Leaders on Y2K Preparedness Gloomy Over Drop in Public Interest

According to a number of leaders in the Y2K community preparedness movement, public worry over the issue has faded, and they attribute the change in large part to federal government public relations efforts.

Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, who has written widely on the social implications of year 2000-related computer breakdowns, has observed a recent ‘collapse’ in public interest.

Dan Torhjelm of Y2K Expos in Seattle, which puts on presentations for the general public, says 5,000 people came to a Y2K expo in Spokane, Wash., last November and even on Super Bowl weekend 4,000 people attended a Seattle expo. But a similar event in San Jose, Calif., in April attracted hardly anyone.

The group has since canceled all its summer shows, said Torhjelm, and will gear up again in the fall. ‘We’re getting feedback that people are not as concerned as they used to be,’ he said. ‘The media slant now is that everything is OK.’

The Y2K community preparedness movement sprang to life in mid-1998 with groups forming in cities and towns across the country, including one that encompassed the entire island of Kauai, Hawaii.

Their meetings attracted growing numbers of people who were interested in preparing for possible Y2K disruptions at home and in their neighborhoods. Leaders reported that morale, enthusiasm and hope were high. Then in March 1999, the entire community preparedness movement seemed to disintegrate almost overnight.

A Bloomington, Ind., event aimed at small businesses, scheduled for April 23, was canceled when only 14 people signed up. Organizer Will McCracken said groups sponsoring the event, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Bankers Association, ‘couldn’t even get their own people to show up.’ According to McCracken, small-business owners he spoke with told him ‘Y2K wasn’t a problem, or they hadn’t gotten around to it yet.’

Some community organizers say the reason for this collapse of interest is what they call ‘smiley face’ spin that started coming out of Washington and major corporations beginning in March.

Atlee said, ‘It’s so strange what’s going on. It’s like a movie being written to get to a particular conclusion.’

Steve Davis, spokesman for Coalition 2000, a network of U.S. and international Y2K organizations, said, ‘The federal government succeeded in getting out their message about Y2K not being a major problem. And people don’t sense it’s a big deal because they rely on the government.’

David Sunfellow, director of the Sedona, Ariz., Y2K Task Force and publisher of the NewHeavenNewEarth web site, which has become a major source of Y2K news, agrees. He has long been critical of governments at all levels for not taking a lead in helping citizens prepare for Y2K, which he thinks could slowly build, ‘like the death by a 1000 cuts,’ to a 7 or 8 on a 1-to-10 scale.

Sunfellow said he is particularly frustrated with his local government, which has done nothing to promote neighborhood readiness, despite spending $100,000 on local infrastructure efforts. According to Sunfellow, Sedona, with a population of 10,000, has only one day’s worth of water in storage, and the local natural gas provider cannot say if its supplier is Y2K-ready.

In early May, Sunfellow discussed this question with Tom Atlee, who agreed to compose a survey to be completed by community preparedness groups around the country.

They planned to send the results to John Koskinen, head of the President’s Y2K Council, and to Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who heads the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. By May 20, they had responses from 100 people around the country. They sent the compiled results, which show that many other grassroots organizers are critical of the lack of federal Y2K leadership, in time to reach Sen. Bennett for his special hearings on Y2K community preparedness on May 25.

Organizers hope these hearings will help to stir up public interest once again. They came the same week that CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ aired a segment showing how Washington, D. C., faces dire problems come next January. The ’60 Minutes’ espisode reported on lack of preparation by local governments, citing a U.S. General Accounting Office report that said Washington, D.C.. may have Y2K-related problems in its public safety, health care and school systems.

On the day before the hearings, Koskinen spoke to the National Press Club and unveiled a new federal ‘Y2K Community Conversations’ program, which is designed to increase awareness by bringing local officials into public forums around the country.

Sunfellow said he is very disappointed in the Community Conversations program. He sees it as a shallow effort that will only elicit more happy talk from local governments, utilities, banks and hospitals.

If Koskinen ‘doesn’t move this project into deeper water quickly, and if there aren’t significant breakthroughs in the Senate hearings, then I’m afraid I have very little hope that we, as a nation, are going to be able to respond to Y2K at the grassroots level,’ said Sunfellow.

But Atlee said he sees the program as something ‘we can fight, use, work with or ignore. My own suggestion is to take all such usable statements of the Council and Koskinen and use them for all they are worth. Use them to give legitimacy to our efforts. Use them as a crowbar to pry open reluctant officials. Use them to wake people up.’

Dan Torhjelm, events coordinator, Y2K Expos, Spokane, Wash., 509-487-1667; fax: 509-487-1619; e-mail: dan@y2kexpos.com; web site: www.y2kexpos.com. Will McCracken, Bloomington, Ind., 812-332-3706; fax: 812-332-3706. Tom Atlee, founder, Co-Intelligence Institute, Oakland, Calif., 510-654-0349; e-mail: cii@apc.org; web site: www.co-intelligence.org. David Sunfellow, founder and publisher, NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE) and director, Sedona Y2K Task Force, Sedona, Ariz., 520-282-6120; e-mail: nhne@nhne.com; web site: www.nhne.com. Steve Davis, spokesperson, Coalition 2000, Simpsonville, Md., 410-730-5677; fax: 410-730-7628; e-mail: steve@coalition2000.org; web site: www.coalition2000.org.

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