Monday, December 26, 2016

Propaganda Review: The Y2K Family Survival Guide! (1999)

In the late 1990s, we all thought the global computer infrastructure would crash and kill us all. Here's a VHS tape hosted by Leonard Nimoy telling us what to do when the techno-apocalypse struck.

By: Jimbo X

One of the things I hate about nostalgia pieces is how they distort history. Take VH1's I Love the 2000s series, which posited Donnie fuckin' Darko is the most significant cultural event of 2001. Uh, I hate to break it to you revisionist twats, but nobody gave a fuck about that movie when it first came out, and even if they did, there was this little thing called 9/11 that your stupid ass "retrospective" didn't even touch upon that I'm pretty sure impacted a whole lot more people. 

Of course, us retro-enthusiasts tend to overstate the cultural importance of most of the stuff we talk about. Hell, I love NHL'94 as much as anybody can love anything, but even I have to admit that its nostalgic value is relegated to a very, very small sliver of fringe video gamers. Trust me - the O.J. Simpson trial was a wayyyy bigger deal than Crystal Pepsi, and it's not even debatable.

That said, I think certain cultural holdovers remain curiously downplayed, and the great, big Y2K scare has to be one of the most significantly overlooked events of the 1990s. You kids remember that whole 2012 Mayan apocalypse bullshit? Well, Y2K was kinda' like that, except far, FAR more intense. Millions of Americans were downright convinced that when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, the world was going to end. The computers in D.C. were going to go on the fritz, the Russians would dump their nuclear arsenal on Cleveland and our toasters were going to come alive like in Maximum Overdrive and try to eat us - in short, it was going to be every techno-holocaust scenario from every single shitty Mad Max ripoff ever, all rolled into one gigantic Katamari ball of pure digital destruction.

And this widespread paranoia went on forever. As early as 1992, I recall a bunch of doomsayers making the media rounds, warning the masses about the impending collapse of humanity at decade's end. The closer 2-0-0-0 approached, the more fervent and inescapable the hysteria became. In fact, I'm pretty sure at least one of those old school preachin' channels just halted their regular programming in Dec. 1999 and just ran around-the-clock infomercials about all the things they wanted viewers to do to prepare for computer Armageddon.

Which brings us to this little curiosity from 1999 - The Y2K Family Survival Guide VHS cassette. 

Produced by a firm called International Cinema Partners (some Google sleuthing verifies they've LONG gone out of business, or changed their name, or something), the hour-long video tape is about 50 percent "computer experts" talking about what could happen when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, while the other half is tips and tricks from "survival experts" on how to best prepare for life without electricity (and more importantly ... nonfunctional toilets.)

"Hello, I'm Leonard Nimoy. And right now, I really wish I would've used my ...In Search Of royalties more wisely."
Oh, and I almost left out the best part - the whole damn thing is narrated by Leonard "the official voice of Seaman on the Sega Dreamcast himself" Nimoy, and in virtually every shot he's positioned in front of some really shitty green screens clips of hard drives being assembled and lighting crackling. And because there's not enough stuff going on, the audio track is also glutted with a litany of buzzing modem chirps throughout the duration of the tape, because that shit don't get annoying or distracting at any point ever

The tape begins with Nimoy talking about earth and all of our human inventions and raises the question of how can two little digits potentially bring mankind to a screeching halt? The contents of this tape, he promises, will show us all how to prepare individually for pending disaster, as well as highlight the ways we can work together as "global neighbors" to make the best of whatever happens after Jan. 1, 2000. And not to be sensationalist or anything, but the very next thing on the video is a comment from some computer specialist dude who says the only thing that can quantify the possible ramifications of the Y2K bug is motherfuckin' chaos theory.

After a menacing quote from Alan Greenspan, Nimoy talks about the myth of Atlantis for a bit, then says no, we can't spend anymore time musing on what happened a long, long time ago. After all, with Y2K breathing down our necks, the power supply, satellite communications, health care, transportation and the food distribution cycle could all become antiquities. With the Y2K problem looming large, Nimoy asks if technology has finally outpaced our human ability to control them - i.e., the very same philosophical question posed by those great Australian thinkers AC/DC on the soundtrack for Maximum Overdrive.

We cut to clips of Robert Bennett on C-SPAN, saying all sorts of crazy shit about Y2K preparedness. From there, we throw it to computer specialist Greg Hallmark, who says the roots of the bug go all the way back to Grace Murray Hopper and COBOL. You see, the government was lazy as shit, so they decided just leaving out the 19 before whatever year it was in the 20th century was a great way to save money on hole-punch cards. But wait a minute, that means when the clock rolls over to 2000, how will our nuclear launch systems know it's supposed to be 2000 and not 1900? Hence, the Y2K dilemma, in a nutshell.

