Fear of Change Fuels Y2K Anxiety

KNOXVILLE — Anxiety about the approach of the year 2000 results from modern society’s fears of change and the natural human fascination with numbers, scholars at the University of Tennessee say.

Dr. Andy Schopp said the assumption that Y2K will bring anarchy is a way of confronting other fears the society is experiencing.

“The ends of centuries historically have been times of anxiety, and there are extra issues attached to the year 2000,” said Schopp, who teaches English with a popular culture emphasis at UT-Martin. He calls the issue a manmade calamity: “If we didn’t have computers with a Y2K problem, there would be nothing concrete to pin these worries on.

“The preparations for catastrophe are a way of asserting a kind of control over stuff that you see as uncontrollable.”

The fears attach to numbers like 2000 because humans are fascinated that mathematics provides solid answers to rational, real-world questions of measurement and calculation. Paradoxically that gives numbers a magical, mystical quality that captivates the imagination, said Dr. Howard Pollio, Alumni Distinguished Service Professor in psychology at UT-Knoxville.

“Numbers have two faces, one turned toward the rational and the other toward the irrational,” Pollio said. “That paradoxical nature always seems to come out when there’s a big change, especially one in a religious context like the calendar.”

The changing of all four numerals in the Christian year seems to suggest that something stable and rational is undergoing an unprecedented change, Pollio said.

The influence of Christianity on Western culture plays a major role in current Y2K worries, said Dr. Charles Lippy, the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Professor of religious studies at UT-Chattanooga. Most other cultures that don’t measure time on the Christian calendar are not much troubled about Y2K because their calendars start at other points or use different systems for measuring time.

“We are shaped directly and indirectly by the Christian culture,” Lippy said. “The millennial concern of Revelation has made its way into our subconscious. We think that 1000 years has some significance.

“Besides, there are few generations that will ever be alive to make the change in the first digit.”

Other UT specialists in religious studies agree.

“The Islamic calendar dates from the founding of the Muslim community, when Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina,” said Dr. Rosalyn Gwynne. She said that move occurred in 570 A.D. and that the current Islamic year is numbered 1420. On the Jewish calendar, the year is 5760, which is based on theological beliefs about creation.

The Chinese calendar dates from the mythical oldest ancestor, the Yellow Emperor; and the years are counted in 60-year cycles, featuring a system of 10 stems with 12 branches each, said Dr. Mariam Levering, who specializes in Eastern religions. Overlying those cycles is the reign of the emperor of the time.