Friday, January 1, 2010

Y2K Revisited

Ten years ago, the world was supposed to end or to turn upside down by a computer bug: the Y2K. I wrote the following text about the same time. I am sharing it here for the first time with my English readers. (January 1st, 2010)

The Anthropology of a Bug: The Y2K Collective Hysteric Booby-Trap

In one thousand years from now, when the post-back-to-the-future humans look back to 1999, they will have a big laugh seeing the collective, Kafkaesque booby-trap we had set to one another in that year. They will probably appreciate the stories of people who had looked for safety from one continent to the other; people who confessed to God for their most inner sins, convinced that the end was near; families which had stocked tones of foods, heating oil and first-aid accessories, fearing a central, all-purpose computer system will stop functioning on the year 2000 due to the malignity of an evil bug.

The Boston Globe of Monday January 3, 2000, had reported the case of a New Hampshire state prison inmate who “sewed his eyes and lips shut with dental floss Friday because he feared the new year.” Perhaps not related to the computer bug per se, but symptomatic enough of the millenarian fever, The New York Times reported on March 28, 2000, the unearthing of 330 followers of a Uganda cult named Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God who “died in a fire set by some of its own members in a chapel on the cult’s isolated compound in Kanungu [who] believed that the end of the world was to come on Dec. 31, 1999.”

Perhaps, the future humans will not laugh after all. Being then totally entangled in the web of post-digital computer governance, they might, all to the contrary, very well be highly impressed by the great prescience and wisdom our contemporaries will have had exhibited in 1999. What if the Y2K phobia were really the foreseen signs of things to come?

During the last three days of December 1999 (referring to the Western calendar of course), I saw myself thinking about what Alexis de Tocqueville would say if he were living in Boston at that particular juncture of the United States’ history, he who had asked: “Why the Americans are more concerned with the applications than with the theory of science?” How would he react to the Y2K collective hysteria?

Naturally, like most clear-minded people, I had tried to ignore the Y2K concerns until the very last moment, until it was no longer a distant possibility, but an imminent threat whose pervasiveness was equal only to its ingenuity in mixing, on an interchangeable mode, fantasy and reality.

When my wife asked me to withdraw some cash from the bank and turn off the computer — “just to be on the side of caution,” said she with a skeptical wink — I knew the hysteria had hit home. Still the rebel part of me refused to accept what was now presented to me almost as a fatality: the Y2K bug lurking around, threatening my already precarious life. I however refused to take any step that would give credence to the premises of the Y2K’s conjecturists. Retorted my wife: “Your rejection of preventive measures against the Y2K bug is just a manifestation of your innate stubbornness in refusing things that would make your life easier...”

To win the argument with my wife, I used my favorite technique : the high ground. With a grave tone of voice, I said to her : ”I refuse to accept the premise of the Y2K hysteria, that is that life would end by the action of a stupid computer programming or non-programming. I refuse to be taken in!”

In reality we were already taken in. For my part, deep inside, I was not sure that the Y2K zealous were not right after all. What if they were? What if the food that I eat, the home where I live, the job I have, the heat that warms my body were connected to the capricious compulsion of a computer bug?

Sectorialization of time

On the eve of New Year’s eve, I went to a neighborhood bar in Cambridge to relax and take notes about the Y2K phenomenon, for future use for the book of memoirs I was working on. By then, to my great pleasure, the Y2K fever had become, a great source of anthropological inquiries, a rich, uncovered region for discovery of the Western mind. In the book, I was discussing precisely what I called the reverse-anthropology : How does a Haitian expatriate apprehend the West, including the USA, with his own cultural outlook in a way that reverses the look from thing seen to seer, similarly to what Frantz Fanon calls le regard de l’Autre, the gaze of the Other? If any thing, I was very happy by the rich insight provided by the Y2K’s riddle on the US cultural symbolisms and social mores.

