulated geodesic shelters heated by wood-burning stoves. In the last year, she and her husband have stocked their Missouri farm with a cornucopia of livestock, seeds and canned food and bought a horse-drawn plow and a covered wagon. Her four children have been told they have to learn to feed themselves, just in case.

On Jan. 1, 2000, Turner fears that the chaos will begin: the power grids will go dark, and airplanes and trains will grind to a halt. The stock markets will crash and burn, along with the U.S. government, and banks will shut down. Cities will erupt in riots and looting. Starving urban refugees, Turner believes, could eventually show up on her doorstep as beggars.

The disaster she anticipates is not the apocalypse, but what some feel is its real-life technological equivalent: the "millennium bug."

Turner isn't alone as she prepares for this scenario. Across North America, groups of concerned programmers, economics experts, consultants and techies are preparing for a varying scale of "Y2K" (geek shorthand for "Year 2000") disaster. The Y2K survivalist, or "safe haven," movement is burgeoning as Jan. 1, 2000, approaches.

The millennium bug is a programming glitch in many older computers, programs and "embedded systems" that use only two digits to record the date. When the year "00" comes around, no one knows how they will react -- and whether they will stop working. Problems could extend from local electric companies to nuclear reactors, from the Internal Revenue Service to the telephone companies, from the airlines to the retail distribution chain. Any large-scale system that relies on complex digital information technology is potentially vulnerable.

The government and private companies are beginning to spend vast sums of money to fix all the code, and some experts are confident that the millennium portends little worse than a few bumps. But rewriting all that code is a laborious process, and other observers argue that it's already too late in the game to repair many major systems.

No one can guarantee that a Y2K disaster will happen. What concerns the new Y2K survivalists -- the pessimists who are joining in what some participants are calling "the Great Geek Migration" -- is that no one can guarantee that it won't.

"It's not a question of who's right -- it's a question of mitigating the consequences of who's wrong," says Paul Milne, a vocal Y2K survivalist. "If I'm wrong I'm still here, the birds are chirping, the sky is still above. But if they're wrong, they're dead."

There is no shortage of apocalyptic doomsayers who are predicting a total social breakdown, complete with widespread chaos, murder and starvation. Christian economist and Y2K preacher Gary North, who dominates many discussions of the millennium bug online, estimates that "martial law will be declared no later than Jan. 15. At that point, things will start getting worse ... I think there will be a collapse of Western civilization if the power grid does go down, and I can see no reason why it won't. Rioting will be a minor sideshow."

Or, as Milne puts it, "By the middle of 2000, New York City will look like Beirut."

Milne is a prominent voice among those Y2K survivalists who urge people to abandon the cities and find secret hideaways in the countryside. In anticipation of the dreaded day, Milne, a former commodities broker, has moved to a 10-acre farm in Virginia, where he and his family are learning agrarian skills, raising livestock, fitting wells with hand pumps and storing food -- not to mention stockpiling guns for protection in a newly lawless world.

"I'm not God -- I can't say definitively what's going to happen," Milne says. "What I can say is that when people don't have the basic elements for survival, they are not going to come out on their lawns and hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya.' They're going to scratch and claw their way to survival. I put myself in a place where I would have the highest odds of being able to do that."

On the newsgroups misc.survivalism and, where Milne and others discuss the Y2K problem, these kinds of one-man-against-the-world sentiments are common. Although the misc.survivalism newsgroup has existed for years, the millennium bug has swelled its ranks. Programmers, gun enthusiasts and hardened survivalists are now debating together whether dog meat is edible, how to purify water and which personal sidearms are most appropriate when defending oneself against what they jokingly refer to as "Cannibal Welfare Mutants" -- violent city refugees who may be hunting for food in the early months of 2000.

The basic preparations for solitary survival, according to survivalist discussions: hoarding cans of food, stockpiling weapons, preparing alternative energy supplies and converting money to more tangible assets. Or, as Y2K survivalist Archie Smith succinctly put his priorities on a Y2K mailing list: "I believe in the four G's of survival: God, Guns, Gold and Groceries (and in that order)."

Says Tim May, the cypherpunk co-founder who is a 20-year veteran of the technology industry and an active Usenet poster, "I don't know how likely it is to happen, but I know it's a reasonable thing for me to devote five or 10 grand to supplies and generators and whatnot. And then I can sit on my hilltop and ride this thing out without leaving home, which is my intention."

While Milne and May plan to ride out the year 2000 by themselves in their remote homes, others are looking into group relocation -- and
soon, since some are anticipating a crisis beginning even by the fall of 1998. The relocation board on Gary North's Web site is already generating hundreds of messages a day, and many posters are hoping to move to communal safe havens, or Y2K villages, with groups of like-minded individuals.

