Paul Gee

 


"Catch Y2K"
Monday, January 31, 2000

Dear Friends

This was going to be a short piece of writing. It turned into a 6 page essay! It is my attempt to get a handle to get a handle on the pychology of Y2K and to understand my own reponses. I draw particularly on the notion of double bind expounded by the psychiatrist R.D.Laing. I should be interested to hear your responses. It is only a first draft.


*CATCH Y2K*

I have been trying to make sense of Y2k

For the year and half preceding year 2000 I felt like I was living in some bizarre, slightly surrealistic world. During that time I did many hundreds of hours of research. I found that Y2K was presented both as a serious problem - one which could logically have disastrous consequences - and at the same time as a trivial matter of little or no significance. I felt like I was Yossarian in the book 'Catch 22' trying to have a rational conversation with Major Major! It was impossible because reality shifted. It was impossible for Yossarian to argue with his superiors because they were committed to the twisted logic of what psychotherapists call the double bind. I felt something akin to this in the context of Y2K.

Double binds.

The psychology of double binds was explored in the 1960s by the psychiatrist R.D Laing. It was his thesis that the roots of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, arose from the child's failed attempt to make rational sense of parental mixed messages, or double binds. A parent might say to a child 'gives us a hug', then, as the child responds, the parent freezes and the child withdraws. Then the parent says 'Oh don't you want a hug?'. The child is left confused because the verbal and non-verbal messages do not agree. There is no rational response. Any response would be wrong

Why does a parent give out double binds? According to the theory, the parent is holding two inner parts of the self - beliefs, attitudes, and feelings - which are contradictory. E.g., 'I ought to love my child: I find closeness scary'. This splitting of the self into two systems is largely a defensive measure which stops the individual from bringing into consciousness an awareness which would be scary or unacceptable. Often one half of the split is kept out of awareness - in this case 'I find closeness scary'. The child's failure to respond is rationalised as, 'Oh don't you want a hug?'

Now, double binds can be used deliberately to control others - as awesomely illustrated by Orwell's depiction of 'doublethink' in 1984. But mixed messages need not be deliberate: often - perhaps mostly - they come from a place of fear and are out of awareness. A mixed message is given out because consciousness is split into two systems. This splitting, at its most simplistic, helps us to blot out part of the whole picture: the part we find most uncomfortable. But splitting can work in more subtle ways. We can keep both split parts in consciousness, but blot out the logical link between them. Again, by doing this, we do not need to see or feel the implications of our full awareness. It is fear that feeds the split.

Split consciousness

So what of Y2K? I had a sense of a weird split in consciousness in our culture over the issue. It was perhaps most obvious in the way the media reported the matter. Serious evidence, when it was reported, was reported blandly, or in a trivial manner, with no attempt at analysis. The mixed message was 'this matter is serious, but not serious'. There was no investigative journalism, no high profile documentaries, no serious analysis, no hard questioning of government or business leaders. There was no attempt to explore the issue in any depth, perhaps because this would have exposed the duplicity of the double bind.

It seems to me that the business world also split its consciousness over Y2K. On the one hand the issue was presented as not just serious, but very serious problem, so serious that billions of pounds needed to be poured into remediation projects. This was not some knee-jerk reaction, but a considered policy based on our understanding of the problem at the time. The millennium bug was sufficiently unpredictable that any non-millennium compliant business or industry was considered to be seriously at risk. Industry experts from many different fields agreed with this analysis. Yet at the same time Y2K was held as trivial: not by challenging the theory or offering a better one, but simply by ignoring the implications of the theory.

Global interconnectedness

The most deeply uncomfortable implications of the theory, it seems to me, came into focus when the global aspect was considered. The theory - that any non-compliant industry was at risk - logically meant that every industry in the world was potentially vulnerable. Since in a global economy, all industries and nations are interdependent, no nation or business could fix the problem in isolation. This logically meant that the problem, as it was understood, was insoluble except by the co-operation of the whole world. And it was exactly this - the global dimension - which was dropped so thoroughly from Y2K thinking. Yet this was surely the crux of the problem.

And it was no minor problem. By mid-1998 it was obvious that the whole world could not achieve full compliance: there were not the time, expertise or resources around the world to fix all the systems. Rather than analysing the significance of this, we ignored it: we allowed it to slide out of consciousness. Economic forecasters, the stock market, government policy makers and, not least of all, the media, blanked out this part of the problem. While national moves towards compliance were were seen as important achievements, there was rarely any significance given to the fact that most of the world (on whom we depended economically) were months, if not years, behind Britain in the remediation efforts.

