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Anticipating the 20th Century’s Endgame: would it bring a social meltdown? Or new support systems that demand trust, open hearts, and new approaches.


Thinkstock: BrianAJackson

A look at how we regarded complex systems in 1999, just prior to the turn of the millennium.

This article first appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health, as "Will the 20th Century’s Endgame bring a social meltdown? Or new support systems that demand trust, open hearts, and new approaches."

The year 2000 problem (Y2K) sat in our midst, terrifying some, boring others. 

We’ve all heard the basics: For many years, computer programmers saved then-scarce digital storage space by writing code that expressed the date using only the final two digits of the year, as if it would always be “19—.” In the first moments of the year 2000, many computers and embedded microprocessors will read “00” as “1900” — and apparent backwards leap in time that will likely cause system failures. How serious will the disruption be? Wired magazine recently profiled several previously sedate engineers who, after studying Y2K, began stockpiling provisions in underground bunkers in anxious anticipation of the societal meltdown they believe will follow the tick of midnight, 2000. Other technically knowledgeable people remain confident that systems will be debugged in time and that whatever failures do occur will only add up to minor inconveniences. While nobody can predict the extent or impact of the disruptions, over 200 communities in the United States have already formed community preparedness councils to deal with potential failures in water supplies, electricity, phones, food, and healthcare. Canada has mobilized its Armed forces to be on duty during the millennial shift. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are deeply involved in preparations for potential problems. And the number of those who believe that the millennial bomb will be but a mere fizzle are decreasing.

Lacking a crystal ball, we will not attempt to predict the future. But we do know some things for certain. Y2K is a powerful teacher about our modern life. It makes visible the interconnections that weave the world together through technology. It illuminates the extent to which both local and global systems are computer dependent. It displays the limitations of traditional approaches to leadership and planning. It reveals our very human tendency to deny and hide from issues when they are too complex to comprehend. And it exposes our dissatisfactions with our hectic and lonely lives.

The Nature of Failures of Complex Systems

The failures of complex systems share a set of distinguishing features:

- The longer they unravel, the more extensive their effects.
- Costs always far exceed what has been budgeted for fixing them.
- As affects materialize, unknown interdependencies become visible.
- The more these problems come into focus, the fuzzier they appear.
- Past experiences with simple systems don’t apply.
- Cause and effect are impossible to track.
- Consequently, there is no one to blame.
These features lead us to the most frightening realization about complex systemic problems: They are inherently uncontrollable. Since prediction and control are impossible, traditional approaches to solving them simply don’t work.

Y2K is no longer a technical problem. Whether it was ever possible to solve it technically, we have run out of time and resources. It has transformed itself into a social and political issue. But here’s the good news: Our response to the year 2000 problem in our communities and organizations can increase the possibility of real transformation in our relationships and capacities. And we do need to learn how to deal with Y2K, because it represents a new type of issue, the failure of complex systems. In the 21st century we can expect to be confronted with more and more of these increasingly complex problems.

Initially, Y2K has thought to affect only software — it seemed to be a relatively simple problem. But then we learned that some embedded microprocessors were vulnerable to the effects of the data change. These chips are so prevalent in modern life — in cars, satellites, home appliances, utilities, oil rigs, transportation systems, telecommunications, manufacturing, and medical equipment — that the average American is in contact with seventy microprocessors before noon each day. Not all embedded chips are date-sensitive. The problem is, there’s no way to check and replace every one before December 31, 1999. Failures in these chips will occur throughout the infrastructures that make modern life possible, threatening the functioning o all major systems: healthcare, utilities, governments, transportations, food supplies, public safety, finance, telecommunications and defense.

What was first seen as a problem for each organizations (or country) to solve individually is now seen clearly as a problem that can’t be solved in isolation. What does it matter how compliant and ready for the date change your systems are if your suppliers lag behind, or if your employees can’t get to work or don’t have food, or if power-generation plants fail? What good does it do you to be prepared if your neighbors aren’t?

Complex systems require new approaches to deal with their entangled interdependencies and inherent fuzziness. The failures of complex systems cannot be solved alone. They require collaboration, participation, openness, and inclusion. These problems force us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, secrecy, and competition. In a system crisis, clinging to these past practices only deepens the crisis and prevents solutions. Y2K requires us come together in new ways, to turn to one another.

We already know how to be together in transforming and effective ways — we see it on TV every time there’s a natural or man-made disaster. These catastrophes often illuminate what is best in human beings — our heart-opening willingness to come together, to use whatever is available to rescue and save others.

