By David Franke
© 1999

UNITED NATIONS — Mickey Mouse reigns just outside Paris. McDonald’s
prepares soul food for the toiling masses in Moscow. And now popular
American culture has another global export success: “Happy news” about

In the United States these past few months, the official line has
been: “We’re OK, but I’m worried about the rest of the world.” That
line has been repeated by every government agency, every trade
association and business, and every cat burglar asked to produce
evidence of Y2K compliance.

Yesterday delegates from more than 170 nations met at the United
for the Second Global Y2K
National Coordinators Meeting, and they responded in kind: “We’re OK,
too, but just to make sure, you’d better send us some more money.”

You know the world’s in trouble when even the Russians claim to have
solved their Y2K problems.

There was a dark side to the self-congratulatory mood, however, and
that threatening cloud on the horizon was the specter of public panic.
Some become obsessed about what the U.N. might have in mind for the
people of the world, but any John Q. Public in the gallery could not
help but feel a sense of empowerment: These folks are terrified of the

If people panic, you see, they might take their money out of the
banks, and then the banks would collapse — not because there’s anything
wrong with the banks, you understand, but because of lack of trust in
leaders. And if people panic, they’ll start stocking up on toilet paper
and beans and the grocery store shelves will be empty — not that there
are any problems with the food supply chain, of course.

As World Bank executive Carlos Braga explained to the national Y2K
coordinators, “perception plays an increasingly important role in this
era of irrational exuberance.”

And who plays the role of enabler to the irrational exuberants? Why,
the press, of course. While some perceive that the press — the
mainstream press, at any rate — is hopelessly asleep at the wheel with
an overdose of Valium, David Spinks of Britain’s AEA Technologies sees
it differently: “One of the biggest threats we see comes from the press
and the media. Public behavior is probably going to be as dangerous as
computers breaking down.”

This fear of the public is so tangible that it’s got the government
of Venezuela talking to psychiatrists and psychologists about how to
explain Y2K to the masses.

To be fair, some countries do have serious difficulties in educating
their publics. The Mexican delegate explained that only 5 percent of
Mexicans know what Y2K is about, and the other 95 percent may get their
very first information on the topic from a couple of movies Hollywood
has planned for fall release. Now, that’s scary!

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