It could be argued that there was a good psychological reason for this. Since we had ruled out global co-operation, the problem we were faced with had become insoluble, given the terms in which we understood it. We could not avoid the risk of disruption which the theory implied, simply by fixing our own systems. Yet we continued to celebrate our own companies' lumbering moves towards millennium readiness, as though this were somehow solving the problem. It was like the first class passengers, in a badly damaged ship, being told by the captain that holes under their part of the ship were almost repaired, and the passengers relaxing as though the danger were over!

The government

So much for the way the media and the business world split their consciousness over Y2K: what about the government? Now the government, it seems to me, incorporated the business world's false logic. They also added another layer of contradiction which came from their need to control. Because they had an interest in seeking to control public reaction, the message to the public was nearly always 'Every thing is fine - just check your video recorder.' They wanted to allay panic. At the same time, the message to the business world was quite the opposite. Y2K was presented as a very serious threat. Whilst the public were being told that rumours of possible disruptions were a complete 'myth', businesses were encouraged to make detailed contingency plans because of the possibility of 'severe disruption'!

Here was double think at its most bizarre, more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia than so-called free democracy. Even more bizarre and alarming was the fact that the utter contradiction went almost unchallenged by the media.

But perhaps psychologically this is not surprising, as the media were already committed to their own brand of double think But it was not just the mainstream media which side-stepped the issue. From the far right to the far left there was almost complete silence. Alternative press - journals such as New Internationalist - gave hardly a mention to the issue. Greenpeace were silent. It was as though as a whole culture, we had somehow switched off our awareness of these contradictions.

Whole culture

It seems to me that this split in consciousness I have been describing did indeed infuse our whole culture. The logical inconsistencies, the double binds of the government and the business world, had become invisible to most of us. This phenomenon - a culture's capacity to collude with mixed messages - is not an unknown phenomenon: it is what enables a dictatorial leader to convince a population that by taking complete power, he is actually giving freedom to everyone. Orwell's Animal Farm is a text book study of this. It seems to me that unconscious collusion of this kind is to a greater or lesser extent present in any culture: but the homogeneity of the response - or lack of response - to Y2K was remarkable. Was this perhaps a measure of the (unconscious) fear the issue evoked in us: did it touch a cultural taboo?

Those of us who chose to challenge the inconsistencies which surrounded Y2K were faced with the full force of the double binds. Effectively we were outside the logic system of our culture and there was no place for dialogue. Y2K was not discussed except in a trivial or jokey manner. Efforts at serious discussion were stonewalled, ridiculed or attacked. The consistency of this response was striking. Many of us researched and read what experts around the world were saying. The jigsaw pieces did not fit. Rarely if at all, did we see the basic theoretic understanding of Y2K challenged. Over and over again it was presented as an unknown risk, and a serious threat. And over and over again we saw the implications of this theory being ignored. This was a profoundly crazy-making situation to be in.

It could be argued that as a culture we actually 'knew' the experts were wrong, that we knew that Y2K did not pose a significant threat. This is a nice theory but not convincing to me. If the 'all hype' hypothesis was a serious rational position, rather than a defensive emotional response as I tend to believe it was, then there should logically have been an outcry at the huge waste of public and corporate funds - literally billions of pounds. But government and corporate policy on Y2K was not challenged: not by the media, not by pressure groups, not by the government opposition, not by the business world.

If the dismissal of Y2K as trivial was based on a rational assessment, then where was the theory to support that conclusion? Where was the risk assessment model which demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that we could safely ignore the whole issue? I did not find one. Certainly the 'bump in the road' scenario was always a possible outcome. But so was a catastrophic one. Y2K was from the beginning an unknown risk. We could not model it accurately, nor could we assess the risk: we simply did not have the theoretical tools. What we were trying to assess was the influence of a potentially large but indeterminate number of errors in a very complex global interdependent system. It was like trying to guess with certainty what the weather would be like a week tomorrow!

Our responses to Y2K

I have been arguing that there was a split in consciousness in our culture. I am too close to claim to be able to make an objective analysis. My guess is that what was going on was quite complex. I am also well aware that it is possible, indeed easy, to project one's own pathology onto the world and then see the world as crazy. In matters of great importance it is easy to be mistaken. One of my reasons for trying to understand the whole Y2K issue more deeply is to help me come to understand, and come to terms with, my experience during that period. This writing is only a first tentative step in that direction.

I want to finish by going back to the example of the child responding to the double binds of her mother, to see what the parallels there might be with Y2K. You will remember that the child, in the example I gave, was (verbally) invited to have a hug, but was then (nonverbally) rebuffed (the contradiction); and finally told: 'Oh don't you want a hug?'. What were the child's choices in that situation, and how does that compare to the choices we made individually and as a culture to Y2K?

A child who is faced by double binds in a family situation - effectively the child's whole culture - has few options. The number one defensive ploy is to cut out one of the mixed messages. The child does not 'hear' the mother say 'give us a hug'; or alternatively, the child responds, and seeks to ignore the fact that the hug is cold; is not really a show of affection. The advantage to this psychological strategy is that the child does not have to handle the parental contradictions. The cost is the repression of sensitivity: the child must blot out a part of her awareness of the world in order to cope with the contradictions. Essentially the child in some way colludes with the parents splitting of reality.