In the bar that night, I asked two Eastern European men what did they think about the advent of the new Millennium and the Y2K bug. The older man, a Polish, former professor, said in a half philosophical, half sarcastic tone that the world was just having a good time. He called the whole thing “superficial” because it doesn’t take into account the existence of other world calendars, like the Arabs’ or the Chinese’s. We both agreed, to my delight, that the Y2K’s millenary fatalism was just part of the arbitrary sectorialization of natural time by the West.

My other interlocutor, a thirty-something Russian, changed the conversation, as soon as I asked the question, from Y2K concern to Russian grandeur — or more precisely Russia’s non-grandeur. Forgetting his known antipathy to all that is Russian, I made the mistake of saying to him that Russia is a great country (just like I consider almost all of the countries in the world). He said: “No, no, Russia is not a great country; America is... What you call Russia’s so-called greatness is only related to its killing and subjugation of other people”.

I couldn’t argue against that logic, knowing of Russia’s historical imperialism, and its killing of the Chechen people at the very moment we were talking. I reminded my interlocutor, however, that he had just said that the U.S. was a great country even though it was a well known fact that the U.S. has committed atrocities as repulsing as that of the Russians. He responded : “Well, I agree; but America does some good for the people all over the world, while Russia...” Was this guy having the bug? I thought.

I soon realized this was an unwinnable argument. Here I was, a Haitian, arguing with a Russian about the “greatness” of his country. I told my interlocutor just that, that I was not comfortable defending Russia with him. He seemed to have caught the irony of it, for he cut off the conversation without any additional reply, waving good-bye to me in a friendly and gentlemanly fashion.

Interestingly enough, within the West itself the debate was raging, acidly at times, as to the right time and the best way of celebrating the new Millennium. Some critiques pointed out that the real time-sequence for the new millennium to take place was on January 1st, 2001, a year later. Others have observed that other cultures, civilizations and countries have different calendars and time configurations that emphasize different celebratory significances that don’t necessarily correspond to the Western norm. One could even feel sorry for the Palestinians and the Israelis who not only had to deal with their respective Y2K bugs and mutual distrust, but also with the invasion of their already crowded living space by hundreds of thousand of Orthodox and Roman Christians along with their millennialist, lunatic fringes.

Naturally, the “relativist” critiques were not too happy seeing the TV clips of celebratory extravaganza in front of the Pyramids by the Egyptians, the state-of-the arts fireworks in Tiannamen Square, nor the vigilant upbeat mood of the Israelis for that matter.

My next interview was with a Haitian immigrant I met in Harvard Square, Cambridge, who has been in the US for the last eight years. He’s from the Haiti’s countryside, a small village where there is no electricity nor water system. He came here from the wave of Haitian refugees who left the country by boat during the fascist military coup d’Etat that toppled the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in September 1991. At first he didn’t know what I meant by Y2K bug; when I explained to him in Haitian Creole what it was, he proffered a big laugh. His laugh reminded me of this interlocutor who, back in Port-au-Prince in 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission, proffered a similar laugh to the notion that human could go to the moon; he thought the whole thing was a hoax.

I asked my Harvard Square interlocutor whether he was worry about a Y2K-caused general debacle that may result in his losing his job, his saving, his apartment. “Well,” he said with sapient resignation, “in this case, I would take a boat back to my village and care for my pigs and corn field. Espri m ap pi anpè, more peace to my soul.”

Kissingeresque precept

In my search to apprehending the meaning of the Y2K bug in the US’s consciousness during the last three days of 1999, I found myself talking with a MIT researcher, expert on genetic treatment for dyslexia. This scientist and I have chatted in the past about world politics, but I never saw him as passionate as when the subject came on the Y2K bug. Of all my interviewees, he was the only one who put the Y2K delusion in its contextual, logical and consequential conclusion. He complained most of all about the tremendous amount of money that was spent to “fix” the Y2K problem. His estimate was that the powerful financial forces have wasted up to 500 billions of dollars to solve the presumed computer bug, while they would not spend a fraction of that money to solve real human problems. “This goes to show,” he said, “that’s not money that is lacking.”

