The following article is used by permission of the author, Denis Dutton. This article reveals the on-going problem with modern day doom and gloom prognosticators. It is high time that the Christian community come to grips with the ongoing embarrassment of failed end time prophets. Only true preterism has the answer for this problem.
It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It
Christchurch, New Zealand
It seems so distant, 1999. Bill Clinton had survived impeachment, his popularity hardly dented, Sept. 11 was just another date and music fans were enjoying a young singer named Britney Spears.
But there was a particular unease in the air. The so-called Y2K problem, the inability of computers to read dates beyond 1999 threatened to turn Jan. 1, 2000 into a nightmare. The issue had first been noticed by programmers in the 1950s, but had been ignored. As the turn of the century loomed, though, it seemed that humankind faced a litany of horrors.
Haywire navigation controls might cause aircraft to fall from the skies. Electricity grids, water systems and telephone networks would be knocked out, while nuclear power plants would be subject to meltdown. Savings and pension accounts would be wiped out in a general bank failure. A cascade of breakdowns in communication and commerce would create vast shortages of food and medicine, which would, in turn, produce riots, lawlessness and social collapse. Even worse, ICBMs might rise from their silos unbidden, spreading death across the globe.
Y2K problems would not be limited to mainframe computers that governed the information systems of the modern world, but were going to affect millions of tiny computer chips found everywhere. Thanks to these wonky microprocessors, elevators would die, G.P.S. devices would stop working and dishwashers would dry the food onto the plates before trying to rinse it off. Even ordinary cars might spontaneously accelerate to fatal, uncontrollable speeds, with brakes failing to respond.
The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century’s end: headlines proclaimed a “computer time bomb” or “a date with disaster.” Vanity Fair’s January 1999 article “The Y2K Nightmare” caught the sensationalist tone, claiming that “folly, greed and denial” had “muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts.”
Among the most reviled of the Y2K deniers was Bill Gates, who not only declared that Microsoft’s PCs would take the date turnover in stride, but had the audacity to blame those who “love to tell tales of fear” for the worldwide anxiety. Mr. Gates’s denialism was ignored as governments and corporations set in place immensely expensive schemes to immunize systems against the Y2K bug.
They weren’t the only ones keen to get in on the end-time spirit. The Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that Y2K would be the confirmation of Christian prophecy, “God’s instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation.” The Y2K crisis might incite a worldwide revival that would lead to “the rapture of the church.” Along with many survivalists, Mr. Falwell advised stocking up on food and guns.
So the scene was set here in New Zealand for midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. We are just west of the dateline, and thus would be the first to experience not only popping Champagne corks and fireworks, but the Y2K catastrophe, if any. As clocks hit midnight, Champagne and skyrockets were the only explosions of interest, since telephones, ATMs, cars, computers and airplanes worked just fine. The head of the government’s Y2K Readiness Commission declared victory: “New Zealand’s investment in planning and preparation has paid off.”
Confident that our millions were well spent, we waited for news of the calamities sure to hit countries that had ignored Y2K. Asia, a Deutsche Bank official had predicted, was going to be “burnt toast” on New Year’s Day — not just the lesser-developed areas of Vietnam and China, but South Korea, which by 1999 was a highly computer-dependent society. South Korea, one computer expert told me, had a national telephone system similar to British Telecom’s. But where the British had wisely sunk millions of pounds into Y2K remediation, South Korea had done next to nothing.
However, exactly 10 years ago today, as the date change moved on through the Far East, India, Russia, the Middle East and Europe, it became apparent that it made little difference whether you lived in Britain, which at great expense had revamped many of its computer systems, or the lackadaisical Ukraine, which had ignored the issue.
With minor glitches that would have gone unnoticed any other day of the week, the world kept ticking on. It must have been galling for computer-conscientious Germans to observe how life continued its pleasurable path for feckless Italians, who had generally paid no attention to Y2K. There were problems, to be sure: in Australia, a bus-ticket machine stamped the wrong date, while in Britain a tide gauge in Portsmouth Harbor failed. Still, the South Korean phone system came through unscathed.
By the time midnight reached the United States, where upward of $100 billion had been spent on Y2K fixes, there was little anxiety. Indeed, the general health of American information systems, fixed and not, became clearer in the new year. The Small Business Administration calculated that 1.5 million businesses had undertaken no Y2K remediation. On Jan. 3, it received about 40 phone calls from businesses that had experienced minor faults, like cash registers that misread the year “2000” as “1900” (which seemed everywhere the single most common error caused by Y2K).
KNOWING our computers is difficult enough. Harder still is to know ourselves, including our inner demons. From today’s perspective, the Y2K fiasco seems to be less about technology than about a morbid fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios. This ought to strike us as strange. The cold war was fading in 1999, we were witnessing a worldwide growth in wealth and standards of living, and Islamic terrorism was not yet seen as a serious global threat. It should have been a year of golden weather, a time for the human race to relax and look toward a brighter, more peaceful future. Instead, with computers as a flimsy pretext, many seemed to take pleasure in frightening themselves to death over a coming calamity.
No doubt part of the blame must go to those consultants who took businesses and governments for an expensive ride in the lead-up to New Year’s Day. But doom-laden exaggerations about Y2K fell on ears that were all-too receptive. The Y2K fiasco was about more than simple prudence.
Religions from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to U.F.O. cults have been built around notions of sin and the world’s end. The Y2K threat resonated with those ideas. Human beings have constructed an enormous, wasteful, unnatural civilization, filled with sin — or, worse in some minds, pollution and environmental waste. Suppose it turned out that a couple of zeros inadvertently left off old computer codes brought crashing down the very civilization computers helped to create. Cosmic justice!
The theme of our fancy inventions ultimately destroying us has been a favorite in fiction at least since Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” We can place alongside this a continuous succession of spectacular films built on visions of the end of the world. Such end-time fantasies must have a profound, persistent appeal in order to keep drawing wide-eyed crowds into movie theaters, as historically they have drawn crowds into churches, year after year.
Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems — poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems — needing intelligent attention. Even something as down-to-earth as the swine-flu scare has seemed at m
oments to be less about testing our health care system and its emergency readiness than about the fate of a diseased civilization drowning in its own fluids. We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St. Paul put it, the “twinkling of an eye” — that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. But turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.
This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism. Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment. As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.” Repent and recycle!