Per Hallmark, that little snafu would require TRILLIONS of dollars to remedy (and remember, there's only about $80 trillion in hard currency in the total global economy today.) And he adds the casualties of these terminal computer glitches could be, but are not necessarily limited to, nuclear power plants, airlines and the entire logistics industry. But it gets even worse, because the Y2K bug also impacts things with computer chips embedded in them, too, and that means CT scanners and IV pumps could all go on the fritz after Dec. 31, 1999. And according to Bennett, two to five percent of all chips WILL fail when midnight rolls around on Jan. 01

Per some guy named Marshall Murdock, bureaucrats don't know nothing about fixing nothing, no how. Another talking head then throws out a competing figure for how much moolah had been spent on Y2K compliance up until late 1998 - $600 billion worldwide. Bennett talks about the federal Year 2000 progress report card, which gaged how well-prepared agencies were for the Y2K carryover. In case you were wondering, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education both got Ds.

Oh, and if that wasn't enough, this one guy says the FAA might have some radar problems, too. And we all know what the government did the LAST time there were major problems with the FAA...

We get a scare quote from former CIA official Sherry Burns about how bad Y2K could be, with Nimoy - in front of a blinking binary video screen with the camera zoomed in ridiculously close to his face - stating the general public has met the 2000 scare with "denial, complacency and apathy." 

Elevators will stop. ATM machines won't work. Telephones will go on the fritz. Water delivery systems will fail. And then? The global stock market will plunge and nuclear power plants ... cue a LONG pause for dramatic effect ... may not be able to produce as much power as they used to. Yeah, that last one kinda' disappointed me, too. 

Hallmark give us a concise and totally not at all vague definition of what "chaos theory" is - "one small thing happening over here can cause really big things happening on the other side of the world" - and says blackouts and brownouts are practically unavoidable.

Bennett continues: credit unions and banks will go belly up. ICU equipment will become useless and "some people will die."

Developing countries, though, will have the worst problems. Just 24 countries overall, one talking head says, have made any attempts to prepare for the Y2K bug. But just you wait! That's not the only problematic date ahead - according to one interviewee, there is a strong chance our computers will automatically shut off on Sept. 9, 1999 - thus, completely fucking up the launch of the Sega Dreamcast in the process. July 1, 1999 could also be a bad one, the dude continues, because that's the date many companies enter their '00 fiscal years.

A shocker, I know, but apparently, Y2KCyberCenter.Com didn't survive the dotcom bubble bust.
We get a dandy quote from Charles Rossetti, a former IRS commissioner, about the possibility of the ENTIRE U.S. banking system collapsing. On the plus side, though, Nimoy DOES acknowledge that Social Security has been working on Y2K since at least 1994 and that all Macintosh systems have been Y2K-ready since the mid-1980s. (Yeah kids, this was at a point in time in which Apple, believe it or not, was economically at death's door and Billy Gates' MicroEmpire was the tech industry's undisputed 800 pound gorilla.) And Bill Clinton did appoint a Y2K czar, and Chase Bank has been working on the bug for about 10 years, Nimoy continues. "Human ingenuity," he says, "is now at work on both large and small scales."

Oh, and for those of you that like impromptu drinking games - go on ahead and down a shot every time somebody on the video uses the term "mission critical."

Up next, this one guy says he doesn't anticipate any "catastrophic failures," and large-scale riots are unlikely. Then these two other guys talk about how getting a whole bunch of guns and heading up to the mountains with a year's supply of food probably isn't the best idea, because there's already going to be a ton of other people with a whole bunch of guns bunkering down before you get there. "We will have to be patient while it is being fixed," one interviewee says, but that could also lead to "a rediscovery of community." Per yet another talking head: Y2K could present an opportunity to show us how "electricity doesn't solve all of our problems" and could make us more more cautious about how much we let technology control our lives. Another subject notes that American hospitals had good patient care 25 years ago when there was no high-tech medical equipment, so what's the big hubbub about Y2K anyhow? 

Following a strangely non-contextual Lao Tsu quote, Nimoy notes that Y2K represents a dilemma for government, CEOs and ... spiritual leaders? "There are no Y2K experts," he reminds us, "because no one knows what's going to happen and nothing like this has ever happened in history before."

