Roberto Verzola on Sun, 21 Feb 1999 14:15:22 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> y2k: transforming the system

[Please distribute as widely as possible.]

Millennium Bomb (II):
Transforming the System

by Roberto Verzola

     In the year 2000 (or Y2K), millions of computers and other
automated equipment are threatened by a time-related software problem.
The problem arose from early computer programmers' practice of
recording only the year's last two digits (e.g., 52) instead of all
four (i.e., 1952), to save space. When the year 2000 comes, machines
may assume that the last two digits (i.e., 00) mean 1900. This is the
Millennium Bug, which can confuse them and cause them to fail. Since
many machines are part of a bigger system, their failure can trigger a
cascade of other failures.

     Although some had warned of this problem as early the 1960s, most
programmers ignored it for many years and continued to use two-digit
years to save space or to maintain compatibility with older systems.
Today, despite frantic efforts to correct the problem, it is too late
to finish all remedial work on time.

     Y2K failures can disrupt electrical power, communications, land,
sea and air transport, financial services like banking, and other
strategic industries. Automated plants like oil refineries, nuclear,
chemical, and industrial plants are vulnerable. Panic-buying and heavy
withdrawals in anticipation of future disruptions can lead to early
food riots and bank runs. At worst, as Under-Secretary-General for
Management Joseph E. Connor of the United Nations said in his
presentation at a U.N meeting in December 1998, the crisis can
"paralyze our civilization."

     Part I of this article reviewed in the detail the nature of the
Y2K problem at four levels: the automated backbone of industrial
society, the production and distribution level, the financial level
and the psychological level. It also discussed six responses to the
problem: early warning, problem denial, frantic problem-solving,
individual survivalism, local sufficiency and systemic transformation.

Rediscovering community

     Early warnings and problem denial had marked earlier responses to
the problem. Today, typical government and corporate responses involve
frantic problem-solving, while an increasing number are preparing for
individual survival. These responses generally presume a post-Y2K
"business as usual" scenario.

     However, there are scenarios other than "business as usual."

     The Y2K crisis is also forcing people to rethink fundamental
patterns of thinking and behavior, and to reorganize themselves
accordingly in response to the crisis.

     Thus, some Y2K responses are now acquiring a community
perspective, which involves organizing and building resilient
communities, with local sufficiency among their top goals. Communities
are starting to realize that the best way to prepare for possible
disruptions is to go against the grain of globalization and to rely on
facilities and resources under local control and within easy local
reach. People are rediscovering community and the value of local

Flaws of industrialism

     The Y2K crisis will shake industrialism to its very core,
exacerbate its weaknesses and reveal its deepest flaws to all. It will
lead people to ask fundamental questions: What if the Y2K problem was
simply a symptom of deeper flaws in modern industrial society? What if
certain deeply-embedded patterns of thought and behavior actually led
to the Y2K crisis, and are also leading us to more serious economic
and ecological problems? And what if these problems may pose, in the
future, even worse threats to our survival?

     To see the problem in this light is to appreciate the Y2K
response called "systemic transformation." This response sees the Y2K
crisis as a wake-up call for humanity, providing us a rare opportunity
to identify and correct these flawed patterns and to radically
transform the industrial system during its period of crisis, before
even more serious problems overwhelm us.

     It is a curious historical coincidence that the Roman Catholic
church has declared the year 2000 a "Jubilee Year", a time to release
all prisoners, forgive all debts and redistribute the land equitably,
so that all can start a new life. Millennarian movements are also
expected to become very active during the millennial transition, with
their apocalyptic messages that mix doom and deliverance. Thus, in
large parts of the world, even the spiritual calls will jive with
secular efforts towards systemic transformation.

     To succeed, systemic transformation requires concerted effort by
change advocates: to become part of emerging self-sufficient
communities or lead in forming them; to sharpen their critique of
today's flawed thinking; to present solid arguments for the sounder
approaches they are proposing; and to do all these within the window
of opportunity presented by the period 1999-2000.

     This article hopes to contribute to the broad effort to transform
the present system by analyzing some deeply-flawed mindsets of
industrial society as revealed by the Y2K crisis. These flawed
mindsets include:

     * techno-worship,
     * gain-maximization,
     * externalizing costs,
     * globalism, and
     * quantification fetish.


     The Y2K problem exposes modern society's blind and nearly total
dependence on high technology and its high priests, a dependence that
borders on techno-worship. When technology fails, many people find
themselves completely lost, unable to meet even their most basic
needs. Production for meeting those needs has become more and more
hidden behind the veil of technology and detached from ordinary human

     Techno-worship alienates us from nature, from our fellow human
beings, and from the products and processes of human labor. We are led
to think, for example, that food comes from the supermarket, not from
the land; that water comes from the tap, not from springs and rivers;
and that clean air is created by air-conditioning systems, not by
nearby trees and forests.