I reminded him that Henry Kissinger once said (or it’s attributed to him to have said) that the best way to solve a problem is to invent the problem in the first place. My interlocutor liked the analogy, but that didn’t make him any less angry. This scientist told me he had developed, since twenty years now, a tumor removal treatment for dyslexia through lesser technology that needs only a few millions of dollars for experimentation. He’s still begging for the money to come.

Just like what the Kissingeresque dictum implies, my own analysis is that the Y2K thing was just a ploy by corporate USA in inventing an artificial bug (or enlarging a small problem) in order to maintain its overwhelming control of the current electronic and internet revolution. Cartesian by profession, the corporate thinking was that: “If I can prove to you that I can solve that catastrophic problem, therefore I am better; therefore I am in charge.” Naturally, if you accept the premise, you will forget that the problem was pre-fabricated by the savior himself...

The last person I talked to about the Y2K bug was, sure enough, a computer programmer I met by pure chance. He confirmed my gut feeling that the “problem” was blown out of proportion. He told me that, in fact, he had just helped his company fix the Y2K problem and, as a result, was promoted, at the last week of 1999, chief computer analyst. He was now happy, enjoying the end-of-the- year holidays. Given the sense of catastrophic enormity the media have associated with the Y2K problem, I was curious to know how did he do it. I asked him. “Simple,” he replied, “I just re-programmed the computer to count from 1999 to 2000, 2001, 2003, and so forth.” Wow!

Terrorist threat and Y2K specter

In the midst of the millennialist fever that was grabbing the West, it was interesting to see how the usual international terrorist threat had entwined with the end-of-the-century Y2K specter. As 1999 was ending, suddenly the terrorists seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. To read the US media, one would think that the long US-Canadian border had become their staging area, and the whole United-States was now in peril.

With the arrest of two Middle-Eastern men who, according to the authorities’ allegations, tried to cross the border with an arsenal of fire arms and explosives, the specter of omnipotent evil was now becoming reality. Many of us living in those so-called Post-modern societies have had the impression that life was going to come to a sudden stop. Of course, everywhere else in the globe, people thought of those Western eccentrics as nuts. Caprice of the rich?

The terrorist threat, evidently, had not materialized. Not at that moment. In reality, as proven by the real terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, what serious terrorist would attack the West at the moment of high alert of December 1999!

I remember the subdued reaction of that acquaintance of mine who asked me if it was safe for him to travel to Europe following the arrest of the two presumed terrorists at the US-Canada border. “Don’t worry my friend,” I told him, “travel to anywhere in the world you want; the terrorists are now coming to the USA!” Two or three days after that exchange, I saw this same man in a Cambridge coffee shop. He told me he had decided to stay in the US to be in his cozy home with his family during the Millennium celebrations. Did he stay in order to save his family and friends in case of catastrophic Y2K debacle or terrorist attack? I didn’t know.

My own take on the dreadful terrorist threat was that the presumed terrorists were too much busy preparing for their own Millennium celebrations — and the family obligations that they entailed — to invest much attention to terrorist actions per se. It could also be that the terrorists who were caught at the Canadian border, taken in by the Y2K panic like everyone else, were just moving to safety their arsenal in the advent of the up-coming Y2K blight in the United States: Where’s a better place to hide the precious arsenal if not in the belly of the beast itself?

Time and space symbiosis: the Vodou dedoubleman

“What is time any way?” I asked myself as year 2000 busted in without any change in my existential environment. Soon that I had asked the question, the answer came to me through the Boston Globe edition of January 3, 2000, in an article titled “A Rip in Time,” co-authored by Stephen Reucroft and John Swain. The article’s authors have consulted the science fiction author Michael Crichton and the theoretical physicist Julian Barbour to inquire about the meaning of time. Their response is that, time is not only arbitrary, it’s also illusory. Using a kind of timeless symbiosis between Albert Einstein’s relativity and the quantum mechanics in their respective work, they assert, at least as alleged in the Globe article, that the time-space dualism is imaginary, and that what is there is there, existing in its own time-space uniformity; they go so far as to suggest that our actual conception of time may be due to a hangover vision or psychotic alteration of reality. Says Julian Barbour: “The Big Bang is as close to us as the house across the street. They’re both in our head so they’re here”.

