I Once Was Blind but Now I See: The Amazing Grace of Y2K
by Margaret J. Wheatley

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

-William Safford, from A Ritual to Read To Each Other-

There are great teachers moving among us. They are not individuals, but events. Events we created from our beliefs and practices about how the world works, or how we wanted to make the world work. These events are now upon us, emerging as forces larger and stranger than anything we imagined when we chose which gods we would follow home. As teachers, they go by many different names. Here are only three: Global Warming, Environmental Degradation, the Year 2000 problem (Y2K). While there are many other great ones, these three teach the same lesson: We are one world, woven together in intricate ways, forced now to confront the consequences of how we chose to belong to the planetary community.

Among these teachers, Y2K has been my particular guide since April 1998. I felt compelled to become involved in Y2K because, for years, I had been studying and writing about systems thinking, technology, and human behavior in organizations and in times of crisis. In Y2K I saw many of the issues that had emerged in my previous work. I knew that Y2K was far more than a simple computer problem that could be fixed by programmers, or that would stay limited in its effects to only a few organizations and systems. And the ironies of Y2K were compelling. Our ardent worship of technology and science had led to our enslavement. We were confronted with the fact that we had become the servants, terrifyingly dependent on the technology we had created to serve us.

A second irony was that our technology contained a time bomb that ticked with the first ever non-negotiable deadline. After many years of believing we could negotiate with time -- seeking to collapse it by our demands for speed, ignoring it as necessary to any growth process, attempting medically to prolong life -- for this generation of arrogant negotiators, suddenly, time stood adamantly at the threshold to the new millennium, barring peaceful entry. And we had done this to ourselves. We had created time as the detonator by ignoring the warnings of some programmers because we were too busy to ponder a future described by a four-digit year.

Since working with Y2K, particularly in the area of community preparedness, my initial understanding of what is happening swells large, then recedes into confusion, leaving me alternately peaceful, frantic, expectant, or resigned. But I welcome this teacher. Because of the Year 2000, I have been provoked to explore deeper and less certain places. The amazing grace of Y2K is that it illuminates so many different dimensions of modern life. I still see through a glass darkly, but some aspects of this culture aren't quite as dark as they once were. This has been a spiral journey that began as growing awareness of the physical systems that weave our contemporary world together, and now has moved into realms of the invisible with questions about the human spirit and the greater movement of Spirit at this time. Still ascending this spiral, but from a height new to me, there are many things I want to share with you about the teachings of Y2K.

I did not know how this world works before Y2K. I had virtually no awareness of what it takes to support my life, to sustain me and many others on this planet. It's been a great gift to learn that every major component of our modern infrastructure is supported by dense networks of systems and equipment, each of which relies on computers to perform its functions. These computerized systems manage everything: transportation, power generation, manufacturing, telecommunications, finance, government, education, healthcare, defense. Our reliance on technology has created a world whose efficient functioning in all but the poorest and remotest areas is dependent on computers. It doesn't matter whether one personally uses a computer, or that many people around the world don't even have telephones. The world's economic and political infrastructures rely on computers. And not isolated computers. We are supported by complex networks of reliance around the globe. Whatever happens in one part of the network has the potential to impact any other part of the network. We have created not only a computer-dependent society, but a planet whose interdependencies extend far beyond our imagination.

I have learned what systems I activate when I turn on an electric switch, use a gas pump, go to an ATM, pick up a telephone, or turn on a tap. The level of technological support and the interconnectedness of these systems is truly awesome. Follow for a moment how many systems are required for the seemingly straightforward and essential act of filling your gas tank. (And note how these systems get caught in a circular dependence on one another.) To access the gas stored in underground tanks at your neighborhood station, electricity is required. Electricity is generated by turbines, often fueled with coal. Turbines require electricity to operate. Coal is transported by rail, so the railroad system must be working. To pay for gas by credit card involves electricity, phone networks, and often, satellites. The gas in the local storage tank was brought there by trucks, which require gas. The majority of oil used in America comes from abroad, so what's going on in Venezuela or Mexico or the Mid-East matters. Individual drilling rigs are dependent on computerized systems to ensure that oil is extracted without leaks or environmental disasters. Huge tankers from foreign ports transport oil to U.S. ports. Of their many computer systems, these ships also rely on satellites for navigation. Once they reach U.S. ports, computer-dependent Customs officers monitor their cargo and authorize entry. To operate the port requires multiple systems, especially electricity and telecommunications.

Compared to other modern systems, pumping gas activates a relatively simple system of interdependencies (and I've only sketched out the biggest systems here). Every one of these systems is heavily dependent on computers or embedded computer chips to perform their operations. Whether it's a Customs official accessing a computer data base, an offshore drilling rig relying on date-sensitive embedded chips hidden beneath the water's surface, a microprocessor in a distant satellite, the computer chips in railbeds that control the switching function in every track in America, or a hydroelectric plant connected to a grid by computers, a failure in any one part of this system would create a major disruption in the movement of oil from reserves deep in the earth to the tank of your car. And what other systems would be affected if you couldn't use your car?