Enter the REAL star of the video, one Ted motherfucking Wright. This is a British dude who claims to be a survivalist expert, and you know the guy has to be totally legit because his caption reads "family safety preparedness consultant." From the get-go, we realize this Ted fellow is a philosophical sort, as it begins addressing the need to find a good middle ground between "no action" versus "hardcore survivalist" plans. Take heed, those of you already preparing for the Year 2038 problem ... these tips might just save your life and the lives of everyone you love someday:

  • OK, so you're going to need at least a four weeks' supply of water for everybody in the house. So hoarding 30 gallons of water per person is a pretty good starting point. 
  • Wondering the best way to store that precious H20 in computer-armageddon? Well, all you have to do is take a couple of old Mountain Dew two-liters and ziploc bags and fill them sumbitches with water and then hide it someplace cold and dark. You can use a Brita water filter if you want, and as an absolute last resort, you can always boil it. 
  • Be sure to stock water to help flush your commodes, too. Fill up as many trash cans and plastic drums as you can - we're definitely talking quantity as opposed to quality at this point. Hell, use rain water, if you absolutely have to. Say, wouldn't that attract mosquitoes, and aren't large, festering bins of water a known source for infectious diseases? Strangely, Uncle Ted remains mum on that particular matter.
  • So, sanitation, you might be wondering? Wright strongly suggests you DON'T just put plastic Walmart bags in your toilet and shit in 'em. That generates germs and bacteria. You can buy a chemical toilet for less than $60, though. And don't forget: "a good sized bucket and adaptive toilet seat will work if you are careful."
  • DO NOT DUMP PISS AND SHIT IN YOUR OWN YARD. That's why God invented the concept of "neighbor's property," after all.
  • Also, apartments and other multifamily dwellings need to make plans for installing communal toilets ... that's a fancy way of saying port-a-johns, I take it. Heck, it might even be worth raising rent by a dollar a month!
  • Remember: you can always use baby wipes to clean your underarms and genitals. 
  • It's probably a good idea to stockpile anywhere from a month to six weeks' worth of canned foods. Potted meat, tuna fish, beans ... and don't you goddamn forget the pet food, neither!
  • You need 50 to 60 grams of protein a day. Just take my word for it, OK?
  • Per Wright, "a dehydrator is worth its weight in gold," because you can always place your jerky in a container of rice for a delicious, umami-centric treat. Also, there is this one cookbook written by this one bitch you should read, while you are at it. (Yes, he really does plug a cookbook, and the ordering information even pops up on screen.)
  • For some reason, you should also have alfalfa seeds, too. And you can peruse your local military surplus store for some M.R.E.s, because the downfall of man is way more fun when you're pretending to be Solid Snake.
And if you're wondering what that number connects to now, I'm pretty sure it's some Nigerian dude trying to scam you out of your Social Security Number for fake Caribbean cruise tickets.

  • Not only can you use rolled-up newspapers as kindling ... well, that's pretty much the only thing newspapers ARE good for nowadays, actually.
  • Kerosene heaters are a good investment. And did you know there are state of the art flashlights you can buy that last a year on just TWO AA batteries? Also, you may want to horde batteries whether or not a techno-holocaust is on the horizon, because that means while everybody else is bored shitless without electricity, BAM! You've got a Game Boy Color that's going to keep you company for a long time to come
  • Direct quote from Wright: "candles are controversial." 
  • Oil lamps are a sound investment. So are Starterloggs, and if you don't know what those are, congratulations on being a limp-wristed pussy. 
  • Oh fuck, you'll probably need a fire extinguisher, too. Because we all know their proper use in the case of emergencies. 
  • Ask your doctor if you can get an emergency month's supply of your prescription pills. In post Oxycontin-America, I fucking double dog dare you to attempt this.
  • You'll definitely need a four week supply of toilet paper and a lot of trash bags. Also: feminine hygiene products (note - if you're not a woman, you probably don't need them.)
  • It's not a bad idea to have the following items at your disposal: a hammer, a crowbar, pliers and rope. Yeah, I know out of context, that sounds ominous as fuck, but hey - this is survival we're talking 'bout here. 
  • Have your most important documents available in hard copy - passports, mortgage deeds, stocks, WCW Dudes with Attitude memberships, etc.
  • Hey, senor Wright, just how much cash should we set aside for the computer-apocalypse? Short answer: even he doesn't know an appropriate amount, and he's a fucking survival expert with a British accent. (Bonus: this is followed by a short segment involving another talking head who uses the opportunity to rail against fractional reserve banking instead of answering the motherfucking question.) 
  • Should we be worried about the deleterious effects of the collapse of all human society on our children? According to some random man with a mustache holding giant cans of taco meat, "eh, children are resilient."
  • Have you taken proper precautions to take care of a newborn child, if such is in your cards? Do you have access to a "ham" radio? Have you called your utility providers and asked for accurate billing statements ahead of time? Have you conferred with local management about emergency provisions for heat and waste management? If not, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR, DO IT, DO IT, DO IT NOW, YOU POOR BASTARD.

