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The Y2K opportunity

How obediently would we walk in such a dire setting?

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

If you're not already weary of the subject, get ready to be. The fear factor over Y2K is taking hold.

Y2K is shorthand for "Year 2000," and with that symbolism comes an issue that itself is symbolic of the human predicament. In the design of most computers a generation ago, engineers and programmers found that space for computer memory was at a premium-and so they looked for every shortcut they could find. One shortcut was the practice of using only two digits (like 98) to represent a specific year (like 1998). So far, so good.

What nobody anticipated was that all those smart computers would end up at the end of the 1990s trying to figure out whether "00" signified the year 2000, or perhaps 1900.

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So what are the implications? Suppose you're on a Florida vacation over the New Year's holiday at the end of 1999. You stop to get something to eat or check into a motel, only to be told by one clerk after another that all your credit cards have expired. Annoyed that you're going to have to use cash for the rest of your trip, you also discover that every ATM you can find thinks you're using an outdated authorization. Panic begins to set in.

If the implications were only personal, the inconveniences might be monstrous but still manageable. But the same glitch is built into the computers that run electric power companies, airlines and air traffic controllers, banking systems, phone networks, Social Security, and the whole Department of Defense. There's a strong possibility that civilization as we know it might suffer something a good bit bigger than a technological hiccup. It could be more like a meltdown-a meltdown increasingly mentioned not just by wild-eyed fearmongers but by people as sophisticated as Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

Yet the ultimate fear is not simply that mainframe computers won't work and global systems won't run. The ultimate fear concerns the likely ugliness of human behavior when people can't get what they want and then leap into big-time panic modes. Now we're talking, since the problem is not localized but universal, about pillaging, looting, street riots, and burning cities on a scale perhaps never before experienced in human history.

The recommended responses to such crises, though-including some published recommendations from evangelical Christians-are not much less ugly than the crises themselves. The common wisdom is that you should be stockpiling water and appropriate foodstuffs, that you should find a place (preferably in the country) where you can hide, that you should be buying some gold or other precious metals, and that you should be sure to take along some guns and ammunition. So far, I haven't seen any recommendations about whether you should take your computer with you when you go.

If you think such ideas are coming only from the far right, you haven't been reading widely enough. Three different gold dealers have called me long distance to ask whether I've been getting ready for Y2K in terms of my investments. I've told them that no, I haven't, and that no, I'm not interested.

But that's not because I deny that the problem could be serious. The problem may be very messy indeed. Even if every programming date glitch within all the critical mainframe computers in our society were identified this week, there simply isn't time enough to fix all those problems and test the new programs before the end of 1999. Things could get very bad-and all because of a tiny, non-malicious shortcut taken by programmers a generation ago. There's the symbolism of our human predicament.

So if all that happens, will our response also be symbolic of that same fallen, and terribly depraved, condition? Or could it be a symbol of God's wonderful grace to frightened people?

The very thought of Christians by the thousands deliberately choosing to flee from the culture we are here to affect should depress us. Let us sound instead a clarion call to stand firm, confident in the Lord God's ability both to provide for and to protect his people. Those could become two key expressions of our trust in the Lord.

Stockpiling of provisions, for example, is not a bad thing; indeed, it is commanded throughout Scripture. We are told that those who don't provide for their own are worse than those who deny their faith. But provision, even for "our own," can occur in a narrow, selfish manner-or in a big-spirited, household-of-God context. Could our response to Y2K be an opportunity to show how big the believing community of Christians really is?

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