     Even those who refuse to worship technology still find themselves
trapped by it. Technology is ubiquitous, intruding constantly between
us and nature, between us and our fellow human beings, and between the
worker and the production process. This forces us to relate directly
to technology, and we end up granting it more and more control over
our lives.

     But then, who in turn controls the technologies which control
most peoples' lives? The hand behind the control panel is corporate
research and development (R&D), and the bottom line is corporate
profits. Working hand-in-hand with government R&D, they decide the
technologies to be developed, how, by whom, and for what purpose. And
corporate R&D's chosen direction is for more powerful and
all-encompassing -- and therefore more destructive -- technologies,
which often require centralized, top-down, one-way decision-making to
work properly. Just look at how Monsanto Corporation today is trying
to centralize food production under its monopoly.

     Invariably, these technologies create their own anomalous
problems. When technological anomalies become impossible to ignore,
the technocracy then proposes another technological fix, trapping us
in a vicious never-ending cycle of techno-malies and techno-fixes,
each problem becoming more serious and each solution becoming more
expensive than before -- until catastrophe hits. A genetic version of
the Y2K problem, for example, will truly be a catastrophic one.

     Can we break this vicious cycle and reassert our control over
technology? We can, if we use human-scale tools -- ones that keep the
tool-user and the community in touch with nature, with each other, and
with production itself. Called appropriate technology, such tools are
usually simpler to operate, lower in cost, easier to fabricate
locally, smaller in scale and more benign. Behind such technology is
the human-scale principle.


     The preoccupation with efficiency -- the desire to maximize gains
at all cost -- is one of the greatest flaws of modern society.

     Gain maximization is behind the shortsightedness, cost
postponement, microefficiencies, and globalism that led straight to
the Y2K problem.

     It became the dominant way of thinking after Adam Smith convinced
economists that an economic agent maximizing its own gain is also
maximizing gain for society as a whole. This imbued the
gain-maximizing principle with moral force, so that businessmen would
even proudly proclaim that what is good for their corporation is also
good for the country.

     This thinking went a step further when governments legalized a
special economic agent: the for-profit corporation. Unlike a natural
person -- a bundle of mixed motivations and emotions -- this legal
person's one and only motivation is to maximize its own gain. It is a
pure gain-maximizer.

     Worse still, our law-makers enshrined in law these pure
gain-maximizers' economic and political rights, which the latter
shrewdly used to create an environment favoring their survival and
further growth. Having acquired foothold, corporations have gradually
expanded their rights ("liberalization"), have worked to remove social
and legal restrictions on their operations ("deregulation"), and have
taken over many functions originally the preserve of other social
structures and institutions ("privatization").

     Beyond Y2K, let us look at other global problems which threaten
us and our environment: global warming, the proliferation of toxic
substances, the loss of habitats leading to massive species
extinction, the concentration of wealth and more. Behind these
problems, we will usually find the not-so-invisible hand of these pure
greed-driven economic agents who recognize no constraints in their
pursuit of growth and gain.

     While other deeply-flawed mindsets beset contemporary society,
the idea of maximizing one's gain above all else is truly a major

     Instead of efficiency, we should prize reliability more. Instead
of maximizing gain, we can and should move towards minimizing risk,
until the balance is restored in favor of the latter. Minimizing risk
and emphasizing reliability encourages us to cooperate instead of
competing with each other, to share resources instead of monopolizing
them, and to hold assets and facilities in common instead of in
private. Risk minimization is also called the precautionary principle.

Externalizing costs

     Efficiency calls for minimizing inputs or costs. Over the years,
minimizing costs has become an art and a science, practiced to
near-perfection by those who seek to maximize gains. While they can
reduce costs legitimately, gain-maximizers often simply exclude costs
from the cost-accounting system by "externalizing" them. This is done
in different ways:

     * Costs are passed on to people who have little or no say in
making decisions and are in no position to protest or refuse. This is
a social justice problem.

     * Costs are passed on to the environment, which may seem to
absorb them for a while but whose capacity to do so soon becomes
exhausted. This is an ecological problem. It is also a social justice
problem, for it affects people who depend on the environment for
their livelihood and survival.

