This piece was originally composed as a policy memo for US government officials. The slightly expanded version shown here, first appeared for the public on the CMS website approximately 400 days before January 1, 2000, with the intention of further involving the public.
What We Can Do in 500 Days:
A Report on Y2K Projects and Social Solutions by
The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University
Current Situation: Discussion of Y2K is quickly reaching the critical point where it can no longer be handled with silence. The IT community, with its persistently alarmist voices, is forcing managerial elites public and private to openly discuss a matter that most of them would prefer to leave alone. The recent spread of the survival movement from right wing conspiratorialists to techies working on the problem, suggests a new stage in the public discussion. The best current metaphor for Y2K may be that of a powerful ship in iceberg-laden waters; we do not know if we will hit one or not, nor how serious the damage that would result. The US government, while responding more rapidly to Y2K than most governments around the globe, still needs to take some major initiatives, both technical and social.
There is ample time left for policy to make major contributions in dealing with the Y2K problem, especially in the social sphere. Here we wish to suggest a range of projects that will help prepare all levels of society for January 1, 2000 and beyond. The guiding principle in their formulation is how to find a win-win approach: What courses of action can we take so that whether Y2K proves powerful or weak, we, as a nation, benefit.
The projects suggested here represent initial ideas, designed for quick and inexpensive initiation. All of these ideas can be implemented within the remaining 475 days to great effect. To avoid the anxiety that accompanies any political silence, whether real or perceived, the public servant must move from politician to statesman; from backstage negotiator to public leader. We, as a nation, desperately need that.
1. Community Check-List for 1/1/00
The Principle: The media often focus on the larger aspects of Y2K. (Missiles, banks, huge corporations, credit cards, nationwide problems, IRS, GEM, etc.) This gives individuals and communities a sense that they cannot do anything to prepare because the problem is beyond their scope. People need to appreciate the smaller problems which, like a swarm of locusts, can be collectively devastating and which are relevant at the community level.
The Project: Create a list of community services, machinery and small, mundane goods and services that could be vulnerable to Y2K, both directly and indirectly. Distribute this list and sponsor town-hall style meetings across the country to discuss the small things that may need to be fixed.
People & Organizations: This project can be easily paired with the following one when looking for related, sponsoring organizations. The US Conference of Mayors, Underwriter Laboratories, and any network agency for community health and relations regionally or nation-wide would be interested in being affiliated with such a project.
2. Y2K Action & Assessment Team
The Principle: Not every community is able to assess its overall millennial compliance. Many would not know where to begin or would need specialized help that goes beyond what the "Community Check-List" (item 1 in this report) might include.
The Project: Form a national board of mayoral advisors for Y2K related issues. An information technician, an emergency services worker (say, a retired police chief or EMT), a psychologist/social worker, an engineer. Train them to consult (as a team) on any community's potential vulnerabilities from the technical to the social; a Y2K Action Team, which can also be tapped to create the list of vulnerable goods and services of the previous project idea (community check-list). This team is then available to consult and advise any community in the country on their current status and best options for solutions and contingency planning. Schedule willing, the Vice President can join the Action Team and travel to interested communities. This would add to the expertise of the team and create publicity for the project that would urge other communities to get involved.
People & Organizations: Any local newspaper worth its salt will want to be involved. This can be used to defray the minimal logistical costs.
3. The Civil Life Boat Drill
The Principle: A core of informed and trained civilians would be extremely useful for any social disruption that ever occurs; not only those related to Y2K, but those resulting from blizzards, floods, hail storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. Any event that could require the National Guard to be mobilized would be greatly aided by having volunteers helping, or simply understanding what is involved when the National Guard starts doing this work themselves. (Simply having knowledgeable people around to not get in the way makes support and relief work more efficient.)
The Project: Train and organize a core of volunteers in community mobilization techniques. They will learn how to locate and contact emergency service organizations, perform first aid, direct traffic, coordinate volunteer efforts, organize, manage, etc.
People & Organizations: The Red Cross provides support and instruction in many skills relevant to this project. Neighborhood watch programs, Departments of Public Services and the National Guard cover most of the remaining areas needed for training and information.
4. Ground Rules for the Millennium (Executive Orders/Directives)
The Principle: Basic services - such as traffic lights and elevators - may temporarily malfunction on January 1, 2000. Simple contingency rules, while costing nothing, prepare the populace for possible disruptions and reassure that such measures need only be temporary.
The Project: The White House could issue a series of simple directives for Y2K. An example would be: When traffic lights fail, intersections are considered to have a 4-way stop sign. This gives the public something to think about, without causing significant stress about Y2K. It requires no new legislation, is non-controversial, and is useful for any time there may be a traffic light failure.
The Principle: Consumers should be able to buy an appliance without worrying whether it is "millennial-compliant". There should be a way of knowing if this is the case before making the purchase.
Project: Establish a facility to examine new and existing products and systems for millennial compliance. This agency or organization will issue a stamp of approval along with a rating, based on how likely the product or system is to perform normally during and after January 1, 2000 and how reliant it is upon other technology that may or may not be so rated. The ratings would not be a guarantee that the objects would work, merely a guide. This would spur companies to make better products so as to gain a more favorable millennium rating, and provide consumers with the confidence of having a Consumer Affairs Bureau for Y2K. Also issued by this agency would be standards for product warrantees, so that companies cannot knowingly sell devices that they know to be non-compliant and protect themselves with fine print (Various technology law firms have already highlighted this possibility in their publications.)
People & Organizations: Companies currently submit their products to Underwriter Laboratories (UL) so that the UL symbol might appear on them. Consumer Affairs Magazine regularly researches and compares major brands of all household goods and publishes their findings in a monthly magazine for which subscriptions foot the bill. Asking them to add millennial compliance as a regular feature, for which the government would publicly thank them, would be an attractive request for them. Both organizations already have facilities set up for extensive testing of a range of products.
6. Y2K Archive
Principle: When its all over we will know just whose projections were correct and who reacted enough, but did not over-react. Until that time, we all begin to think about and adjust to its potential impact. At this very moment, this immensely valuable mass of data about how various groups (corporations, agencies, communities, nations) are handling Y2K, is accumulating, but is not being archived for future study.
Project: Gather this material, much of it "unofficial publication", in an archive and organize it systematically. Generations of scholars could then consult it to study the dynamics of decision making and problem solving in the global culture of the millennium
People & Organizations: The Library of Congress has a millennial task force, which could serve as the focal point of such an effort.
There is a great deal of potential in the United States for a positive and comprehensive preparation for January 1, 2000 through a series of small, well aimed projects.
The Strength of these projects is not merely that they are viable ways of strengthening our readiness for those inevitable difficulties that will arise. They also serve to defuse the cultures of blame, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories that will always fill any policy vacuum, whether real or perceived. As the year 2000 draws closer, people will look for reassurance from their communities and government. If they believe that steps are being taken to deal with Y2K and that there is some system in place, then they will have the faith to neither abandon society physically, for a survivalist scenario, nor mentally, for a cynical belief that we're simply doomed. The citizen that sees a framework for success - a framework that engages the social dimensions of the issue as well as the technical - will stay attached to and interested in society, and will help out.
The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University (CMS) is interested in further exploring the projects and themes in this packet. Please contact us with any questions or comments you may have about this or any other aspect of the CMS.
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