Heritage Farms 2000 is the highest-profile of the Y2K villages that are starting to emerge. Conceived by self-titled "practical prophet" and utopian author Russ Voorhees, Heritage Farms 2000 plans to sell half-acre plots to 500 families in hopes of building an independent, self-sustaining community that won't be disturbed by the disruptions in the rest of society.

Located on 1,000 acres by Lake Oahe in remote South Dakota, Heritage Farms 2000 will offer plots with gardens for permanent or mobile homes, plus a 160-acre community farm and a Main Street with a general store and other resident-founded businesses. Voorhees is planning a satellite uplink/downlink for Internet connectivity, a fiber-optic telephone system and solar- and wind-powered generators. The project is still in the planning stage (it's waiting for necessary permits), but Voorhees believes he's already received enough serious inquiries to fill all of the plots.

Voorhees' vision of what might happen come New Year's Day 2000 is not as dark as some -- he anticipates turmoil, but not an apocalypse -- and so he sees his model community as a society of telecommuting engineers, working in a village that is simply far removed from the problems that will be plaguing cities. In fact, the majority of the inquiries he's received so far are from engineers, computer programmers and other technology workers who hope they'll be able to keep working from this safe haven.

As Voorhees puts it, "We've got a higher likelihood of anyone else in having continuity both in communication and power. We're at the breadbasket of the world; you aren't going to go hungry here. You're away from any metropolitan areas, so if in fact there is any rioting this place will be immune to it. We'll have high visibility so people can telecommute from here ... It'll be a cohesive community where people will work together toward a common goal."

Candace Turner, who has already sold 30 information kits about her $7,000
Survival Domes, also advocates the benefits of building Y2K survival communities. When she was "Y2K born" (a phrase she uses to describe her introduction to the millennium bug issue), Turner attempted to reach out to her friends and neighbors to warn them about the problem, but they ignored her. So instead she started an outreach mailing list, which now boasts 400 people who swap Y2K survival tips on a daily basis.

"I knew that morale is half the key to success in surviving in these times, and I needed to know that there were other pockets of civilization that were going to make it, too," Turner explains. "I wanted to reach out and know where those pockets were going to be, and I wanted to encourage others to learn about this so that there would be others -- and make it a place where I could learn skills from farmers and others who were Y2K born earlier than I."

The mailing list, she says, has become her "Y2K family." Every Wednesday night, members of the list participate in a nationwide teleconference call, when volunteers report back on their research into topics like shelter, food and seeds, finance and farming. Many, says Turner, are already planning to pool resources and buy plots of land, move into rural neighborhoods together and form what they are calling "covenant communities." Some have already put bids on land in Turner's general locale.

Turner says she has already heard of a dozen Y2K villages -- in Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Montana -- and assumes that there are many more. Over half were formed directly as a result of the Y2K problem; the rest are church congregations who have been preparing for years for some kind of millennial upheaval, and who have more recently latched onto the Y2K issue. All of them, she says, are trying to stay hidden from the public eye and don't want any more members.

"It's got to be a community effort," says Jim Pollard, a 61-year-old list member who is inviting a select group of friends to join him on his energy-efficient 64-acre farm in Kentucky, "but when you do this you have to be careful who you bring in -- they have to be compatible. It's not like selling a lot or a lease to strangers."

That, in fact, is much of the problem of tracking down the Y2K communities that are forming: Few want to share their little utopias with the general public, fearing that when the world comes crashing down, urban refugees will come seeking food and shelter. As Milne puts it, "It's going to be like moths to a flame. What if one particular community has their own source of power integration? That's going to get widely known and the outsiders will flock there."

Gary North himself is rumored to be starting a Y2K retreat community, but scoffs at the idea of sharing any information about it. "Any group a reporter has heard of should be avoided like the plague," he says.

But those who will talk about their Y2K communities seem to share a certain idealism about what they think they will build.

"I think there needs to be a reorientation of society toward more responsible social relationships; that can only happen in smaller communities. That's what I have always intended to demonstrate in a model community, and Y2K just provides an opportunity to do that," says Voorhees, who envisions Heritage Farms as the utopian model city of the 21st century. "Instead of suffering the problems, let's take a fresh look at things and think positively about it."

In a certain sense, such utopian Y2K villages sound like a revival of the communal-living craze in the early 1970s. Of course, many of those communes didn't survive, and even veterans of ones that did -- like the famous Farm in Tennessee -- have doubts about the longevity of these kinds of communities.

"It's like coming together over a paranoia as opposed to some type of warm human bonding -- the spiritual connection that people have together. That's what's going to bring you through thick and thin," says Doug Stephenson, a 25-year veteran of the Farm. "It's an awful lot of work to live that type of lifestyle; it's more than these people running out there have any idea what they're getting into ... We lived that way for a number of years and ate a lot of pickles."