     * The costs are postponed and passed on to the future, to our
children and grandchildren. Given a short planning horizon, the costs
do not figure into current decisions. This is a problem of
generational justice. The desire to postpone costs played a big part
in sapping the institutional will to fix the Millennium bug until it
was too late. The same desire leads to a wanton disregard of the
exhaustion of non-renewable resources like fossil-fuels and minerals.
It also leads us to miss obvious threats like greenhouse gases, toxic
chemicals, or genetically-engineered organisms. In contrast, some
indigenous tribes decide which course of action to take only after
analyzing the effects that each action will have on the next seven

     * Costs are counted as gains. That sounds ridiculous, but that is
exactly how economists and national planners do it, adding goods as
well as "bads" to the gross national product (GNP) to measure
"improvements" in a country's economy. Note, for instance, how the
costs of fixing the Y2K problem and the costs of the lawsuits arising
from that problem will "raise" the GNP.

     Externalizing costs blinds the decision-makers to unacceptable
costs and risks. It creates the impression of viability in projects
which society would normally reject. It also victimizes the weak and
the voiceless who end up bearing much of the costs.

     A better approach to externalizing costs is full-cost accounting.
Under this approach, the costs to different sectors of society, to the
environment, and to future generations are fully accounted for and
borne by those who caused them. It does not lump together goods and
bads into meaningless figures like the GNP or the GDP. This is the
fairness principle.


     In their relentless pursuit of higher efficiency, more raw
material sources, larger markets, and greater gains, corporations have
argued for "economies of scale" and extended their operations
throughout the globe. Toward that end, they are bent on breaking down
all barriers standing in their path: economic barriers, cultural and
linguistic barriers, territorial barriers, geographic barriers and
even biological barriers between species.

     Systems theory abounds with explanations of why turning a network
of relatively independent modular subsystems into a single
tightly-coupled humongous system increases dramatically the number of
potential interactions and undesirable side-effects within that
system. The side-effects, in turn, make the system problem-ridden,
unreliable and failure-prone.

     The Millennium Bug is a perfect example. Globalization has
dramatically increased the number of possible interactions within the
world economy and at its different levels: computing infrastructure
(global networks and the Internet), production and distribution
(globalized production systems and global free trade), finance
(liberalization and global mobility of capital), and mass psychology
(international media and the Internet). This sets the stage for the
global nature of the Y2K crisis: a problem in one level can easily
lead to many side-effects at that level and at other levels. The
simultaneous multiple Y2K failures will make the global economy
problem-ridden, unreliable and crash-prone.

     Even biology eschews globalism: life exists not as one humongous
community, but as separate species. If barriers between species break
down -- which is what cocky and incredibly naive genetic engineers are
doing -- the unrestricted exchange of DNA can dramatically increase
the number of potential biochemical interactions, including
side-effects that can spread throughout the system. The consequences
of a genetic equivalent of the Millennium Bomb are too horrible to
even contemplate.

     The preference for large-scale approaches to problems --
megadams, huge mechanized equipment, monoculture, large-scale
manufacturing, and so on, reflects the globalist mindset. This
preference is based on the argument that "economies of scale" lead to
greater efficiencies. Behind globalism, therefore, is the now-familiar
gain-maximization mindset. Globalism may lead to greater efficiencies,
but often at the expense of reliability.

     Aside from resulting in a failure-prone system, globalism also
leads to a totalitarian approach: a "there-is-no-alternative" syndrome
that forces autonomous or independent units to be subsumed within its
sphere. Globalization, for example, is associated with terms like
"inevitable", "you have no choice", "we can't do anything about it",
etc. No country or community is left alone and spared from intrusion.

     In planning highly-reliable systems, successful designers almost
always use the modular approach -- they break up a complex system into
smaller, relatively autonomous subsystems (or modules), which interact
only through well-defined links. Then, they create barriers --
firewalls, even -- to prevent unnecessary interactions and to ensure
that the interactions take place at the designated links.

     A sound approach will give priority to community, bioregional,
and national sufficiency, and build a robust network among them.
Self-sufficient communities, bioregions and nations would relate to
each other through well-defined rules that do not undermine but
instead strengthen local sufficiency. This successful approach comes
from systems theory and is based on the modular principle.

Quantification fetish

     The Y2K crisis will be triggered by potential and actual failures
in the measurement of elapsed time. That such failures of measurement
can threaten the global economy reflects how the measurement of
quantity has come to rule our economic life.

     The urge to measure and count has become a fetish at the expense
of quality. Because we can measure income and GNP and count
populations, we have forgotten how to sense the quality of life and
the happiness of peoples. Because we can measure cholesterol levels,
we have forgotten how to feel our own state of health. Because we can
count calories, we have forgotten how to pick the nourishing from the
toxic-laden foods. And by passing on to machines the tasks of counting
and measurement, we miss the essence of things completely. Eventually,
this fetish leads to techno-worship.

