Nowhere to Run

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1999

“They’ll come at night – especially if you’ve got an electric lamp glowing somewhere, a dead giveaway,” warned one member of an online survivalist conference.

“I’ve got an order in on a 500 gallon water tank,” explained another, “I’ll give you the URL.”

“Won’t a tank that large be visible from the road?” asked the first.

“No. I’ll be keeping it underground.”

I had intended to spend the week finishing research for a column about the Millennium bug – that software and hardware glitch that will prevent computers from successfully recognizing the year 2000. But a vast majority of the information and speculation I found has little to do with fixing the problem. No, most people appear more concerned with surviving an inevitable crisis of biblical proportions, by any means necessary.

Although fans of apocalypse have always looked for any excuse to expect the worst, the millenium bug has provoked an unprecedented amount of doomsday scenario planning from otherwise sane people. And this time they have a technological rationale for their rantings.
The millennium bug does poses two distinct threats. Many operating systems and programs, from the COBOL code running giant databases to most copies of Quicken in use today, cannot calculate four-digit dates. The year 2000 will appear simply as “00”, leading the program to treat any post-millennial date as a repeat of the 1900’s. While teams of engineers are busily combing key software – like the programs running banks and stock exchanges – for such problems, the likelihood that they will find and correct every line of code within the next twenty months is fairly remote.

Even if they do, however, there’s another potential problem: embedded chips. Unlike software, the microchips running everything from nuclear power plants to offshore oilrigs cannot simply be rewritten. Like the chip inside your VCR or microwave, these devices are not accessible. The commands are physically burned onto the chip. The only way to update a non-compliant power plant or robot-filled automobile factory floor is to determine which chips will malfunction and then replace each one individually. In the case of an offshore refinery, it means sending divers hundreds of feet under the ocean surface. Still, there’s some disagreement about whether or not most of these chips use date functions at all.

The Central Intelligence Agency has accepted the fact that there will be numerous failures of such systems around the world. But instead of focussing on the technological side of the crisis, the CIA is already collecting data on what their “Y2K” chief calls the “social, political and economic tumult” that could result. That is, the agency is evaluating individual societies to determine how disruptions in electric power, banking, and other essential services might effect them.

The CIA predicts that newly developed nations, like those in Asia and Latin America, will be the hardest hit. While the US, Britain, and Australia have had enough time to head off the worst disruptions, as well as a fairly stable social fabric, many other nations who only recently adopted computer technology do not now have the money to invest in diagnosing all their systems, nor the political climate to insure public safety.

But many Americans, who have always had something of a penchant for bomb shelters and militia compounds, are busy preparing for the temporary paralysis of the technological infrastructure. They send me email telling me I better leave New York “before it’s too late.”

In his new book, “Strategic Relocation: North American Guide to Safe Places,” security consultant Joel Skousen outlines instructions for storing food, creating alternative power, as well as building secret hiding places and storage facilities to thwart hostile intruders and hungry neighbors.

Unlike Skousen, who believes neighborhood support groups and food cooperatives would crumble under the pressures of a real crisis, a number of more community-minded survivalists are already developing “safe haven” real estate. In South Dakota, Colorado, and Virginia, several firms are offering leases on plots of land within larger year-2000 collectives, all with access to private generators, fresh water, and farmland. We can only imagine the measures that will be taken to defend such installations when the clock strikes.

In truth, the Y2K crisis – if there is one – will probably be fueled more by this sort of panic than lapses in technology. Even if the banking system were to shut down for a week, most everyone could survive on what they have. An extra trip or two to the cash machine before New Year’s Eve is all it would take. But the fear of such a disruption could easily lead to a rush on the banks and a collapse of the savings and loan system. Likewise, the hoarding of water, gasoline, and other fixed resources would lead to far worse calamity than a day or two of power outages in scattered districts.

The real opportunity here is to resist the temptation to withdraw – not just from banks but from society itself. Although technology has fostered a networked culture and a vast set of interdependencies, a disruption to the system need not send us running to the hills. We could much more easily educate the public about the potential risks to business-as-usual, and help one another prepare for a few days of inconvenience.

Ironically, those preparing for – and, I’d argue, fostering – an apocalypse scenario, are the very people who understand enough about technology to foresee the coming crisis and help us prepare for it. Unfortunately, they don’t understand enough about people to engineer a cooperative, instead of a mercenary style of social management. Maybe the current climate of hi-tech selfish Capitalism that replaced the fledgling Internet community has something to do with this.

In a sense, the CIA has the right idea. This isn’t about computer programming at all, but about the real values infusing what we like to think of as our civil society. With any luck, we’ll come to understand that there’s more to survival than meets the “I”.