It's the End of the World As We Know It
On May 25, Costa Mesa resident David Palmer was unable to sleep. He found himself listening to The Art Bell Show on the radio. Bell hosts a nationally syndicated late-night talk show that specializes in offbeat topics: alien abduction, New Age philosophy and so on. But what Palmer heard that night horrified him so much he decided he had to do something."This is not something that any of us anywhere should be afraid of overreaction on," Palmer said. "I think this is something we should have been working on 10 years ago, and now we're supposed to do 10 years of problem solving in less than a year."I like living in this country," he added. "I don't want anything to happen to it. I don't want to see anything happen to any other culture, for that matter."The guest on Bell's show who moved him to act: historian and economist Gary North. The problem that North-and now Palmer-thinks is going to destroy civilization: the Year 2000 bug, a.k.a. the Millennium bug, a.k.a. Y2K.Y2K refers to a looming crisis in computer technology that's causing governments, businesses, banks, the military and other institutions worldwide to lose a lot of sleep. Basically, when early programmers set up computers' internal calendars several decades ago, they used the standard two-digit number (e.g., 98 for 1998) to represent the year. But when the year 2000 rolls around, represented by "00," computers the world over may think it's 1900 instead. This could cause all sorts of problems: Social Security computers could suddenly believe senior citizens haven't been born yet, bank computers could have brain seizures trying to compute interest on loans, and so forth.North's site, located at www.garynorth.com, argues that all this and more will happen. He predicts a total collapse of civilization: power, water, phones, transportation, banks-everything will stop working on Jan. 1, 2000. Before that happens, North urges, we should take to the hills. "I am going to make sure I have plenty of cash, food and survival gear on hand come January 2000," Computerworld magazine quoted him as saying.So Palmer, deciding to start local, began making some phone calls. He called Costa Mesa city government. He called the local water district. He called the media. His fear is that local officials simply aren't doing enough to prepare for the coming catastrophe. "I think the city is trying, but they don't really understand the potential for real disaster," he said. "Things like food, water and electricity need to be looked after as far as delivery. I look at it much in the same way as a major earthquake or a hurricane."Jerry Verwolf, who's in charge of Y2K compliance for the city of Costa Mesa, said that while he appreciates Palmer's concern, he thinks the city will be just fine. "I've talked with David two or three different times, and I'm trying to let him know whenever I can how we're coming along," he said. "I'm sure our plans do not meet with what David thinks we should be doing. But as I've told him, we're assessing all of our systems: we're looking at our workstations and we're contacting vendors we've purchased software or hardware from and verifying that their product is compliant. We're having pretty good luck. Most of the things we've looked at so far are compliant."The county Web site is keeping a running total of its Y2K preparations (you can see it at www.oc.ca.gov/systems/yr2kstat.htm); it predicts that 29 of its 42 applications will be compliant by the end of the year. But hardcore doomsayers like North scoff at such claims. They say the problem is insoluble, that all talk of prevention now comes too little, too late.North and Palmer's fears may have some merit. A recently released independent review of California's most critical computer programs revealed that 40 percent of the time, agencies exaggerated the amount of work done to solve the looming Y2K problem. But I'm baffled by the lack of solid information. I write about computers for a living; I keep up-to-date on Y2K. But if you asked me what's going to happen on Jan. 1, 2000, I would have to say I don't know. The "expert" opinions are all over the map. You can read articles arguing that nothing will go wrong, that a few minor things will go wrong, that many major things will go wrong, and that everything will go blooey.In the absence of definitive data, what people decide to believe about Y2K may have more to do with faith than science. Wired magazine ran a story in August about Y2K survivalists: programmers who, after studying the problem, became convinced that society will crumble and began stocking up on food, guns and barbed wire. But, as the article pointed out, if it were simply a case of "the more you know," there'd be a lemming-like migration of programmers heading for the hills, and that's not happening; a number of technology experts aren't that concerned.And if Y2K is a question of faith, North, the man whose apocalyptic predictions have Palmer running scared, is its poster child. North admits on his site that he is not a computer expert, terming himself a "historian." But really, he is one of the leading figures in Christian Reconstructionism, a radical-Right fundamentalist movement with ties to conservative OC politicians.Christian Reconstructionism is a postmillennial movement-that is, it believes the Second Coming can only be achieved after a 1,000-year reign of Christians on Earth. To that end, it devotes itself to taking over society and reorganizing it according to biblical principles. North is a prime mover in the movement-along with Rousas John Rushdoony, he has published dozens of books on the subject. And Rushdoony's Chalcedon Institute, a Reconstructionist think tank, has ties to Howard Ahmanson, the OC philanthropist who, with state Senator Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), founded the California Independent Business PAC, which funded countless conservative candidates and causes. Ahmanson, according to a Los Angeles Times report, is the single largest donor to the institute.All that is a rather lengthy digression, but it serves to illustrate the ideological foundation of North's claims. Here is a man publicly preaching an End Times philosophy who has set himself up as an expert on the imminent destruction of society through technology. On North's site, he admits he believes Y2K is God's punishment for idolatry: man relying on himself and his creations rather than on God. This man's claims-being given national credibility by Bell, newspapers and magazines, and scaring the hell out of people like David Palmer-are driven not by technical know-how but by extremist ideology.Millennial hysteria is a well-documented phenomenon. The Center for Millennial Studies (www.mille.org) was founded recently by historian Richard Landes to study both the millennial madness gripping our culture as we approach 2000 and the phenomena that took place in previous millennial years. He sees the Y2K panic as a classic example of millennial fears embodied in a real technological problem-an analysis North disagrees with vehemently and at some length on his own site.Now, I'm not saying Palmer is a wild-eyed fanatic in the grip of millennial hysteria. He strikes me as a nice man who's genuinely concerned about what he sees as a serious problem. But I think North, for reasons of his own, has Palmer unnecessarily panicked.Y2K may in fact be a serious problem. After all, no one believed John Moorlach when he squawked that then-county Treasurer Robert Citron's investment policies were going to bring down the sky-and he was right. But I would prefer it if we approached the problem rationally-examining the facts, trusting the experts, and assuming that the real truth lies somewhere between the claims that all will be well and North's warning cries of the Apocalypse.Warn Wyn that the end is nigh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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