For a better understanding of the time-space symbiosis, the article’s authors could have as well questioned any Haitian Vodouist about the phenomenon that is known as dedoubleman or doubling: one person seen at the same time in two places, or in two different localities in a time period that is physically impossible to travel by the normal means that are available to him.

You meet this person in Jacmel, a town in the mountainous Southern Haiti with challenging road conditions; you chat with him and wave good-bye. You travel in a fast GM Jeep (or on a horse) to Gonaïves, a town located in the Central, Northern part of Haiti, at some 160 miles from Jacmel. Arriving at your destination, the first person you see is the same guy you left in Jacmel some six hours earlier. You continue the conversation you were having with him. Naturally, you would ask yourself how did he get to Jacmel so fast knowing well he didn’t use either an air plane, a car, a boat, not even a horse...

It could also be you’re in Cap-Haïtien, in the Northern section of Haiti, talking on the phone with this person in Port-au-Prince, distanced from each other by some 150 miles. “By the way,” says your friend on the other line, “ I just bumped onto George in the square, he sends his regards to you.” “What George?” you ask, “George Gobert,” responds your friend. You ask for more details of identification. You’re both talking about the same George. “George Gobert! He just came by my house, here in Cap-Haïtien, and told me to say hello to you, only fifteen minutes earlier!” you exclaimed. Naturally, no one ever knows how does that happen because, according to the conventional wisdom, you wouldn’t dare ask George himself, knowing deep inside he’s been revealing his dedoubleman Vodou power to you.

Time as process

One of the many surprises I found when I came to France, and later to the United-States, was how much different their notion of time was from Haitians’, especially with regard to setting and honoring appointments and their modalities and commitment, more precisely the respect for the schedule.

On many occasions US-American friends have complained to me about being dissed by Haitians with whom they had made appointments only to be left in the cold, sometimes literally. No trace of the other party. These complainers were generally very upset by the incident, experiencing it as personal rejection.

One particular person reported, with unhidden resentment in her voice, that a common friend offered her to bring a group of musicians to play in a public event she was organizing. Relying entirely on our friend to provide the music, the person was extremely upset when, the day of the event, no musician showed up.

Others would complain of rendez-vous set for a specific date and time, and at a specific place that were not honored. The worst of all, adding insult to injury, those no-show culprits wouldn’t even bother to apologize when seeing the injured party the next time, acting as if there were no problems.

What my whining US-American friends didn’t know is that there was in fact no problem as far as the Haitian was concerned. Not that he didn’t care about hurting the other person’s feeling. He did. Simply, since, for the Haitian, there was no process, no follow-up, no serial confirmations, there was not a commitment. The initial agreement on the project or encounter was essentially, at best, tentative. Here again the definition/meaning of what is tentative is vastly different between the Haitian and the US-American. While for the Haitian it implies everything that is not part of a process, for the US-American it means appointment agreements that are not specifically determined or definite, but are still considered, even partially, as a commitment. In any case, between the two sides the misunderstanding was total, each one modulated by its own frame of reference, its own sense of certainty and expectation.

Actually there was never a chance for the projected happening to ever occur. Too huge was the cultural gap between the US-American who showed up and the Haitian who didn’t. The former’s action is molded by a well-structured socio-economic system that puts a premium to timeliness, while the latter’s upbringing environment is rather unpredictable, formed in hazard, even chaos, modulated by both contingential chance and spiritual determinism.

The capitalist notion of time — time subordinated to the imperatives of production— is foreign to the Haitian psyche, ever among those who had worked before emigrating to the West. For most Haitian immigrants (in the West), it’s already enough of a burden that they have to “give the white man his time,” as they say, meaning working long hours, at specific time frame for meager pay. Ironically, they are usually among the most punctual and reliable of the workers, but their loyalty is left at the gate of the workplace. All other commitments of their time are relegated, for lack of a better term, to the realm of the original Haitian conception of time as a process, a process of priority selection.

