Countdown to Millennium-ism

n the next week, mil­lions will cel­e­brate the turn­ing of the new year, the begin­ning of 1998, and the inevitable start of count­downs to the Mil­len­ni­um. At times like these, all sorts of calls go out and self-proclaimed prophets fore­tell bat­tles of good and evil. There are already many calls to peace going out in the name of the upcom­ing Mil­len­ni­um and this being the era it is, these cel­e­bra­tions are being planned and adver­tised right here on the Inter­net. But what’s the fuss about?

Since you’re read­ing this on a com­put­er, let’s start with num­bers. Com­put­ers don’t rec­og­nize the mil­len­ni­um, since they don’t count in tens. The whole exis­tence of the mil­len­ni­um is a trick of our base-ten dig­i­tal num­ber­ing sys­tem Our com­put­ers more nat­u­ral­ly think in bina­ry code-base two rather than ten-or in hexa­dec­i­mal base six­teen. In hexa­dec­i­mal, two years from now will be the year “7d0.” In bina­ry, or base two, it’s a hideous mix of ones and zeros that don’t look at al spe­cial. But humans have ten fin­gers and ten toes, so we count in tens, and when you count that way two years from now has a lot of zeros in it’s name.

Well, it does if you’re a Chris­t­ian. A sec­ond assump­tion is that the lat­est epoch of human his­to­ry start­ed with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the manger. Most of the world’s peo­ple don’t agree with that, using oth­er dates to begin their cal­en­dars (for exam­ple the Mus­lim cal­en­dar starts with Mohammed’s flight from Mec­ca). Mak­ing mat­ters even more con­fus­ing is that ear­ly cal­en­dar mak­ers mis-counted: Jesus was born a cou­ple of years ear­li­er than they thought which means we’ve already past the mil­len­ni­um mark.

Still, it’s not enough to mere­ly point out the incon­sis­ten­cies of the millennium-minded peace-makers. What is the draw of this sort of mark­er? Is it the chance to live in some spe­cial age? War often pro­vides this sort of marker-our con­cep­tions of his­to­ry often use wars as ref­er­ence points, bring­ing “ante­bel­lum” and “post-war” to our descrip­tions. Wars re-orient soci­ety and it’s basic struc­tures, cre­at­ing changes in everyone’s lives and giv­ing soci­eties a shared sense of liv­ing in his­to­ry.

Could the mil­len­ni­um mean some­thing if we all just agree that it means some­thing? It’s hokey to think peace could come because the cal­en­dar flips, but if enough peo­ple believe it, things real­ly could change. The non­vi­o­lence move­ment has been quite frac­tured in recent years, to the point where one has to real­ly argue whether there is a “move­ment.” What kind of event could we coa­lesce around to cre­ate fun­da­men­tal social change? What are we wait­ing for? What kind of soci­ety do we envi­sion and when are we going to come togeth­er to work on it?

Big ques­tions, I know. The mil­len­ni­um won’t answer them, I also know. And I don’t think the mil­len­ni­um is real­ly the event I want. But the urge to com­mem­o­rate a non-war event and use it to bring world peace is a strong one. If we could under­stand why so many want peace and change to come in 2000, then we could per­haps fig­ure out how to work across our easy answers and bring about a real and last­ing peace.