The movement of food into our local supermarkets reveals a similar sequence of inter-reliant systems. As consumers, we demand delectable, fresh produce -- but few of us are aware of the intricate systems that make it possible for a mango from Peru to arrive on my table mid-winter in Utah. Most U.S. food markets get in fresh food shipments every two to three days. Whether it's brought in by truck, train, or ship, instantly we're back in the system networks just described, with the addition of new levels of complexity from the many systems that relate to food production, storage, and sales.

Y2K quickly exposes these interdependencies, and it also reveals something we already know from experience -- these complex systems are exceptionally fragile. They can crash because of a failure in any part of the whole system. Pagers went down across the U.S. because of a computer chip failure in one satellite. Auckland, New Zealand's major city, had no electricity for more than a month because of a failure in one small part of its grid. The American and Canadian Northeast froze after an ice storm and couldn't bring their electrical grid back on for weeks because of problems with one small generating plant. In striving for efficiency, almost all modern systems are linked together serially; there are few redundancies or back-ups. In giving hegemony to efficiency, we have created systems of brittle fragility. "The chain is only as strong as its weakest link" is the mantra of modern systems.

Even though analysts have mapped these dense and fragile networks, it remains impossible to predict just how Y2K will materialize, or the extent of the disruptions. Networks do not behave in ways that allow us to make predictions about where they will break. "Weakness" isn't a property of any one part or place; it can't be defined independent of the relationships between that link and others. Analysts can draw the primary relationships, and thus predict probable areas of concern, but no one can predict the behavior that gets set in motion because of those relationships. What we do know is that a minor failure in a network of relationships can trigger responses elsewhere that suddenly, exponentially, emerge as catastrophe.

This is why assessments that an organization is 80% compliant, or announcements that the Social Security Administration is 100% compliant, are meaningless. Old ways of measuring, such as figuring percentages, averages, or rankings of individual systems, tell us nothing about the behavior of the network. Whatever happens will occur because of the relationships among the constituent parts of the system. Individual readiness is not possible unless that organization separates every connection it has to its network (thereby incapacitating the organization). The only meaningful Y2K compliance statistic would be a statement that 100% compliance had been achieved everywhere in the global network. Because this is impossible, we must continue to probe for other information about Y2K, not the legally-induced or paternalistically-motivated statements that now predominate in the public arena.

Good information about Y2K is hard to come by, and we may never be able to develop the quality of information we think we need. This is not because of poor analysis, but because we are dealing with complex systems, and these systems do not succumb to traditional modes of analysis. Many Y2K analysts report that the longer they study this, the more difficult it is to know what will happen. The more they try to bring things into focus, the fuzzier they become. This fuzziness, paradoxically, seems to be a necessary consequence to learning more about the system. As a picture of the system develops -- its convoluted networks and interdependencies -- the overall portrait comes into relief, but the details of the portrait are so infinite in their detail that studying them only increases our confusion. The more we see, the more there is to see. Clarity slips away as we see more clearly. We can see the connections, but the consequences of those remain invisible until an actual event occurs.

It is not only Y2K analysts and activists who are frustrated by this murkiness. The inability to make definitive statements and predictions is having a terrible effect on the public. In the absence of prediction, and in the presence instead of many conflicting assessments, many people have withdrawn from Y2K. Faced with a problem that is new, and in the absence of one expert voice authoritatively defining Y2K, people feel free to withdraw, to deny, to stop inquiring. Our skill at denial is easily fed by the fuzzy quality of Y2K information. I had thought that the confusing and dramatic proportions of Y2K would wake us up, but what I now observe is that it has put many of us to sleep. We don't know how to think in a world of murky shapes and non-discernible impacts. We were never encouraged to dwell in the unknown. So we grab quickly for the safety offered by singular commentators -- the computer friend who tells us there's no problem, the government official who tells us things seem to be improving, the internal voice that says nothing this bad could possibly be happening to me.

As our teacher, Y2K can help us confront the world that we made, and the beliefs that engendered it. The modern Western mind has prized, among other values, independence, control, and unrestricted growth. In creating this 20th century world, we didn't notice that we were building systems so woven together that eventually they would demand that we embrace new beliefs and practices, those sensitive to a world of webs and interdependencies. The web of life has been revered by most cultures through time, but in the West we've been experimenting with something quite different. How ironic that our divergent economic and cultural beliefs led us to create a world that now requires our return to more ancient beliefs.

But even as our Western beliefs are challenged now by our failures, it will be difficult to let go of them. If Y2K confronts people at the deep level of cherished beliefs, it only becomes more difficult to rouse them to focus on preparedness. We are not making a simple request when we ask people to prepare for disruptions in food, electricity, etc. To acknowledge that Y2K requires preparation for breakdowns in our modern systems means that we are acknowledging something much scarier We are acknowledging that gods of technology, economics, and individualism have failed us. We followed the wrong gods home. If this is what people are hearing, even at a subconscious level, it might help explain the extraordinary levels of denial that Y2K evokes. But as I contemplate this possibility, I realize that Y2K is just the beginning. For Western culture to decide which new gods to follow into the 21st century will require devoted work from many of us, work that will extend far past the calendar click of January 1, 2000.

