Special Issues: 30 Cyber Days
The 99 Year Phone Call
Did you see the clip on the news the other night about the so-called “crisis in the computer industry?” According to the hype, laid-back programmers in the 60s (probably under the influence of psychedelics) made a big coding error. Never suspecting that they were writing code for the millennium, they entered two-digit dates instead of four into the internal system-operating instructions of computers. This was thought to be a really groovy digital compression idea at the time. Until, that is, cyber-culture slammed into the vector wall of the Year 2000. As the TV doomsday anchor explained with smiling teeth: “Make a long-distance phone call one minute before the millennium and hang up one minute after, and receive for your two minute phone call a 99 year telephone bill.” Unable to recognize the four digits in the 3d millennium, computers will do the next best thing. When in doubt, go remake and head straight back for the Year 1900 and do the 20th century (digitally) all over again. And it’s kind of perfect. Just listen to all those bankers and computer CEO’s who flash onto the screen, talking in earnest cyber-Red Scare terms about the “potential” 600 billion dollar cost to business to change a few digits, or the “I dunno, don’t blame me” government spokesman who says that we’re cyber-sunk as a nation: it’s four digits or bust; or the insurance executives with worried faces who speak of changing 1.6 million dates in time for the millennium. But we’re TV news scare-proofed. We know that this is all fake, that coding today is all auto-pilot stuff, that there is some hacker somewhere, probably inspired by this news report and with digital dreams galore of Netscape and Yahoo! in her mind, who is already putting down code to bring the lost in space cyber-millennium safely back to earth.
But maybe it’s something else. Perhaps this news report doesn’t have anything to do with money at all, but is a powerful metaphor for fear of the millennium. Confronted by all the structural changes and seismic shifts brought on by the digital 90s, the fearful computer has an anxiety attack, quickly flipping from a cyber-aggressor of time to an historian of time past. Remake coding for a remake culture for a remake millennium. And why not? Computers have feelings too and, like a kitten that fails to make a jump, falls back to earth with a crash, and starts to lick itself furiously because it’s embarrassed, computers sometimes go to ground in the past as a way of distracting attention from future fear. And so do we.
That’s why it’s the remake millennium. As the Year 2000 gets closer, the recycle cycle is more intense. Remake cinema, remake songs, remake music eras, remake Martini lunches and cocktail chatter, remake cigars, remake fashion, remake faces, remake politics, remake suburbia. The more things are front-loaded by future pressure, the more society reaches into the grab-bag of the past, and spews out lame remakes and flat-line memes and mutant recombinant images. Under the hyper-stress of a future of seismic shifts and radical structural changes and new technologies and new ways of digital understanding, culture retreats to the remake bunker. Not as McLuhan predicted when he said that old technologies have one last function as content for the invisible form of new technologies, but something much more politically perverse. The remake millennium is closer to Nietzsche’s aphorism “Let the Dead Bury the Living.” New technologies seem to entail a big drop in human creativity, and a vast increase in the pleasure of mass repetition. The “maggot man” is everywhere.
And it’s killing us: 50s suburbs become the racially- and class-segregated privatized gated communities of the 90s; American rugged individualism comes back as Montana Freemen and private right-wing, gun-toting militias; First Amendment rights are recycled as libertarian squeals of total non-interference by government in private life; the 50s organization man disciplinary ideology returns under the mantra of “tough love”. Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Tony Bennett, Sgt. Bilko, Mod fashion, Bob Dole: 90s culture becomes a mortuary of the dead past and creepy images and resurrected effects and 3d generation TV series with TV hits as cinema blockbusters and repeat politics – recycled, recombined, reworked, respewed.
So, here’s one more recycle. The TV report on the crisis in the computer industry said that the millennium “could be a big 0.”
“Could be?” The remake millennium already is a “big 0.” For remake culture, that’s the point.