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Are Americans becoming obsessed by potential Y2K problems?

A University of Texas at Austin historian says his biggest fear about the dawn of the new millennium is not that computers will fail, but that media coverage will intensify about Y2K and panic will begin to build.

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AUSTIN, Texas—A University of Texas at Austin historian says his biggest fear about the dawn of the new millennium is not that computers will fail, but that media coverage will intensify about Y2K and panic will begin to build.

“We stand to learn much about ourselves as a society at the beginning of the new millennium thanks to Y2K,” said Dr. Howard Miller. “As Y2K becomes a story that feeds on itself and continues to grow, will mass panic begin to build? Will the United States become a nation of isolated, fearful survivalists?”

Miller addressed these questions Saturday at a UT Interactive lecture on the 20th century and the upcoming millennium. Miller’s talk was one of several hundred events available to the public at UT’s giant open house.

“Computers have inexorably become, over the last quarter century, our society’s life blood,” said Miller, an associate professor of history who has won numerous awards for his teaching. “They knit us together in ways that will become ever more obvious in the next few months. Now, they threaten to fail us.”

Many Americans, said Miller, are becoming obsessed by the massive universal computer failure that supposedly will accompany the beginning of the new millennium. “Even people who know a great deal about computers have become convinced that the failure will simply end any human capacity for concerted social action and will throw each and every one of us, willy-nilly, back into a state of nature, dependent, instantly, solely upon ourselves.”

Miller noted that the language coming out of these Y2K discussions is out of the apocalyptic tradition in our culture. “The results of techno-failure will be nothing short of cataclysmic. All sources of energy will fail. There will be no food, no water, no protection,” he said. “The necessary prelude to the four horsemen — fire, famine, pestilence and finally, war. In the Christian apocalyptic tradition, thunderbolts fall from the sky, raining destruction. In this latter-day apocalypse, airliners will fall from the sky.

“And who can save us from destruction? Only ourselves.”

Interestingly enough, there has not yet been a sustained effort to focus America’s attention on the possibility of the second coming of Christ on Jan. 1, 2000, said Miller. “No. The beginning of the third millennia is threatening to become exclusively about the possibility of a computer failure. Isn’t that fascinating?”

According to Miller, mass panic would introduce variables that have nothing to do with the computer problem. People concerned about shortages of all sorts could begin to horde and cause all kinds of shortages and crises.

The UT historian pointed out that panicked people could make decisions about savings that could have a disastrous impact on a financial system that is the “very personification of our inter-relatedness.

“Humans don’t handle panic well on the individual, local level. Mass panic in a society tied together as firmly as we are could get messy real quick.”

The public, said Miller, is going to have to decide, each of us individually, and all of us as a corporate society, how we will respond to the possibility of that failure, especially if panic begins to gather as the year advances. “How are we going to respond to authority figures as they attempt to assure us that all is well?” he asked.

It has become fashionable of late to cynically deny that our government, or any great institution, can do anything right, Miller said. “We even question their desire to do what is right. That cheap cynicism, I believe, is the great danger we face in the next 10 months as we count down to the millennium.”