Whenever disaster strikes, we read many stories of extraordinary, superhuman responses. Those who have been in these relief efforts speak about the importance of trusting relationships. Just a few weeks prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, community agencies had been together in a civil defense preparedness drill. No one was practicing for a bombing, but as they worked on other contingencies they developed good relationships that facilitated them working well together when confronted with the bombing horror. However, one key player had not participated in the drill, the FBI. Many people in Oklahoma City still speak with resentment about being pushed around by “the Feds” who excluded them from rescue and save operations. As Elizabeth Dole, president of the Red Cross has said: “The midst of a disaster is the poorest possible time to establish new relationships. When you have taken the time to build rapport, then you can make a call at two AM and expect to launch a well-planned, smoothly conducted response”

When leaders have tried to deal with problems using secrecy or evasion, they have created more risk rather than less. Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine has written about his experiences with crises and given one rule for information: “Tell the truth and tell it fast.” Secrecy feeds the problem, not the solution. And secrecy sets in motion some powerful dynamics that end up destroying capacity. People who learn they’ve been kept in the dark, or fed misleading information, lose confidence in other quickly. In the absence of real information, they fill the vacuum with rumors and fear. And whenever people feel excluded from involvement, they withdraw and focus on self-protection. They no longer believe anything or anybody — they become unavailable distrusting, and focused only on self-preservation. As the veil of secrecy thickens, the capacity for collective solution-finding disappears.

The word “complexity” doesn’t mean confusing, complicated, and disordered. Quite the opposite, a system may be said to be complex when it has evolved to a higher level of networked intricacy and capacity, and balance diversity and integration. One excellent example of a complex system is a health human body. Though it’s made up of a mind-boggling number of parts and subsystems, they are all interconnected, and they function in harmony, resulting in far greater capabilities.

Because of the complex nature of Y2K, we need to transform the ways we work together, forego traditional boundaries and competitive behaviors, and let go of past conflicts and injuries. We must turn to one another to solve the un-solvables. We must depend on one another to find the solutions. We simply cannot get through whatever disruptions or breakdowns occur by remaining isolated or indifferent.

How we come together now will give us the capacity to face the unknown of the year 2000. We don’t have to know the future in order to be prepared for it. Organizations and communities that learn to work together, trust one another, and become more expansive and inclusive develop the capacity to deal with whatever happens. They create a capacity for working and thinking together that enables them to respond quickly and intelligently to the surprise and distress

The power of telling the truth was demonstrated a few years ago when several major chemical plant in West Virginia engaged with the community to develop worst-case scenarios. Living with 14 large chemical manufacturing facilities, the citizen around Charleston exercised their EPA-mandated right to know how a failure in any one of these plants could affect their lives. What would be the worst that could happen to them, given the worst conditions and the worst dysfunctions? (For one plant, a leak from their anhydrous ammonia storage tank during high winds would create a deadly plume that would destroy all life within thirty miles.) Early in the process the plant managers took an enormous risk and decided to involve the community in developing the necessary information. Every committee was chaired by a member of the community. Together with the plant personnel, they gathered information about the deadliest events that could occur. When they were ready to present their scenarios—twenty-eight scenes of terror and destruction—they set up booths in a popular shopping mall on a Saturday. (This choice of venue was suggested by a woman in the community.) As summarized by Dick Knowles, then plant manager of the Belle DuPont facility: “We presented twenty-eight ways we could kill the community, and trust went up.” (Of course, during the years of planning the plant managers also had demonstrated their commitment to making certain these scenarios never came to pass!)

As people engage with one another — even as they develop terrorizing information — they develop relationships that enable them to encounter the unknown together, and they develop much greater collective intelligence. Old divisions and problems fade in importance; people learn that in working together they are capable of achieving surprising results that benefit everybody. People develop trust in themselves as a coherent collective. They learn to think well together, and they make decisions that they’re proud of. They realize they hold in common enough concerns and desires that they can work well, even brilliantly, together.

The year 2000 problem requires just requires just such participation from all of us. We cannot leave Y2K to the technology experts, or to the consultants, or to leaders. We are all affected, we all have essential perspectives to contribute, and we all must be involved.

Years ago, consultant and organizer Marvin Weisbord learned that he had been asking the wrong question. He had gone into troubled systems asking “What’s wrong and how can I fix it?” He came understand that the critical question was: “What’s possible, and who cares?”

If we begin our planning from “What’s possible?” we will avoid attempts to patch together the old system, or to frantically re-create systems that have resulted in isolation and dissatisfaction in the past. People do want to be together differently. In a recent survey on Y2K, 89% of respondents wanted simpler, more decentralized systems so that their communities could be more self-reliant and independent.

The nature and complexity of Y2K leads us to invite back those we’ve excluded from current society. Our elders knew how to function before computers became substitutes for human activity. Our poor and disenfranchised long ago learned how to pull together in the face of need or failed delivery of services. Our youth want to reconnect with us — their energy could be focused on the many assessment and information-gathering activities requires. Our churches can provide both physical and emotional centers for this work.

The sweet irony of Y2Kis that if we use it now as an opportunity to re-create our communities and culture, whatever technological failures materialize won’t have the same negative impact. If we have worked together to discover what’s possible, we will have developed the collective capacity and compassion to get through whatever trials Y2K presents to us. If we begin in earnest now to call ourselves together, the millennial sun can provide its energy to those dreams of community help by many of us.

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