Last Thanksgiving weekend, CBS’s “60 Minutes” closed their program on the year 2000 problem with me saying: “I think we’ll have a few pretty bad situations, but not the catastrophes that the panic-creating people are talking about. The problem, deep down, is that nobody knows.”
Most people would prefer a mesmerizing revelation to such a bland conclusion. All the more so, since this event does not have an imagined deadline, like most mystical predictions, but is guaranteed to happen on January 1, 2000. No wonder we constantly hear about it, and no wonder most stories spin scarier than a typical apocalypse.
Just in case you haven’t heard, Y2K, as it is abbreviated, is the result of frugal programmers having allowed in old programs only two characters, like 98, to describe 1998. Computers still running such programs will represent the year 2000 as 00, and will run into trouble-they’ll compute 2000-1998 as -98…and may, as a result, ignore or cancel your two-year-old life insurance policy. Y2K troubles predicted by the media and by experts include failures of emergency medical equipment, shutdowns of water and power systems, malfunctions of air traffic control systems, faulty elevators and traffic lights, litigation that may total $700 billion, a collapse of the world’s financial system, and much more. Survivalists are already moving to the country, with ample supplies, to weather the expected disasters. And normal folks are, predictably, scared.
How did we get into this problem? Through gradual addiction. From laboratory curiosities, computers became increasingly important to people as they took over credit cards, payroll, word processing, and in their small-chip forms the control of automobile systems, elevators, home appliances and many other mechanisms in which they are embedded. Eventually computers became so intertwined with our lives that today, a widespread computer malfunction like Y2K can affect all of us. Why didn’t we see the problem? We didn’t think the old programs would last and we were too excited developing future applications. In other words, we blew it!
Regardless of its origins, the Y2K problem is real. To understand its reach, imagine that on January 1, 2000 one piece of paper in every file cabinet in the world will be suddenly destroyed. Some papers will be vital. Most will be worthless. No one knows how such a bizarre incident would affect the world. That’s pretty much the situation with Y2K. But ignorance has rarely stopped opinion from flowing. And since most of that opinion has involved hype and scary messages, I’ll try to balance things out by applying my own ignorance of what will happen…in the other direction.