John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Feb 99


Apocalyptic Thinking and the Tragic Flaw


y2k millenium scare
What will happen when the clock strikes Will elevators stop dead between floors, power plants shut down, and airplanes fall out of the sky? Will the internet and communication infrastructures crash? Will the world's economy collapse as the vast network of banking computers spin out of control, throwing the whole world itself into chaos?

Some people think so. As you read this, they are stockpiling food and supplies in anticipation of a society so crippled by the Y2K bug that it will crumble into anarchy. They truly believe The End is near. Others are not so extreme in their fears, but still expect some major mishaps once the clock strikes the new millennium. Make sure you have good hardcopy records of all your finances. And don't fly on January 1.

In some cases apocalyptic thinking is part of a social movement. History is filled with examples of small cults and larger religious and quasi-religious groups that predicted the end of the world. In many cases they borrowed the apocalyptic mind set from the world of Christianity, where some fundamentalists devoutly point to the end of the world as prophesized in the Book of Revelations. The belief system of many modern cults and spiritual groups is a hodgepodge conglomeration of ideas from religion, philosophy, psychology, the occult, and science. It's the injection of those "scientific" ideas into their ideology that justifies it, that makes it seem rational, logical, indisputable. The Y2K dilemma is the perfect technological spice to throw into that ideological soup in order to make it palatable to those who have doubts, and raise the fever of those who already believe. If computer people are worried about the Millennium Bug, then it must be scientifically valid to panic about it, right? Fundamentalist and survivalist groups that promote apocalyptic visions also benefit from the scientism of Y2K fright. It's a very handy tool in proselytizing. "Join us now, before it's too late." Even if there was no Y2K problem, we would still see these End of the World predictions popping up here and there across the world. A new millennium is approaching. It's a big milestone. Some think the LAST milestone. Y2K simply amplifies the trepidation.

For individuals who are wrought with anxiety about Y2K, it's not so much a social movement that sweeps them up, but rather an internal dynamic. Some unfortunate people grew up in a family or an environment marked by extreme unpredictability or unexpected trauma. Worry, suspicion, or even outright paranoia about what lies around the next bend has been burned into their psyche. Often in their lives they become preoccupied with anxious anticipation of cataclysm. For some, Y2K looms before them as a seemingly real omen of upcoming disaster. Exactly what calamity it will bring, no one knows for sure. But it will be calamity. It's well know that one component of depression is the tendency to engage in the style of faulty thinking called "catastrophizing" - i.e., predicting and anticipating crisis, often based on little or no evidence. In some cases, Y2K anxiety may be an expression of this cognitive distortion associated with depression.

There are a variety of facets to catastrophic thinking and its close relative, apocalyptic thinking. We see these same facets in Y2K anxiety, with a technological spin. For example:

A fear of helplessness and loss of control- Computers are supposed to help us manage our lives and society, but if the Y2K bug prevails, computers will bring about the end of our control over civilization. It's a bit of a paradox.

A fear of The End - Y2K is all about time, and time is supposed to march inevitably forward. But when we reach major temporal milestones, the fear that time may end wells up. Our biological nature demands that we humans expire. Awareness of death is existentially wired into us. A FEAR of death is wired into us, and Y2K stirs it up. It is a symbolic death, at the hands of our machines. Will our machines die with us? Who will outlast whom? Apple's HAL 9000 commercial that aired during the Superbowl played up on this fear of the Y2K bug as the omen of The End. It raised the question, "who will survive it?"

A fear of change and the unknown - If it isn't the end, then it's a change to something new, something radically different. It's a step into the unknown, which is threatening, dangerous. The New Millennium moves towards us at a time in human history when computers are rapidly altering our lives. Where will they take us? The Y2K bug is a shocking reminder that we don't know. Perhaps only the most fit will survive the change.

A fear of interdependence - The survivalist's apocalyptic thinking has its roots in a fear of dependence. Other people and society cannot be trusted to protect and take care of you. You have to rely on yourself, even isolate yourself. Computer networks are the antithesis of this concept because they are intrinsically interdependent. As such, the Y2K Bug is the survivalist's worst nightmare. Even if you take care of your own machine, you cannot account for other machines that may interact with yours. The Millennium Bug confirms the survivalist's belief that trusting and relying on others will lead to your own downfall.

A fear of retribution - The apocalypse is not simply the end. It's payback time, the moment of judgment and retribution. The Millennium Bug warns us not to take too much pride in this massive computerized world that we have built. We think we are in control, that technology has brought us closer to perfection, mastery, and a divine-like state of knowledge. But like the Titanic, our glorious achievement can fail miserably. It can turn on us. The Tower of Babel can collapse. We will be punished for our hubris. In what becomes a Revenge of the Machines, our own creation can retaliate against its creator.

The Y2K bug reminds me of the concept of the tragic flaw in classic Greek literature. The hero has a weakness - a secret, hidden vulnerability that he himself may not realize, an Achilles heel. At the peak of his triumph, it comes back to haunt him. It triggers his downfall. In their quest for speed and efficiency, computer programmers of the 60s and 70s failed to predict the possibility that their simplified technique for encoding time could eventually lead to a total breakdown, the collapse of all speed and efficiency. Time would come back to punish them for the flawed representation of time that they built into their machines. Those machines are but an extension, a reflection of their creators - flawed, imperfect, and often unaware of their imperfection. And Y2K is the wake-up call. It's the reminder that the computers we created - that we ourselves - are not invulnerable. By our very nature, we make mistakes. Y2K anxiety is the anxious realization that despite our best, heroic efforts, we can screw up big time.

In this article I've been tossing around terms like "phobia" and "paranoia" in order to emphasize the problematic side of Y2K thinking. A phobia is an unrealistic, irrational, exaggerated fear. But is the anxiety about the Millennium bug totally unjustified? Some say that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that people aren't out to get you. Speaking for myself, I seriously doubt that civilization is going to collapse after New Years Eve 1999.... but I don't plan to be on any planes on January 1 either.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Transference to one's computer and cyberspace

The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page