For a farmer or a mammal-bovin grower habituated to the slow cycle of natural fecundation, who after long years of maturity must again spend dozens of hours on the long march to the slaughter-house, the notion of time is pretty much expansive, relative. What my US-American friends couldn’t comprehend was that for someone whose life has been a long struggle against time (time awaiting fecundation, time lost in illness, in precocious death, in boredom), a verbal, non-work-related commitment cannot be abiding. Since nothing is never given to him without long days, often long years of negotiation, the agreement to meet or to work on some ulterior project cannot be expected to be timely.

I know by instinct that an appointment to meet with a fellow Haitian, whatever heartfelt and detailed was the initial agreement, is just an idea, at best an intention which cannot be achieved in the time frame/fashion in which it was considered. If we say, for example, we’re going to meet in two weeks from now, at a specific time and place, I know for certain we will have to talk at least twice before the time of the appointment. The second time to confirm the initial agreement, the third time to re-confirm it, preferably the day before or the very day of the appointment. Only then the planned encounter is sure to take place. It must be a process. Otherwise, I surely will be left in the cold.

“Much ado about nothing”

As 1999 came to a close and 2000 entered without much happening, a kind of Shakespearean much-ado-about-nothing general feeling caved in the air. I liked the fact that, after all, I was still alive and well, my family was OK, and the world didn’t come to an end. My dismissal of the whole Y2K thing as a fabulous trap didn’t spare me some worry about its possibility. But seeing that my gut feeling was now proven real, confirmed by the peacefulness of the post-Y2K era, I decided I must let myself go to the infinitude of existence.

By the second day of January, there was a sense of collective feeling of well-being, and an optimist look on reality that seemed to take hold. Everyone I asked said they were feeling good about themselves and about the future, even without any specific, factual evidence to back up their claim. In fact, by now, the whole Y2K thing had become an universal joke. Dana Brigham, owner of the Booksmith bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts, passed around the joke of this CEO’s very imaginative response to the Y2K compliance : “He dutifully changed all the “Y”s to “K”s in his company’s database.”!

Although I shared the positive vibe coming all around me, and let myself be immersed in the multitude’s new fervor and idealization of the future, I knew good feeling may not be enough to overcome the powerful forces which fester fear, instability, confusion and boredom in our lives; still I wanted to give life a chance. Why not a self-imposed illusion, one just like the Y2K’s magical wand, but which would make everything look green, bright, sunny, beautiful, worries-free?

I know Alexis de Tocqueville admired a great deal the industrious genius of the North-Americans, but what would he think of the metamorphosis of his lovely subject from genius to fabulist of the Unknowable, as we see it in the confrontation between the cyber-magnetic forces and the socio-economic finalities? To answer that question, I went to the Cambridge Public Library to check out if de Tocqueville’s famous book, Democracy in America, has any futurist insight on it. Of course, Tocqueville didn’t have a clue about the Y2K bug, but he went close enough when he told the following story: “I once met an American sailor and asked him why his country’s ships are made so that they will not last long. He answered offhand that the art of navigation was making such quick progress that even the best of boats will be almost useless if it lasted more than a few years.” For de Tocqueville, this offhand answer was endemical “of the general and systematic conception by which a great people conducts all its affairs.” De Tocqueville believed that part of the North-American psyche (and of the West in general) is to create unnecessary industrial crises, that in turn become an “endemic disease” that cannot be cured, “for it is not due to accident but to the essential temperament of these peoples.” My question is then, is it really “temperament” or rather strategic subterfuge to confound everyone and maintain control? In any case, de Tocqueville surely saw a trend in a people accustomed to align its dream to reality, and confound in the process both of them.

I don’t know what the future generations will think of the Y2K bug; but one thing is now sure: They will be so much bombarded by all sort of imaginary bugs that they may as well decide to get rid of all the technological media that mediates their relationship to life, and return, as the Haitian immigrant suggested, to their small villages and care for their pigs and corn fields.

—Tontongi, Cambridge, March 2000

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