     By masking qualitative issues like value-judgments and human
suffering, quantification allows the technocracy to claim "scientific"
and "rational" judgments supposedly made by "neutral" and "value-free"
machines and computers. By reducing human values to pure quantities,
this mindset, in partnership with gain-maximization, has also created
a runaway financial system which has simply become a mad race to make
money beget more money, in ways totally unrelated to the real
production system and its underlying ecological base.

     The quality principle should replace the contemporary fetish for
quantification. As some say, "better, not bigger." By restoring the
dynamic balance between quality and quantity, with quality in a more
dominant role, we can also restore the importance of human capacities
that no one can measure, that no machine can detect: the capacity to
feel, to love, to enjoy, to intuit, to be healthy, and to be happy.

     What is an appropriate scale for human activities? For politics
and governance? For the economy? For manufacturing? For planning? The
quality principle suggests an answer: it is that scale in which
quantitative methods are not anymore necessary to make the activity
work, allowing us to concentrate more on the quality rather than the
quantity of the result. In short, it is that scale which still allows
us to sense and feel -- even intuit -- quality without requiring us to
count or measure it.

     At this scale, techno-worship loses its basis for existence and
quantification can remain useful and interesting but not anymore
necessary; social relationships retain their personal and face-to-face
character, so that the reaction of people we know and personally see
can easily blunt mindsets like maximizing gains or externalizing

The Millennium's greatest challenge

     These flawed mindsets are behind the Y2K crisis. They will also
lead us in the future to even worse ecological crises, whose early
consequences we are already starting to feel.

     The Y2K crisis is but a warning shot. While it is scaring many
people, its impact will not be as bad as the ecological disasters we
can already see coming. Knowing this, we can take the Y2K crisis as a
timely warning to stop denying ecological problems, to switch to early
concern, and to stop pinning our hopes on frantic -- and futile --
last-minute attempts to fix problems. The Millennium Bomb is probably
our last chance for a relatively painless systemic transformation.

     Some feel overwhelmed by what faces us and by modern industry's
seemingly inexhaustible capacity to regenerate itself and remain
dominant. They fear it will be "business as usual" after the Y2K
crisis passes and that the maximizers of gain and all they represent
will be in more control than ever. They should take heart, and not
lose sight of the increasing numbers who are demanding that we reject
socially-unjust and ecologically-disastrous thinking and who are
forming themselves into self-sufficient communities. The crisis is
going to weaken industrialism's hold and strengthen these new
communities. Those who advocate transformation can help these
communities flourish well beyond the crisis years, to pose a direct
challenge to the flawed mindsets at the core of industrialism.

     Others think we should confront the immediate problems of
surviving first and worry about transforming the system later. They
say they can do something about the immediate problems but very little
about the systemic problems. Certainly, we should prepare for the
immediate problems. But we should also realize that the best time to
initiate systemic changes is during the actual crisis, not afterwards.
When a complex system enters a chaotic period, it becomes much more
responsive to efforts to change it. Determined efforts which seem puny
during a stable, non-chaotic period may become decisive during a
critical, chaotic period. The chances of transforming the system are
much better during -- not after -- the crisis.

     If enough communities transform themselves, a "phase-change"
occurs -- just like the final exertion to push a car over the top of a
hill. After that, the people's direction and the new social terrain
become mutually-reinforcing, making it very difficult to return to the
old mindsets.

     The greatest challenge then is to transform the crisis itself
into a vast movement, one that engages us in profound soul-searching,
one that rejects the flawed mindsets that are steering us towards
disaster, one that frees us, our institutions and our communities to
take up socially-just and ecologically-friendly patterns of thought
and action.

     If, through our supreme efforts, we manage to form enough of
these transformed communities, absolutely unwilling to return to the
old ways and perfectly capable of replicating and multiplying
themselves, then we will have created a way out of self-destruction.
It is then up to the rest of humanity to take this escape route from
the looming ecological disasters created by today's flawed paradigms.

     Then, and only then, can we welcome the new millennium with great

Roberto Verzola is the secretary-general of the Philippine Greens, a
political movement in the Philippines that advocates principles of
ecology, social justice and self-determination. He also runs an e-mail
network for Philippine NGOs and moderates the mailing list
Interdoc-Y2K (to subscribe, email the one-line message "subscribe
interdoc-y2k" to He is an electrical
engineer by training. He may be reached at
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: