Course Description: S410 (Topics in Social Organization:)

Y2K: Will the Millenium Bug Byte?

Section 3905. MW 2:30-3:45PM. Ballantine 205

Fall, 1999

We have come to take for granted that new technology will bring mostly positive but gradual changes to our society and our economy. From the spread of cell phones to email and the Web, from microprocessor-controlled car engines to Global Positioning Satellites, we have grown accustomed to technology advancing the quality of our lives. To be sure, most of us do not understand how the technology works or even the fact that it is contributes to the routine infrastructure of modern life -- the distribution of energy, food and other necessary supplies.

But what if some major pieces of this taken-for-granted technology-driven reality came unglued for a while, working not at all or erratically here but not there? What if it took longer than the usual few hours of interrupted electrical service to put together again?

The premise of this course is that the Y2K problem will end up being one of the more significant social and economic transitions of our lives. Getting through Y2K will have some things in common with periods of rapid technological 'advances' and with prolonged power outages and other shortages. In any event a smooth transition will require an unusual amount of forethought, planning, preparation and ongoing monitoring of developments. At the very least, it presents us all with a required "course" in how technologically dependent modern society worked before the year 2000, how much-neglected technical glitches have long been management problems in fact, and how the level of public understanding and individual preparation itself can affect the outcomes of the transition upon us.

FOCUS: Students and faculty in this course will focus on:

MY VISION OF THIS COURSE: an experience in project-based learning

After some orientation to the sociological aspects of the issues raised by the Y2K problem, teams of students will adopt one or more "focus areas" and become responsible for

  • an on-going compilation of information from a variety of sources of information on this topic
  • collecting new information, from local interviews, observations of public meetings, etc.
  • critically distilling the most reliable and useful elements from all sources
  • preparing informative materials for presentations, over the course Web site, in class and potentially for public forums.
  • Materials compiled would be of the following sorts:

    As a 400 level Sociology course:

    In the sociology department, 400 level courses students are expected to work with primary source materials (e.g., no textbooks) and to deal with issues of on-going research on the topic specified. While there is much that is sociological about the Y2K transition, the material is somewhat dispersed across quite distinct subareas, ranging from political sociology to work, organizations, the sociology of economic institutions and of industry, mass or collective behavior, including movements, not to mention the sociology of science and technology. The instructor's task in the first month of the course will be to lead the class through a tightly organized review of this material.

    This is clearly NOT a lecture course. There is much relevant materials which need researching immediately and which then have to be weighed and processed in light of relevant sociological work. Hence the idea of organizing this course around teams doing research, whether on the Web or through interviews with key members of work organizations or observation and participation in local groups dealing with the Y2K issue.

    This course MAY be taken as a COAS intensive writing course, as individual students elect. Contrary to the forthcoming Schedule of Classes, it MAY also be taken for graduate credit by students outside of the Sociology department.


    1) Some previously published readings to be selected, to be announced.

    2) Assigned news sources, to be monitored on an on-going basis, e.g., Wall Street Journal, New York Times, other selected and relevant publications, including choice Web sites.

    3) Class attendence and participation.

    4) Significant out-of-class research activity, resulting in updates to the class and brief reports, presented in a range of formats: oral presentations, written reports and Web posted html files.

    Course GRADES will be based the cumulative contribution a student makes to the collective work of the course -- the research activities, reports and presentations.


    1) Ideally, about half of the class would be upper-class senior sociology majors, with course work in completed in Methods and Research, Work and Occupations, Bureaucracy.

    2) Other students from the College of Arts and Sciences who could bring experience or knowledge of relevant scientific or technical matters, computer (web-related, etc) skills. Majors from a variety of department could make distinctive contributions as well -- English, philosophy, religion, and veterans of Topics courses dealing with the Future.

    3) Professional school students (SPEA, Business school, Education, Journalism) who have already taken more than passing interest in Y2K.

    Ideally the project teams we will form will combine students from these diverse pools of students, making each team multi-skilled.

    I would welcome contact with course registrants before they depart for summer break. I will have some readings to recommend and some activities to suggest.