A Wired and Weird Millennium

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For millions of apocalyptic believers around the world, the bleaker prophecies of disaster in the aftermath of Y2K computer failure have a thrillingly familiar ring to them: mass panic, government paralysis, food riots, planes crashing into skyscrapers.

For decades, Christian fundamentalists have been prophesying that just this sort of society-wide breakdown lies just around the corner. Now, to their astonishment, not only are these scenarios being taken seriously, but they are being circulated by the very people who used to ridicule them: computer programmers, business leaders and politicians. In the last year, the Millennium Bug has done more to raise the apocalyptic temperature than any number of biblical prophecies. It has carried millennial fever across national and religious borders. And it has turned thoroughly secular individuals into unlikely millenarians.

Steve Watson, for example has moved to a camouflaged bunker in Oklahoma big enough for 40 people, surrounded by stocks of dried food and M-16 assault rifles. A photograph of him in Wired magazine shows a fat, pugnacious man gazing out at the world with the authentic expression of the survivalist: half paranoid, half smug. He could be a far- right activist listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But he's not. He's there only because of Y2K. Watson is a computer systems analyst who, two years ago, was responsible for ensuring that a major U.S. phone company was Y2K compliant. No sooner was this mammoth task completed than he decided that his efforts were in vain. If the whole electricity grid went down, society would still fall apart. So, like apocalyptic believers stretching back at least two millennia, he headed for the hills.

If Y2K is turning computer professionals into End-Time believers, it is having the reverse effect on many evangelicals and fundamentalists. The Christian right, which was already far more computer literate than the mainstream churches, is fast acquiring specialist knowledge of Y2K. A leading attraction at the Christian Coalition's annual Road to Victory conference was a Y2K workshop which announced plans for churches to supply food, shelter and medical supplies in the event of disaster. Christian websites such as The Joseph Project 2000 set out detailed responses to chaos. "Prepare yourself," says the site. "Begin brainstorming ways in which you can tie up with churches in your geographical area ... set up a Y2K-Hurricane storehouse for your community."

The main emphasis of these Christian responses is the extraordinary opening for evangelization offered by Y2K--"the greatest opportunity since the Tower of Babel," as one site puts it. End-Time themes are hinted at but rarely spelled out. But they don't need to be, says Stephen O'Leary, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California. "The sites talk optimistically about witness, but the audiences are bringing an apocalyptic belief system with them," he says. "For such people, Y2K offers a story of the humbling of secular pride. For years, computer experts have been prophesying a technological millennium without God. Then along comes Y2K. For people who believe in divine intervention, the irony is just too delicious." If evangelical Christians are wary of public talk about Y2K and the End-Times, the same cannot be said of more extreme voices. According to Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank, Y2K is generating a new solidarity among far-right factions. "You may believe that in 2000 a New World Order will be ruled by Satan, or that economic collapse will be caused by Jews, or that secret elites are hiding the fact that Y2K will trigger a nuclear meltdown. No matter who the suspected villains, you can find common ground with other survivalists in practical discussions about which water filter works best."

Many millennial scholars are worried that Y2K could lead to terrorism. "All it would take is a well-placed bomb in a remote switching system to affect a good portion of the country. I have talked to FBI representatives about this, and they are well aware of the problem," says O'Leary. An even more disturbing prospect, however, is of millennial panic in the wider community. That could depend on geographical location, says Andrew Gow, a history professor at the University of Alberta. "In the Canadian prairie winter, temperatures fall to -40 degrees. One night with the power out, and people would start to die in their own homes," he says. "People here are sensible and hardy, but they would not take that sort of catastrophe lying down."

And the rest of the world? Christopher Wortley, a London-based analyst who advises large financial institutions on the Millennium Bug, believes that the Christian right is looking in the wrong place. "Y2K will have a negligible effect on America and Western Europe," he says, "but the consequences could be devastating in places like China, Korea, Thailand and South Africa. That is where we should be looking for millennial movements." His worst nightmares, however, concern Russia--"a deeply religious, dislocated society which is heavily reliant on aging computer equipment. There's your apocalypse."