But the community preparedness work of today is teaching other important lessons. Traditional planning tools and measures don't work. We can't sit back and plan for what we want to have happen in terms of precise strategies and outcomes. Instead, we need to participate with the many systems at risk, moving inside them to influence what is happening as things unfold. Influencing the potential direction of these systems is still a critical role for us. But it requires different skills. Systems force us to be present, reinforcing a way of being in the world that has been described in spiritual teachings for millennia. We have to become astute interpreters of what just happened rather than dreamy planners for what we want to have happen. We can no longer sit as distant gods, manipulating and controlling things for our own purposes. To accomplish anything, to have influence, we must work from within, humbled and respectful of the powerful dynamics in which we participate, dynamics which are far beyond the control we once aspired to.

There are hundreds of Y2K community preparedness efforts going on in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and England (and many more just beginning). These efforts become successful not because they know how Y2K will materialize, but because they create the relationships, trust and good thinking that enable them to deal with whatever happens. One learning shines forth: we don't need to predict the future in order to prepare for it. The most important benefit gained from looking at alternative scenarios, drawing system maps, or auditing community resources, is the relationships we develop. Prepared communities are those that have developed open, trusting relationships, not those who have just stored away physical necessities. Whatever planning tools are used, they must include new levels of invitation and participation, welcoming in those from whom we've been estranged, or those we've disliked, discounted, or ignored. We can walk into the unknown with far less fear and more capacity if we walk there together.

"The politics of meaning", which is so wonderfully articulated in the pages of Tikkun, is clearly evident in Y2K preparedness work. Those engaged in Y2K work at the community level are uncovering what has been well-noted by others, our deep, eternal need for relationships, for lives lived meaningfully together, where we can be truly present for and to the other. Many mourn the loss of community and are suffering from what Paul Wellstone, in an earlier issue of Tikkun, describes as "the new isolationism." Michael Lerner has noted that we are "a society that undermines love." Into this sad culture walk the Y2K activists, insisting, as Paloma O'Riley of The Cassandra Project for community preparedness so succinctly puts it: "If your neighbor isn't prepared, you're not prepared." How can there be individual preparation in this world of interdependence that we wove together in order to sustain us?

Y2K insists that we encounter the reality of the other, the fact that we are truly dependent on so many others, those both far and near. The Global Village has been exposed; what happens in a Venezuelan oil field may make my life miserable. And conversely, Y2K demands that we turn to one another, to those who live near us. If any of these global systems fail, we will need our neighbors. As cyberspace unravels, we must move from virtual community to old-fashioned physical neighborliness.

I am sometimes told by people that the problem is not that they don't know their neighbors; they know them and dislike them. They don't want to work with them. But here's an insistent teaching: We no longer have the luxury of being only with those we like. Y2K provides a lesson in geography that becomes a lesson in the essential behaviors of human community: tolerance, forgiveness, compassion. The communities created in cyberspace do not require any of the behaviors that nourish human relationships. In cyber-communities, we pick and choose, joining only with those who are momentarily pleasing to us. Nobody has to change; we just select from among what's there. At any point, if we take offense or things became sticky, we don't have to change, we just evaporate. This "community" has led us far from one another and I personally am looking forward to the challenge of slogging through the messy, muddy terrain of working with neighbors I don't like, but whom I now need.

There is one last teaching to relay and, of course, I saved what I like best for last. In December, a group of Y2K activists were meeting in the Bay Area. What gradually surfaced was that traditional Y2K planning efforts, which months ago had given them energy, no longer motivated them. Members reported feeling as desiccated as the freeze dried foods they were recommending for food storage. It was a dispirited group, and it didn't take long to realize that the absence of Spirit was precisely the problem.

This has become a familiar conversation within the Y2K preparedness community, and it is the learning that opens us to the future with hope. We are not the first people to contemplate profound disruptions to our way of life. We are not the first to journey into the unknown. But we do live in a culture which has divorced us from the rituals, beliefs, and traditions that would help us prepare for this perilous opportunity. We don't know how to clothe ourselves for the hero's journey; we don't know the stories that would help us mark the way. So the work of true preparedness becomes something far beyond the physical -- it becomes our task to know our Source, to work from center, to ask for guidance, to learn the stories from those who know the way. We are not misunderstood prophets, but well-accompanied pilgrims. There are probably many tests to endure, for this is the pilgrim path. But the work is to find the gods that will lead us some place new, a place that feel more like home than where we now reside.

Copyright 1999 by Margaret J. Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley writes and speaks all over the world about new ways of organizing human endeavor, based on Life's capacity for self-organization. She is author of Leadership and the New Science, and co-author of A Simpler Way.

If you are interested in learning more about community preparedness efforts, there are abundant resources being developed for you by many who have already walked the path. The Web is the best source for resources and connections. See:


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