The world is ending -- let's get to know our neighbors!

Y2K bug provides a grand opportunity for media pontification: The Utne Reader weighs in early.


James Poniewozik
January 6, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Late last year, Minneapolis made its second major contribution to the literature of millennial apocalypse as the alternative-media digest Utne Reader issued its "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide." The 120-page pamphlet (also online) was mailed to Utne's subscribership in November and hit newsstands last week. Determinedly erring on the side of preparing for the worst, it's a sort of practical progressive's guide to disaster prep for computer-related disaster.

Judicious expenditures in the name of safety have always appealed to us white-collar liberal-artsies, who -- from our imported road cocoons to our long-lived soy beverages to our boutique name-brand flashlights -- have really been preparing for a global meltdown for decades; so it's not surprising to find Utne weighing in early. What's most interesting about the guide is that it proves no crisis is so universal or horrifying that it cannot be used to advance a magazine's editorial philosophy -- here, Utne's long-standing strident communitarianism.

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Dismissing head-for-the-hills survivalism, the magazine instead agrees with Y2K efforts like the Cassandra Project (many of whose articles the guide reprints), that tight-knit neighborhood groups will be the key to readiness. And the guide notes, not without self-satisfaction, that that approach is basically Utne's own grass-roots progressivism writ apocalyptic. "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and unexpected and quite wonderful is going to happen," writes editor Eric Utne:

We're going to get to know our neighbors. Possibly for the first time in our lives, we will begin to know what it means to live in real community ...

Y2K is the excuse we've been waiting for to stop making so many compromises in how we know we should, and want to, live our lives. Y2K is our opportunity to stop our polluting and wasteful practices, and start living more sustainable, environmentally friendly lives. Y2K is the conversational gambit that can lead to discussions that begin to knit webs of affiliation, care, and mutual support.

In other words, those of you who have been politely but firmly saying thanks-but-no-thanks to the food co-op members up the street inviting you for a cup of Cranberry Zinger and like-minded discussion of home schooling had better change your tunes before the riot hits.

Now, the Reader and its subscribers clearly are hardly wishing for global cataclysm. (Hey, it takes heavy machinery to make those Nile Spice soup cups.) Still, there's a definite note of self-congratulation throughout: "People who have been working their entire lives for political, social and cultural change immediately see its transformational potential. A common response among this group is, 'This is what I came here for,' or 'I've been waiting my entire life for this.'"

That might seem oddly sanguine to those of us who instead selfishly wait our entire lives for, say, a comfortable retirement free of Year-Zero-style field labor. However well-intended, it's simply bad form to hail a possible global disaster as a plug for your social agenda. If Utne really wants to involve "people who are not like ourselves," it might be more, er, neighborly not to crow, "Finally, here's our chance to make you short-sighted bastards end your corrupt way of life!" -- or to dismiss the unenlightened practice of "paying others to keep lawbreakers behind bars" (though mob justice does have a way of bringing people together). And the guide's insistence that we'll remake society by struggling through Y2K together overlooks a few basic arguments. Our last great common societal struggle, the Great Depression and World War II, was something of a leftie collectivist's ideal while it lasted -- but then we celebrated with a binge of individualism and consumption that has yet to end. Oh, and didn't collectivist reliance -- i.e., interlinked computer and economic networks -- get us in the shit in the first place?

Utne will hardly be alone this year, though, in self-serving editorializing on the Y2K bug. It's the perfect social hobbyhorse: millennially timed, tech-oriented and all about shadowy "networks" that you may not understand but nonetheless feel are the source of all your problems. Thus Y2K -- like the recent "Wag the Dog" accusations and Pat Buchanan's political career -- shows that in an era of complacent centrism the frustrated left and right have more in common with each other than with the middle. (Remember when advocating solar power and growing your own food was, pace the militia movement, a stereotype of the left?) Sick of big government? Big business? Dispersed suburbs? Crowded cities? Excessive faith in technology? Insufficient faith in Christ? Congratulations -- whatever your stripe, the Y2K bug is proof positive that the world is going to hell because it wouldn't adopt your personal philosophy!

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Meanwhile, among the great mainstream, a harbinger of the long year ahead was the half-hour Y2K package CNN assembled for New Year's Day: Host Steve Young introduced brief segments from Boston's Computer Museum, standing in front of a giant green motherboard backdrop and walking across a giant keyboard, every humiliating step practically begging an angry God to smite our foolish civilization. If you missed it, you'll see the same thing aplenty over the next several months. Like many stories with great buzz but few qualified authorities, this one has evolved a handful of designated role-players: The Four (or Five) Spokesmen of the Apocalypse. Edward Yardeni, Official Economist of the Apocalypse, will forecast a 70 percent chance of global recession in 2000. Ed Yourdon, Official Author of the Apocalypse, will plug his "Time Bomb 2000." The Gartner Group, Official Consulting Agency of the Apocalypse, will provide statistics. And someone will compare fixing the bug to changing all the light bulbs on the Vegas Strip in an afternoon, the Official Overused Analogy of the Apocalypse, all while some family with three kids pours dried wheat berries into a five-gallon plastic drum, over and over again. (You will see more kitchen pantries on the 6 o'clock news this year than on TV Food Network.)

The Utne guide may at least help diversify mainstream media coverage, which still heavily relies upon ammo-and-kerosene loners. And while the Y2K hardcore have excoriated journalists as soft-handed decadents who will get theirs on Judgment Day -- historian and leading doomsayer Gary North writes, "Reporters do not want to think that their careers are doomed, their pensions are doomed, and they will have to work for a living in 2000" -- they've also learned to use the media's knee-jerk Nostradamism. On his Web site, North predicts dramatic TV news visuals will drown out pointy-headed Y2K optimists, and even boasts of manipulating a camera crew that interviewed him: "I knew what they would love: a scene of me turning on the gas jet of the property's natural gas well. I suggested it, and they immediately agreed ... I knew what the medium has to have." Y2K millennialists will win the argument through TV, he crows, while "the 'we've got it just about solved' crowd will have to be satisfied with print media." We'll win the hearts and minds -- you eggheads can go ahead and keep the peace at Balducci's.

Utne at least avoids out-and-out predictions of doom, though it occasionally strains to hit a dire note. It begins with a list of menacing quotes, including one from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in the Sept. 28 Fortune (where, full disclosure, I'm a contributor), taken from an interview about the summer stock-market plunge in which he didn't actually discuss Y2K once. But Utne does deserve props for putting out a thorough guide on a real problem, well ahead of most other magazines. (Though some good work is starting to appear: A chilling package in the current Business 2.0 rounds up the world's Y2K preparedness, indicating, for example, that Russia's Y2K plans effectively amount to keeping a bottle of vodka on ice.) And I'll take Utne's communitarian sunshine any apocalypse over hands off my C-rations or I'll put a cap in your ass survivalism, most famously taken up in the same techie community that made the silicone sex robot into a growth industry.

And for all its implicit self-satisfaction, you have to say this for the Utne guide: It's willing to risk embarrassment. In a way, the ultimate Y2K battle may not be the technologists vs. the Luddites, the survivalists vs. the communitarians or the Pollyannas vs. the Chicken Littles, but rather -- as the Utne guide and North's comments show -- the earnest vs. the smug. Culturally, Y2K could turn the long-simmering irony vs. passion debate into, literally, Armageddon. As the year unfolds, it will be tempting, after all, to pooh-pooh the more drastic Y2K preparations -- but how much of that is informed confidence and how much is simply being too cool to be seen with an economy-sized can of pinto beans?

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In the best case, Utne will simply have created a signature piece of 20th century kitsch, something for the Smithsonian to store with the bomb shelter kits and "Duck and Cover" reels -- plus, maybe, an Utne Reader subscribership far better armed than anyone would have imagined. It says something about our culture that its signal act of bravery is the defiance of the smartasses, that the greatest calamity it can imagine is ridicule. But then Utne Reader shouldn't complain. If you want to get into the salon business, you've got to be willing to tangle with the armchair Voltaires.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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