Twenty years ago today….
Back in 1998-2000 I was a major figure in efforts to prepare for possible Y2K disruptions and to use that possibility for personal and social transformation (see Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively for the principle behind that effort). I have not talked about that part of my life much since early 2000, but having now been respectfully interviewed by two significant mainstream media, I guess it is time to “come out” about my engagement with Y2K so the lessons of that era can be examined anew.
For most of the 1990s I was researching co-intelligence and trying to write a book about it (generating nine different manuscripts, but no book!). Then in March 1998 one of my Co-Intelligence Institute board members, Mary Ann Gallagher, introduced me to the potential systemic impacts of the Y2K “bug”. After a week of research I concluded that its disruptive potential could transform civilization, for worse AND for better. It was then that I created the co-intelligence.org website, throwing a few dozen of my book chapters up onto it to give it some substance and then launching into a new role as a major networker, writer and curator for “using Y2K for personal and social transformation.”
In the midst of all the other dimensions of the Y2K challenge, there weren’t many people focusing on positive transformation. But I found plenty of interest, especially around community resilience and local economics – because these would be vital if national infrastructures and global supply lines were interrupted. Becoming a small but broadly known fish in the big Y2K pond, by December 1999 I had a mailing list of 700 people, many of whom are still receiving messages I send out today.
The 2000 New Year millennial rollover – which is what the Subject line above refers to (thank you, Beatles and Sgt Pepper!) – turned out to be relatively uneventful, generating many buggy problems but no major disturbances. Y2K soon became the butt of jokes – and so did those of us who had worked so diligently to prepare for potential disruptions. So I archived my extensive Y2K website and turned back to my co-intelligence work, this time with a renewed focus on its implications for democracy.
Although I’ve long thought Y2K offered profound lessons for our attitudes towards technology and the potential vulnerabilities of our highly interconnected, computer-managed economic, government, infrastructure, energy, health care, food, security and educational systems, I have not spoken or written much about Y2K as worthy of reflection for the last two decades. The whole Y2K drama was just too burdened with distracting baggage.
But last month I got an email from John Hermann, a New York Times reporter interested in the role I’d played during that period. We had a great videoconference interview and some good followup where he read me his near-final draft. I felt he did a fair and insightful job. His final article “The Y2K Optimists” was put up on the Times website shortly after midnight New Years Eve as part of a more extensive family of Y2K retrospectives.
A week later I got an email from Eric Spitznagel, a Popular Mechanics reporter who sent me a collection of questions that seemed to me shallow at first. They made me wonder how he would use my answers. But I wrote back, answering him honestly and in detail. I was then pleasantly surprised when his article “‘Here We Go. The Chaos is Starting’: An Oral History of Y2K” came out. I found my views thoughtfully and respectfully presented, set among cogent comments from other experts. Our collective views constituted the substance of his article.
And then just yesterday my friend Peter sent me a link to a Washington Post article, “The Lessons of Y2K, 20 years later”, written by Zachary Loeb, a Y2K researcher. Although Loeb didn’t interview me, his article made clear both how real the Y2K threat was and the kind of work that enabled us to survive it. (Along those lines I would add a very clarifying email on Y2K dynamics from a contemporary expert Dale Way. I appended that to a 2000 article of my own called “Y2K, Experts and Citizens”.)
With all this intelligent coverage, I realized that the Y2K era was coming of age at last, and that I could “come out” about my own unusual role in it. I feel this shift in my own and society’s awareness frees me to talk more about its lessons for our times. After all, it is becoming ever-more-clear that we confront other significant challenges to our civilization’s resilience – from climate change, mass extinction and nuclear accidents and proliferation to technological hubris and the vulnerability of infrastructure, financial, transportation, and other complex computer-dependent systems to cyber attack and unexpected digital malfunctions.
During a fall 1999 Y2K conference, I began a speech by saying “We are nature’s creativity on speed. If we don’t create the means to monitor our creativity, we will create the means to destroy ourselves.” This is as true today as it was 20 years ago. That’s another reason to work at co-creating the means to collectively learn our way into a civilization rooted in wisdom-generating conversations and regenerative resilience in all our cultures and systems. I and many of you have been working at different aspects of this for a long time. Thank you for YOUR part in it.
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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
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