And the absolute best part? After all of that, we get hit with a stealth advertisement for Wright's own survival expert hotline. For shame, for shame, for dadgum shame, you old scoundrel, you.

We get a contextually confounding quote from Olaf Stapleton as an awkward transition and Nimoy is flapping his gums about Atlantis again. Another expert says maybe Y2K won't be that bad. Like, it'll go from being a catastrophe to a mere brownout over the course of one week. Another interviewee says that on a scale of 1 to 10, the danger Y2K poses to American infrastructure is ... a two. Then what the hell was the point of all of that paranoid fearmongering earlier, you little turds?

Nimoy expounds upon the hidden silver lining of the Y2K crash: "We've taken byproducts of our collective innovations for granted," he says, "use this moment in the development of our civilization to look at the long range effects of all of our human endeavors." And that's our cue to roll some footage highlighting the dangers of cloning, bacterial warfare, pollution and my personal favorite - and again, this is a direct quote taken straight from the VHS recording - "death ray technologies," which if you ask me, is one of the things about technological progress I am MOST looking forward to.

And to wrap a nice linguistic bow around this whole kit and kaboodle? "What can we do to protect our home, our island in space?" Nimoy asks the viewer. The credits - which include a million billion hotline numbers and scrolling URLS - unfurl, with the dulcimer tones of "United Blue" by Rebecca Stout courting us towards our most uncertain future.

I don't know - is the total collapse of humanity really all that bad when it means we get to subsist on a diet of nothing but tacos and blueberry pancakes?

So yeah, I guess you really don't need me to tell you this, but none of the shit the video prophesied actually happened. When the clock rolled over to 12 a.m., planes didn't fall out of the sky, nobody's blenders spontaneously exploded and Lincoln, Nebraska wasn't incinerated by atomic Soviet hellfire. Shit, the PPV feed for Prince's live New Year's Eve concert - noteworthy because it was the last time he ever performed 1999 in front of a paying audience - didn't even experience a momentary technical hiccup. And like that, this video immediately became discount bin fodder, yet another casualty of overzealous, commercialized scaremongering a'la The Jupiter Menace(which, coincidentally, predicted doomsday just a couple of months after Y2K was supposed to bring humanity to its knees.)

Being a piece of ephemera from the late, late 1990s, The Y2K Family Survival Guide really hasn't plateaued as a truly nostalgic piece quite yet. Yes, it feels outdated, but it doesn't really feel like it comes from a bygone era in human history, either. It's too modern to inspire any syrupy sentimentalism but at the same time, it's too old to be considered a commentary on our current culture. So it's stuck in this weird chronological vacuum where its historical merits are really, really hard to deduce - surely, it has some sociocultural worth as a document of the times, but as to what that intrinsic worthiness is, well ... looks like we'll have to wait a few more years to find out. 

While the tape is definitely prone to some good old fashioned doomsaying, it's not really as hysterical as I thought it would be. Hell, it even sounds downright pragmatic at times, with Mr. Wright's "survivalist tips," regardless of their associations with the Y2K disaster scenario, seeming fairly useful in case of general weather calamities. It's a fairly optimistic tape, overall, and there's nothing in the cassette - save for all of that brass-balled hotline pandering - that comes off as truly groan-inducing. Sure, the editing is a little amateurish and Nimoy's pseudo-philosophizing about the frailty of the planet comes off as a bit forced, but for the most part? There's not really that much in here to scoff at, and yes, I am as disappointed about that as you are.

As a general rule of thumb, humanity seems to be inclined to want to accept the worst possible scenario as an inevitable outcome, and entire books have been written about why this is - in and of itself - a tremendous statistical fallacy. As evident by all of the baseless fearmongering that went on during the 2012 hullaballoo - and even more so in the downright absurd leftist reactionary paranoia concerning president-elect Trump - we're always going to have people running around, doing their best Chicken Little impersonations and letting us know for real, ya'll, we actually are all going to die this time and we're being super-duper serious. With that in mind, you can at least give this tape a little bit of credit for going the less sensationalist route and pretty much admitting that jack shit probably isn't going to happen, but it's still reason enough to take safety preparedness seriously and carefully reconsider our cultural dependence on technology (which, obviously, has increased a million, billion fold since the video came out.) 

In that, The Y2K Family Survival Guide is that rare, only semi-exploitational breed of propaganda that - while clearly a half-assed attempt at a topical cash grab - still leaves you with more to thoughtfully consider than shake your head about. And assuredly, its finer points will remain equally relevant and poignant in the wake of the next great civilization-imperiling mass delusion - whatever form that may take.


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