Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel


Published: Monday, June 28, 1999
Page: 13A


Just what we needed -- something else to worry about.

In its most extreme form, the Y2K computer bug gets us nothing less than the collapse of civilization as we know it -- or perhaps just airplanes falling from the sky, cold and darkened homes and starving middle-aged baby boomers in Boise.

What to believe? How to react?

A couple of things are important to remember.

One, God has nothing to do with it. If millennial religious phenomena were in the cards for the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus, they would have happened during 1994 or 1997. We count the year 2000 the way we do because a monk who lived 1,475 years ago made a mistake in his reckoning, and his system got taken up (several hundred years later) for widespread use in Christendom.

Two, Murphy was wrong. Not everything that can possibly go wrong does. If he were right, we would live in a more rational if dangerous world, in which every drunk driver, for example, would crash and burn.

The problems we face lie in the hardware and software of computer systems on which we depend.

Every vaguely attentive citizen knows about two-digit year codes in software and in embedded chips that control mechanical systems. There is no question that these systems require repair and upgrade, and this is very, very expensive. Some few computing operations were prescient and got the job done early, but most are spending 1998 and 1999 fixing systems.

Can there be catastrophic failures if not all systems are fixed properly? Of course. Will there be some? Perhaps, but if there are, they will be very few and very limited in scope. Our reliance on computer systems is far less dramatic than we like to think, and our options if a given system fails are usually multiple because critical systems have multiple failsafes.

There will be problems, of course. It's unrealistic to believe that something as large, complex and integrated as we know our systems to be today could escape without some failures, but they will be of the nuisance level.

Suppose airport check-in for a few weeks were slow with longer lines than usual. Some small businesses will choose to dissolve rather than spend the money to renovate their systems, but we will give our business to another vendor, and life will go on. If the ATM isn't working, it will be more like the failure we now experience on Christmas Eve when a machine might run out of cash. There will be localized failures of some significance around the world, and there will be endless hype and attention given to them. (And there will be lots of sharpies looking to find a way to cash in; confidence games of every type will abound.) But patience, persistence, and intelligence will get us through.

So, OK, I'm an "expert" and I say reassuring things. Is that enough?

Well, no, for one small reason and one big one.

The small reason is that I might be wrong. The likelihood that I am very wrong is not great. Ours is a culture that trusts experts profoundly every day in practice but is always ready to take potshots at any expert who presents an opinion.

But the larger reason is the more important. We live in a culture where very large amounts of money are made by making people fearful. Our economy is driven by advertisers and media who want your attention, and the two sure-fire ways to get your attention are to titillate you or to scare you.

Some quite serious and articulate people (poorly informed, if you ask me, but that's another story) will calmly tell a TV camera that disaster is coming, and audiences will be held rapt. It can't be avoided.

And that leads us to what I am afraid of: people who are afraid. Franklin Roosevelt had the same fear in 1933, and we should listen to him. Fear can debilitate, and fear, most of all, can make people irrational.

Think of the Johnny Carson toilet-paper shortage. In 1974, foreign and economic policy blunders of the Nixon administration had led us to face shortages of fuel and beef; it was the talk of the nation. So Johnny comes out one night and reads the joke his writers have written on the cue card: "Why, it's gotten so bad, there's even a toilet paper shortage!"

Within 48 hours there was one. The supply of toilet paper was exactly what it should be. But people were afraid there might be a shortage, so they bought a few more rolls than they needed. Their friends saw them do that and did likewise. A few empty shelves gave credence to the story, and soon a lot more shelves were empty. In no time at all, there was a shortage.

We will almost surely face some of this next winter. Prophets will forecast disaster, and the mass media will react with delight and spread those prophecies abroad. People will be afraid, and they will act accordingly; and even if every computer on the planet functions perfectly, there will be shortages and anomalies and weirdnesses. My own prediction is that at 12:15 a drunk in Times Square will have trouble getting money out of an ATM machine -- and a TV camera will relay the shocking news to a waiting world as if the banking system were collapsing.

So how does an intelligent and responsible person react to all this? By keeping four things in mind:

Making and listening to prophecies of doom will harm people.

Stockpiling is antisocial.

Looking with your eyes and your mind, not your fears, will show you the truth.

While recognizing that there will be unanticipated snafus, remember that human beings are resilient and resourceful.

The best hope for mankind entering the last year of the 20th century is to prove that we can face a fundamentally limited and modest challenge like this with calm and reason, seeing in it an opportunity to make community, not head for the hills. Our statesmen and even our media moguls should be thinking hard about how they can facilitate prudence and patience -- but nobody should wait for them. Some people will prove in the first weeks of 2000 that they are civilized and rational people, generous and optimistic and intent on making the human community thrive. Others will head for the hills and devote themselves to scaring their neighbors into acts of irrationality that will cause harm.

Think of it as a referendum on civilization. Have we achieved it?

I'll cast my yes vote and wait for the returns to come in.

James J. O'Donnell is professor of classical studies and vice provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania.