Art by Bob AulFinally, this year, we're starting to see some good news about Y2K after a couple of years of sparse media coverage dominated by the ITEOTWAWKI ("It's the End of the World As We Know It") crowd. Few could complain about the state of media coverage these days; you can't open a paper without getting swatted by a Y2K story anymore. But there's still no consensus on how people should prepare for possible Y2K crashes because no one knows what's going to happen.
There are plenty of people offering advice, of course, but many have hidden agendas that make them inherently suspect. Gary North is one of the leading lights in the gloom-and-doom bunch, and he has been advising people for years to stock up on gold, buy generators, and move to remote areas to avoid the total collapse of civilization. But North, who also happens to be a member of a radical Christian sect called Reconstructivism, is positively rooting for society to take that big nose dive because it would mean he and his buddies could take over and restructure society along biblical lines-which to them means they could begin executing homosexuals and stoning adulterers.
Likewise, that journal of the warm 'n' fuzzies, the Utne Reader, recently issued its own guide to Y2K prep, which was just as gloomy as North's. Eric Utne, the founder of the magazine, admitted upfront he knows nothing about computers, but he looks upon the Y2K bug as a wonderful opportunity to-you guessed it-restructure society along more progressive lines. Utne sees Y2K as a sort of campfire singalong at which you snuggle down and get cozy with your neighbors by the woodstove light, a prospect some find more horrifying than North's Old Testament "justice."
"Forget the possible collapse of the banking system or the dangers of airplanes falling from the sky," wrote technology columnist David Futrelle. "I can think of no more horrifying apocalyptic vision than that of Eric Utne, armed with a shotgun, leading his terrified neighbors in a chorus of 'Kumbaya.'"
I'm not saying I know better than anyone else what's going to happen on Jan. 1, 2000, though prospects are looking considerably brighter than they were a year ago. Nor can I tell you how you should prepare-you need to decide what your comfort level is. What I can do is tell you how I'm going to prepare-what I will and will not do to safeguard myself, my cash and my neighbors in the event of some substantial disruptions from the Y2K bug.
First, some things I won't be doing:
1. Buy a gun, a generator and some freeze-dried food, and move to a remote area of Montana. As glamorous and exciting as the militia lifestyle is, Y2K survivalism strikes me as silly. It's espoused by those who think civilization will collapse once the power and water go out and the widespread looting begins. It's a wolf-pack view of humanity, and to my mind, it's unnecessarily bleak. An article in the April 1999 issue of Wired on the great power blackout in Canada last year amply demonstrated that when disaster hits, the majority of people take care of one another, rather than ripping each other apart.
2. Fly on a plane, particularly overseas. The government has reassured us that "planes aren't going to fall from the sky" come the new year. But the FAA is lagging considerably behind in testing its ancient patchwork of air-control systems, and I don't plan to spend 12 hours sitting on a runway if I can avoid it. (Alternatively, some bright young things have suggested traveling before Jan. 1 to some pleasant, subtropical destination on the theory that if air travel collapses, you'll get a few extra days of vacation out of it.) Things are looking particularly dicey overseas, where many countries are failing to adequately address the problem-to the extent that Department of Transportation Inspector General Ken Mead has suggested the U.S. may have to curtail air travel to some countries.
3. Hide all my money in a shoebox. One of the authorities' biggest worries right now is the risk of a bank run, similar to the one that crippled the banking system and spurred the Depression. Ironically, the banking industry has been working hard to solve the problem for several years, and the government is not anticipating major difficulties. But the Federal Reserve is printing up an extra $50 billion or so in anticipation of a currency run. Don't contribute to the problem by yanking your money out of the banks. Odds are very good it's still going to be there on Jan. 2.
Having said that, there are some actions I will take-fairly low-level, common-sense precautions.
1. Buy a few days' supply of canned food, water, toilet paper, extra flashlights and batteries, etc. This is Southern California, and you should all have this set aside anyway-in a box marked "Earthquake Supplies." Senator Robert Bennett, chairman of the Senate's special Y2K committee, recommends that people plan for disruptions on the level of a blizzard or another natural disaster. Anticipate that you might not be able to get to the store for a few days and that you might not have power, and prepare accordingly. If you don't already have an earthquake kit, look on this as an opportunity to acquire one; even if Y2K fizzles, the supplies will still come in handy when the Big One drops us into the Pacific.
2. Keep detailed financial records. I have a file folder marked "Finances," and every time a bank statement, a mortgage statement or a credit-card bill arrives in the mail, I drop it in the folder. It's entirely possible that Y2K will screw up some banks' and companies' financial records, and it will behoove you to have some proof of your bank balance, payment of bills and other financial transactions in the event your Visa card suddenly decides you owe several million dollars.
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3. Cancel automatic payments. As the result of a recent dispute with a certain unnamed power company, in the course of which said nameless company automatically withdrew $7,400 from my checking account because of a computer screwup, I will be canceling all of my automatic-payment arrangements-with utility companies, credit cards and the like-before Dec. 31. So I have to write a few more checks for a few months-better that than repeating the power nightmare with six or seven companies at once.
4. Get a few hundred bucks in cash. There's a possibility that ATMs, credit-card readers and so on will fail as a result of the bug, so it won't hurt to have a little money on hand until they figure out how to get the critters working again. But don't go overboard-see "bank run" above.
5. Check on my neighbors. A few months ago, I casually mentioned "Y2K" in a conversation with a friend. "Y2 what?" she asked. Amazing as it may seem, there are people out there who don't know about the problem and may not be ready for it. When disaster strikes-if Y2K is a disaster and not a mild technological hiccup-it's our responsibility to take care of others in our community. If there are problems with heat, power and food distribution, I want to know my neighbors are all right. In that respect, at least, Eric Utne is correct.
Don't tell Wyn she's a fuzzy-headed optimist at firstname.lastname@example.org - she got enough of that after her last Y2K column.