Year 2000 programmers are widely expected to be the first group to start actively preparing (or "bug out," as the programmers themselves say). In this view, since they're on the front line and will realize the futility of tackling the problem long before anyone else does, they'll flee their companies and cities "like rats deserting a sinking ship," as Milne puts it.

But the topic of millennial apocalypse has historically been the territory of fundamentalist Christians, prophetic doomsayers, right-wing militias and fringe groups. And though the ranks of Y2K survivalists have been joined by less radical populations of programmers and techies, most online discussions are still being dominated by extremists -- most of whom have little to no background in computers.

This, say some engineers, has made it difficult to talk about the issue rationally. Robert Smith -- a Los Angeles systems administrator who plans to ride out the millennium at his father's birthplace, a small town in Ireland -- puts it this way: "This is a difficult conversation to have with people. It's sort of a dirty secret. You're almost embarrassed to admit to being concerned, or risk having people lump you in with the militias and bombers."

In fact, says Cory Hamasaki, a seasoned programmer who is currently battling the Y2K problem for several clients, many of his Y2K programmer colleagues are starting to make survival plans. For a worst-case scenario, Hamasaki is helping a friend prepare his farm for their retreat; for the best-case scenario, he is stockpiling goods in his city home. Something bad will happen, he believes, and "90 percent of the technical experts -- not kid coders, not LAN-heads nor Windows weenies but experts in enterprise-scale systems with more than 20 years experience -- and good academics have come to the same conclusion."

But the most visible of the year 2000 experts still scoff at the idea of running to remote locales or forming year 2000 villages, even though they themselves are advocating caution.

"I think the survivalists will be shocked, when they go running out to the hills. Guess where everyone else is going to go? The hills are going to be pretty crowded," says Edward Yardeni, an economist with Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and a leading Y2K expert. "I think we should all stay home in our communities and work with our neighbors -- we need to stick to each other and not run off. We need to make sure we don't panic."

Peter de Jager, a prominent year 2000 consultant, mostly fears that the survivalists will trigger the chaos they are trying to avoid. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're all doomed, so let's run away -- and when we run away, there's no one left to work the industry or society anymore, so therefore we were right."

From the outside, the Y2K safe haven movement looks like a strange convergence of geek fear and biblical prophecy, agrarian optimism and survivalist paranoia. Voorhees calls it a "convergence of millennial expectancy -- we're in both an economic cycle and a religious cycle."

The year 2000 problem has yet to become an issue of wide mainstream concern, probably because the whole concept is steeped in the arcane verbiage of the information technology world. But the scare stories are starting to catch the public's attention. Newsweek recently did a cover feature on the topic, and newspapers and TV newsmagazines are starting to report the story from a layman's point of view.

There's even an upcoming Hollywood movie about the millennium bug: "Y2K," due to be released in the fall of 1999 by Warner Brothers. Scriptwriter Stuart Zicherman describes "Y2K" as a techno-thriller from a programmer's point of view. Though he says it's not apocalyptic, and he doesn't expect that the film will trigger any panic, the movie will still portray a breakdown in New York City on New Year's Eve, 1999.

And, in fact, the whole Y2K survival issue reeks of Hollywood disaster film imagery. In, old apocalypse movies like "Mad Max," "Panic in Year Zero" and "Trigger Effect" are already being evoked as illustrations of what might happen. Posts in misc.survivalism about "human wave attacks," plagues and roving bands of murderers read like vivid scenes from the more recent spate of big-budget flicks: "Deep Impact," "Twelve Monkeys" or "The Postman." It's almost as if some people relish the prospect of living in a movie plot -- assuming, of course, that they get to play the role of a survivor.

Meanwhile, reports about progress in solving the Y2K problems are relentlessly grim. Just last week, Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., gave the federal government an "F" on its latest report card for Y2K preparedness, down from the last report card's D, and said that 13 of the 24 largest agencies won't be done repairing their systems in time. Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, is already talking to the Department of Defense about the possibility of martial law in early 2000.

Still, the massive disruption of civilization come Jan. 1, 2000, remains a remote and unlikely prospect to most of us. For participants in the Great Geek Migration, on the other hand, that scenario has already become an article of faith.

Says Hamasaki: "For me and other enterprise-scale programmers, it is evident to a moral certainty that the systems will fail. What happens after that is an unknown to us. Perhaps civilization will collapse, perhaps a flowering of the human spirit will see us through -- perhaps this will be an opportunity to build a better world."

Either way, the Y2K survivalists -- with their Survival Domes and cans of beans -- intend to be ready.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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