Apocalyptic: a hidden dimension II

by Charles Cameron

This essay was written as a post to the Y2K FAQ. Comments appreciated.



Y2K Compliance and Apocalyptic Times

David Duncan, the producer for the Nightline segment on the year 2000 problem, writes:

Presenting all sides is the media's job, in my opinion.
I'd like to suggest that there's a whole other side to the Y2K compliance issue that hasn't yet been taken into account, and needs to be. It doesn't have to do with "fixing the bug" but with the social fallout that will occur as a result of the expanding press coverage of the Y2K problem, and it's not exactly a pretty picture.

What I am about to say is not directed to those who read this list only to discover technical means (or advisors) for grappling with their own Y2K compliance problems: they can safely disregard the rest of this post. It is directed to those who want to think about the social implications of the Y2K problem -- journalists and media specialists like David Duncan, investment analysts with an eye to social trends, anyone concerned with the business side of upcoming celebrations of the year 2000, and so on.

The particular social impact that I want to explore is in some ways like the Y2K problem itself: it is time-specific, and in fact the "deadline" is the same; it is more apparent to a small group of concerned specialists than to the public at large; it appears at first to be a trivial concern, but is likely to draw increasing attention as the months pass; it is easily dismissed with scepticism, and unjustifiably so; it's importance can be denied, but the problem itself will not go away...

In short, it's a problem that the Y2K-aware may have an easier time understanding, in some ways, than those who have not already been exposed to a time specific year-2000 "specialist's" problem with widespread non-specialist impact, and the simplistic response of denial with which such problems are liable be met.

I believe there are other social impacts of the Y2K compliance problem besides the one that I shall discuss here -- the effects of public awareness of Y2K problems on stock markets, etc -- but they are pretty much out in the open, attorneys and money managers are already thinking about them, and they don't require specialist religious knowledge to be appreciated.

This one does. And because it is a side of the Y2K issue which hasn't been much discussed before, and which involves a cluster of non-computing, non-business disciplines such as the history and psychology of religion, this post will necessarily be longer than I would have wished -- and far shorter than I'd like it to be, too. I hope you'll bear with me, and find this fruitful.


Computers and the Beast

There are already plenty of people who "read" computer-related news through the filters of specific religious contexts which may seem so far-fetched to the working professional that they are ignored for all practical purposes: I'm talking such things as "implanted microchips are the Mark of the Beast" here.

Ridiculous, you may say. But hold on: that style of thinking -- known in scholarship-of-religion circles as "apocalyptic" -- comes in many forms, and sways many people. It's present at Waco and in the Japanese group that tried to gas-bomb the Tokyo subway, it's present in the militias, and it can have vast social consequences: Hitler was an apocalyptic thinker.

The fundamental response of apocalyptic thinking to current events -- any and all current events -- is to view them as "signs of the times": further proof of whatever prophetic "end of the world scenario" the groups or individuals concerned may favor. Proof of the need to "mop up evil" in a hurry. Proof of the need to take extraordinary measures.

Here's where I see Y2K press reports coming in.

I happen to think that Y2K issues are going to get increasing news coverage as the clock ticks on. That coverage is going to be read by the apocalyptically minded, as well as by "rational" CEOs and insurance brokers and investors and attorneys.

And the message that will come across in some circles will be that "computers are fixing to make trouble".

Computers -- the devices that are stealing our divine birthright and taking our jobs, those incomprehensible, fearful machines that the Beast will use to control entire populations as the Bible tells us, which will allow the one world currency and state and state religion of the Beast, without which such things would simply not be possible, which will ID us with the mark that spells damnation -- computers are at it again.

If I thought there was validity in this kind of prophetic scenario, I might be glad that the Beast was unmasking himself. If I thought this kind of thinking was confined to a miniscule section of the population, I might not think it was particularly significant: but publishers know that this kind of thinking sells books, sells a great many books. And if I thought that all millennial groups were gentle and utopian, I might not worry -- but they're not: in many instances they stockpile arms, and are liable to use them "when the Time comes".


Times and Deadlines

Which brings us back to the issue of times and deadlines. Apocalyptic thinking builds to a crescendo around a certain date or range of dates. 2000 is one of those dates, although current apocalypticism tends to be more flexible than specific in this regard.

And the connection, already noticed on this list, between European currency changes and the Y2K computer problem also holds in some apocalyptic circles, which view the EEC too as part of the "end times" scenario. That gives us a double bleed-through between the political and economic spheres and the sphere of "eschatology" or "end-times thinking" -- and there's a feedback loop, as well, so apocalyptic disturbance translates back into the political and economic spheres.

Reports of Y2K problems, and even more so, warnings and reports of Y2K failures (including predicted and rumored failures as well as actual ones) will impact the apocalyptically minded. They will increase the level of certainty in such circles that "the end is at hand" -- most significantly perhaps in the US, in Europe, and in the Middle East.


The Apocalyptic Mindset

We have basically two words which characterize the apocalyptic mindset, not as it appears to those within it, but as it appears to those who witness it from the outside: paranoia and panic.

The apocalyptic mindset has a tendency towards the paranoid. Apocalyptically-inclined individuals may have no more than a background fear that the world is off track -- but as further evidence piles in, that fear is liable to switch into the foreground, at which point the world looks more like a rapidly closing deathtrap than a playground or place for "business as usual"...

That's the individual tendency: but there are associated group phenomena.

A sprinkling of apocalyptic rumor, a suitably plausible date to fixate on, and even a background tendency toward apocalyptic thinking is the sort of thing that can turn a crowd into a mob -- and it can do it, as the saying goes, "in the twinkling of an eye"... The result is panic.

Panic is a very special commodity: it thrives on rumor, cannot be held accountable to reason, and spreads like wildfire under the right circumstances. And crowds that panic behave in ways that utterly defy all normal conventions of civilized group behavior.


Salient Responses

If history is anything to go by -- and it is in fact all we've got -- then there are three or four salient responses that individuals and groups have to increased "millennial expectation".

Purity.

The need to undergo a rapid and deep emotional conversion, followed by the need to work to prove that conversion by converting others. This has historically taken somewhat extreme forms such as selling all one's possessions -- who needs them? -- public confessions, witch-hunts, increases in ascetic practices such as flagellation, conversion-by-the-sword, and so on.

Indulgence.

Others who get caught up in apocalyptic fever figure that it's "too late" to repent, and that they might as well rape or pillage and at least get some "pleasure" in what looks to be a pretty grim time... Historically, apocalyptic thinking has been an excuse for extremes of self-indulgence as well as purity.

Antinomianism.

The sense that "everything goes", that the rules of conventional ethics, morality and law are all "up for grabs" to one degree or another, that all that matters is the apocalyptic process. Some apocalyptic movements feel that robbery "for the cause" is just fine, others that violence against "evildoers" is justified...

Enantiodromia.

The sudden switching from something to its opposite, as when a previously hedonistic playboy gets religion, or quiet and peaceable apocalyptic groups suddenly turn militant.


The Unsung Problem

I hope I've said enough in this brief piece to indicate that there's an "unsung" sociological aspect of the Y2K problem looming on the horizon -- and that it's one which will build in importance as we approach the double deadline.



Copyright © Charles Cameron, 1997.

Charles Cameron is an Associate of the Center for Millennial Studies. He holds a degree in Theology from Oxford, and is a freelance writer concerned with many aspects of mythic thinking.


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