At century's turn, we finally got the chance to fight the Evil Empire. And like the Soviet Union, the world's computers proved themselves an empty shell of an enemy.
At least they were this time around, when the dreaded Year 2000 crisis gently rolled into a non-catastrophe. But what about next time? If so many of us were braced for bedlam over a computer date shortcut, what does this say about our sense of control over, or confidence in, the far more complex elements of modern technology?
You can be sure that something, someday, will cripple our wired-for-chaos computers. It will probably happen without warning, without the luxury of anticipation or $500 billion in preparation. Programmers screw stuff up every day. Viruses stream through cyberspace. Computer hackers are more sinister than those well-meaning software engineers who were under pressure to save a few bucks decades ago and--knowingly--created what later became the Y2K glitch. Eventually something really big and nasty will invade the networked veins. Count on it.
Or don't. Humankind might have subdued Y2K--and hugs all around for that--but it's arrogant to believe we've tamed our embedded demons for good.
This is not meant to reawaken anxiety or create a market on eBay for dried lentil soup surplus. Nor is it meant to demean computing technology, turn-of-the-century icon of efficiency, convenience and bull market wealth. While the jitters that preceded our safe millennial passage were genuine, it's worth examining the essence of those fears--beyond the dismissive, retrospective notions that, hey, maybe the business world and the government overpaid, and the media overreacted.
There's a quadrant of the cultural psyche that likes to be scared and humbled. It derives odd comfort from a common enemy, authentic or imagined. Year 2000 computer dread conforms to a Cold War-era mythology steeped in a fear of an invisible, uncontrollable and potentially apocalyptic menace.
Amid relentless peace and prosperity, Y2K made a tidy bogeyman. It made things a little edgy, exciting. "In a society of immense well-being, a sense of monumental doom can be a relief to the monumental dullness," said Marshall Blonsky, author of "American Mythologies," a study of contemporary celebrities and symbols.
Blonsky equates Y2K angst to today's online stock trading craze. Real-time trading, he said, provides "the exhilaration of fear," the "security of the catastrophic threat," and the notion that the "unseen gods of luck or technology" can strike horribly, at any time.
These cravings follow on a notion held dear by Woody Allen and angst connoisseurs everywhere: to keep ourselves entertained, we humans invent psychodramas to add a dash of titillation to our lives. In this context, Y2K offered a timed grudge match between humans and machines, a televised execution. On Dec. 31, the event unfolded like a presidential election, returns coming in by time zone. New Zealand was reported safe, then Asia and Russia, then Europe, and the landslide was on.
Or, to continue the Cold War imagery, "the dominoes kept falling in our direction," said Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford and a founder of the group that calls itself Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility.
The fact that the dominoes were lined up so snugly around the world explains a lot of the insecurity people feel about computers. The networked economy gives incompetence a global reach. Everything is so closely wired, no one knows whether a virus in an ATM in Argentina can metastasize through cyberspace and cause a massive bank shutdown in New York.
Could this really happen? Beats me, I just write about the stuff.
But here's the point: We believe it could. "We can feel all the willpower in the world, and yet also feel completely powerless over computers," said Arthur Asa Berger, a professor of popular culture at San Francisco State University.
You feel a bitter morsel of helplessness every time Windows crashes or your e-mail goes down. Blonsky calls this phenomenon "black boxism." Human uncertainty is easily projected onto machines, even those we rely on most. "People have great anxiety over what's inside the black box, whether they're scary looking, or candy-colored iMacs," he said.
These cheerful exteriors are an attempt to make computers seem more approachable, said Rudy Rucker, a professor of computer science at San Jose State University and author of several science fiction books. "We talk about how computers are this all-pervasive force that can do magical things," Rucker said. "The fact is, they break very easily, and suddenly they turn into the ultimate faceless bureaucrats."
Computer makers are obsessed with the notion of making their products "user-friendly," a ridiculous and robotic-sounding description. ("Message, user: I come in peace.") It is part of an ongoing effort among system designers and high-tech marketing types to demystify the machines. They are succeeding, somewhat, to the degree that new users are launched by the thousands every day, and many of them are dazzled.
But the idea that computers can almost be trusted as "friends" is laughable. If enough people felt this way, Y2K would have been rendered a non-story years ago. Instead, we know exactly the havoc computers are capable of.
And it endures. Thursday, when a faulty air traffic control computer halted air travel on the East Coast for two hours, nearly every news report rushed to reassure us that "the problem is not Y2K-related," as if to separate the inconvenience from some larger, doomsday scenario. For now, Y2K has become an all-purpose marker for automated failure: If some back-office snafu knocks out TV coverage of the Super Bowl later this month--or shuts down E*Trade on the day the stock market bubble bursts--it sure will be comforting to know that problems "aren't Y2K-related."
Zap me if this sounds too Gail Sheehyish, but perhaps a contributing unease over Year 2000 was a cultural spell of wish fulfillment. "There will always be people who fear technology and who have some deep need to see the whole thing collapse," said Paul Saffo, a futurist at Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley research firm.
But as rollover day approached, Saffo was encouraged by how most citizens behaved. No one seemed to panic except for those media magnets on the survivalist fringe. Saffo expected much worse, as many did. "I had every reason to believe people were going to freak out," he said. "There seemed to be something in place, some need to scratch a deep psychic itch."
For now, we can look back at the fuss and smile a bit sheepishly at how silly we were. But we have yet to work out our relationship with technology--and whether we control it or it controls us. Computers are a perfect metaphor for a wacky age where everything seems possible and nothing seems secure.
Especially with this virus that militant Russian nationalists are preparing to unleash, which is supposed to trigger spontaneous combustion in all of the world's personal computers. You've heard about it, right?
Mark Leibovich covers technology for The Washington Post.