It seems to me that this was the response to Y2K which most of our culture chose to take. It worked out to be a good strategy in many ways and certainly got us through. There are possible down sides. A child who adopts this strategy copes, is a coper. At least appears to. Later in life problems start to emerge. The adult does not have the awareness and sensitivity to be able to make wise choices. There is an inner tension in the individual which may not appear as mental illness - perhaps just depression, or physical illness. Our cultural response to Y2K turned out to be effective, but was it altogether healthy? What problems might we be storing up for the future I wonder?

There is another way in which a child may respond to parental double binds. Where the child is not able to blot out one of the contradictory messages, perhaps because of the sensitivity of the child, or because of the severity of the contradiction, the child is typically either paralysed with a sense of shame (I am 'a bad girl' for not responding to my mother's hug) or feels overwhelming rage and frustration at the feeling of being trapped. If she makes a correct analysis of her experience - 'Your hugs don't feel nice' or 'You don't mean what you say' - she is ridiculed, attacked or stonewalled.

A sensitive child's attempt to handle a severe double bind can be a deeply wounding experience. These are one of the roots of schizophrenia according to some psychotherapeutic theorists (notably Laing). The child's sense of reality is not affirmed. There is no solid ground upon which to stand. It is likely that the child (in Laing's terminology) will start to split into an outer 'false self' - the part which seeks to conform with parental expectations; and a'true self' - a private inner world of the child's thoughts, feelings and phantasies which are not constrained by impossible demands. The danger of course, is that this inner world, separated from a rational environment, risks becoming ungrounded: mere phantasy.


There are some parallels here to my own response to Y2K. Although I faced it with as much rationality and courage as I could, I also felt at times both rage and and a sense of shame, overwhelming at times: rage at the risk we were putting the world to, at the indifference of most people, at the utter confusion of the mixed messages; and shame at my inability to find a response which felt wholesome, at my fear, at my inability to talk to others, at my inability make a real difference to the problem. I felt deeply about Y2K. I suspect that the depth of my emotional response was compounded by the opening up old childhood wounds around double messages. I already had a history of not knowing whom to trust.

In the adult part of me, I found that I had a great deal of courage: I faced fully the possible scenarios, and understood - not just intellectually, but emotionally - what these meant. It took courage to speak out. And I took action. In 1998 I did a great deal of campaigning. I believed then that we would tackle it as a whole world problem. By 1999 no action seemed adequate. I felt very stuck. By the middle of 1999 I had largely cut off defensively to a private inner world of concern and fear, which I shared with a very few others, and an outer 'unreal' (or should I say surreal) world of normality to get through the every day activities. (cf Laing's false self and real self) It was these last 6 months which felt most like a nightmare: I found myself becoming ungrounded and withdrawn.

In some ways it was the unreality - the surrealism - of the experience which I found most terrifying. Certainly the future was scary, but at least it felt real in the sense that I was facing a real unknown and my responses of fear, anxiety and indeed courage felt real. It was the complete absence of any kind of concern from the vast majority of people which I found so hard to bear! In order to be part of my culture I felt I had somehow to pretend, to collude with the pretence that everything was fine. There was no common feeling of mutual support and concern, like there was in the 60 and 70's when the awareness of the possible devastation of nuclear missiles came fully into awareness. Y2K was simply invisible: a non-issue.

The irony - and this is a profound irony - is that what we did as a world was in hindsight right. Somehow as a world we stumbled through to doing exactly what was needed. Was there some invisible hand guiding us? Maybe there was. I suspect that once we had reached the end of 1998, the approach the world took - 'close your eyes and hope for the best!' - was possibly the only path. It was really too late to do much else. And it got us through. My question is: as a culture have we learnt anything from this experience? Right now, I think not, but maybe that is too early to tell. Perhaps it the job of historians to bring the full picture into cultural awareness and to ask the questions we would not ask at the time.

My next question is: Do those of use who have been through this suffering - of facing the unknown of Y2K with eyes open - have anything to offer; is there any wisdom to be gleaned from the experience? I leave this as an open question. I have some thoughts on this, but really I am still too close to the experience to be able to have anything useful to say. But I would like to hear your thoughts on this if you are ready to put them into words.

This is my first attempt to make some sense of Y2K. It far too complex an issue to do any more than give a few broad brush strokes in a short piece of writing like this. I am sure Yossarian - the hero of Catch 22 - would have a few terse comments to make about it! I should be interested to know if what I have written strikes any resonance in your experience and understanding of Y2K.

Best wishes
Paul Gee
movingthrough@hotmail.com

 

 

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