The Y5K problem

Gail Omvedt

(Probably written before the year 2000)

"Millenniums'' ring few cultural bells for Indians, not when time is envisioned in aeons, 'kalpas', endlessly recurring and unimaginably immense cycles... And so, in a society just being touched by the marvels of the information age, the "Y2K" problem is seen in quite mundane terms.

IT'S official: a recent report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Year 2000 Technological Problems has described Y2K as "diabolical". The concern is over technical problems that will arise in 2000 when older computers whose programmes which register dates only with two digits are not able to distinguish "2000" from "1900" or any other turn of the century year.

But the language is that of religious fundamentalists who are seeing technological breakdowns within a framework of medieval fears and hopes about a millennium.

This is a peculiarly Western cultural vision of the millennium. First, the time span is short. Americans, of course, measure the history of their country only in hundreds of years, far less than the great Asian civilisations. The fact is that neither centuries nor 2000 years represent much in the lifetime of the earth or the species. But in Biblical time, this period is long: the fundamentalists who take the Bible literally have calculated that the world was created in 4004 BC, counting in terms of the generations of prophets mentioned in the Old Testament. The "millennium" in these terms signifies the Second Coming of Christ and in this sense means a Golden Age. But it is expected to be preceded by an apocalypse of death and destruction, fire and cataclysmic disasters, a reign of the anti-Christ. It is in terms of this medieval mythology, this drama of destruction and salvation, that computer technicalities are being interpreted.

This perhaps explains why so many Americans are taking it as more than a simple business problem. Preparing for disaster has been part of this culture, linked to millennial visions. The fear aroused by the Y2K problem of airline schedules going haywire, banks having to close down, and of even home appliances going up in smoke as small internal computers go whaky, suggests a pervasive breakdown of civilisation that leads to the "survivalist" mentality. Survivalists are uniquely individualist, believing that as individual male-headed families they will have to dig in, grow their own food, make their own fortress and survive as their pioneer ancestors presumably did, on their own sweat and labour. And so, a large number of people in the U.S. are stocking up food, preparing to withdraw cash from their bank accounts, learning how to live off the land. They are also storing up AK-47s and other weapons to ward off expected gangs of raiders: the fight against the devil is not simply one of prayer and fasting! Being forced back to subsistence and living an individualistic pioneer life are a rather fascinating thought for many who feel uncomfortable with the mechanisms and abstractions of the computer age.

Indians are understandably more biased about the whole thing. "Millenniums" ring few cultural warning bells - not when time is envisioned in eons, `kalpas,' endlessly recurring and unimaginably immense cycles. It is not one-directional. There are no great, historically universal, imagined apocalyptic events to frame computer breakdowns. And so, in a society just being touched by the marvels of the information age, the Y2K problem is seen in quite mundane terms. It represents, for much of the elite, simply an opportunity for the newly-emerging wave of trained computer technicians to find employment. India is not thought to be dependent enough on computers (and if it is, these are newer ones, without the problems of the older computer generation) to have any of its own companies or offices in trouble. But Indians can work for others, solving problems. Removing Y2K bugs is not very imaginative work, rather it is a painstaking and arduous task, and requires millions of work-hours - ideal for low-wage educated workers, perhaps even compensating for declining government employment. India can provide "babus for the world", is how one columnist once enthusiastically put it. It is not a very high ideal, but profitable for the sitting class. To the extent that it symbolises a computer era, the "Y5K" millennium is something Indians would like to get in.

Yet it could mean something more than this. India's civilisational history can be counted in 5000 years, from the time of the Indus valley civilisation, and if this is looked at as a developmental adventure, we could imagine a society emerging from waves of incursions, breaking through a caste-ridden hierarchy and out of the bonds of conquerors to enter an era of freedom. If a computer age were looked at in Indian millennial terms, it would be a Y5K problem - symbolising the dangers and opportunities of a new era in history.

The opportunities lie in what computers can offer India, which are far more than simply jobs for an already existing elite. In spite of the tendency to think of computers as an "elite" technology, they have much to contribute to the effort to build an economic alternative to an over-urbanised, polluted, heavy industry-based society. Computers, in contrast to fossil fuel-based steel industries, are a relatively clean and low energy-using technology; not that they have no environmental implications - but much fewer than, say, automobiles. Even more important, to the degree they can provide immense numbers of people scattered throughout the subcontinent access to the crucial information of today's world, they offer, above all, the possibilities of making an empowered decentralisation a reality.

Establishing a democracy-based on vibrant small communities, with significant power dencentralised at the grass roots level, in fact, requires something like computer. Community empowerment has above all two basic preconditions. One is control over natural resources, whether forests, agricultural land, minerals, biodiversity, all the wealth that has been maintained through the ages. The other is access to information - so that this control can be fruitfully used, so that the people of the community can know and deal with the world outside without relying too heavily on the mediation of others.

Computer networks make it possible, from a geographically remote area, to have access to the world's "information highway"- information that is crucial for value-added production, for acquiring skills, for getting access to markets. Along with telephones and television, they will open the door to the world. The smallest village can be linked up. And information can be provided more cheaply through computer networks; though books themselves will never be superseded, small village libraries can more easily afford an encyclopaedia through a computer than the books themselves.

Realising these possibilities would require transcending the notion of computers for the elite; it would require taking in full seriousness the notion of universal quality education. In India, it is already clear that the hunger to be part of a computer age is not limited to the cities or to an elite; computer classes can be found even in villages these days. It is not accidental that one of the institutions seeking to universalise access to computers within its area is a cooperative sugar factory at Warananagar in southern Maharashtra, which is going ahead to connect all the villages in its zone. It is also noteworthy that there is rhetoric, and an apparent political commitment, to widen the spread of computers.

However, translating rhetoric into reality has always been a problem in India. The commitment to education is shallow; the educational system was shaped in the Nehru era to create an elite to build and manage big dams and other "modern temples"; and is now sought to be revised in the Hindutva era to inculcate what are considered the right moral values. There has been little commitment to provide true education for all our children, to develop the use of the mind and imagination. Until funds are allocated and teachers are trained and the teaching materials are provided, the talk of an educated society will be meaningless - just as meaningless as the language of panchayati raj, which has never been intended to give local communities any real control over forests and land.

And this failure turns the promises of the information age into a danger, more "diabolic" perhaps than those imagined by the glitches and temporary breakdowns that may occur with the Y2K problem in more technologically advanced societies. People immersed in ignorance and without control of the resources around them will have no role in a new age of any kind. Social revolutionaries from Phule to Ambedkar to Periyar took modernisation and empowered development seriously, arguing that "each and every woman and man", as Phule put it, had to acquire through education the capacity for development and self- realisation. Without this, India may stumble along as it has stumbled along for 50 years, but Y5K will be neither a dramatic apocalypse nor a millennium but rather a shallow mockery of the dreams failed.

[Courtesy: Ambedkar.org]