Opinion: Dissecting the millennial fruitcake
(IDG) -- I recently received in my mail at home an offer for a $29.95 "Y2K home checkup." The proprietors of this dubious business are prepared to visit my home and determine whether key appliances -- my refrigerator, my toilets, my toaster -- are infected with the dreaded millennium bug. If my refrigerator, for example, isn't Y2K-ready by New Year's Day 2K, its tiny brain will think that it's really 1900 and promptly morph itself into an icebox. I can forget about keeping beer cold for New Year's football games because in 1900 only three cities had football teams, and they were all in dry counties.
I personally am most concerned about the Y2K-readiness of my electronic thermostat and VCR. Since I have yet to learn how to set the date on them, it's unlikely I'll be able to root out any nasty two-digit date codes without expensive consultants.
Into the abyss
It's difficult to believe the level of silliness that has descended upon us around the Y2K issue. All kinds of odd people are emerging with scenarios of computational oblivion. Y2K survivalists are going back to nature, assuming that God had plenty of memory available when She programmed the cosmic calendar. Plenty of normal citizens are planning to eschew airplane travel on the first day of the new millennium, which is just as well because the only reservations left are to Ashtabula and Tuscaloosa.
In truth, some form of insanity is probably to be expected. A few very old historians point out that when 999 became 1000, similarly bizarre behaviors occurred. Fat people with beards prophesied the end of the world. Nostradamus, who actually lived a couple of centuries later but had the power to predict the past, had a vision of the world on New Year's Day 1000 as a giant fireball, from which we later derived the concept of the lighted ball in Times Square. Now we hear predictions that almost all the world's computers will go on the fritz at this millennial transition. Actually, when you think about it, mankind has made considerable progress in the last thousand years.
Throw another log on
I am not really very worried about this phenomenon. Many people over the years have suggested that I should do research or consulting on Y2K, but I always found other topics more interesting. Like, for example, the curious coincidences suggesting that Bill Gates is the antichrist -- he lives at 666 Bellevue Lane, hired several Procter & Gamble executives and hasn't been to church in weeks.
No, I just couldn't get the old sap running for Y2K. On 1/1/2000, I undoubtedly will be sitting at home, not because of fear but because of personal disorganization and an overwhelming sense of ennui. If the lights go out, I figure I've got plenty of wooden furniture to put on the fire. I may even stockpile a few logs, although not the artificial kind because I've always suspected that embedded microchips create those strange colors when they burn.
What I am really worried about is not the computers but rather some of my fellow human beings. "The Social Response to Y2K," as it's being called by those with a lot of spare time and mental capacity, is my primary obsession. There was actually a meeting about this at my church recently. (Lest you fear that this portends the decline of organized religion, let me reassure you that I attend a Unitarian church, which worships not traditional religious concepts but rather Earnest Discussion of Social Issues. I wasn't able to attend this particular session, having a prior appointment to have my nose hairs trimmed.)
Several specific things concern me about this social response issue. I think there's a good chance of mass revolt. Honest citizens, crazed with anger that their credit cards expired in 1900, will storm the banks and torture the ATMs by pouring Dr. Pepper into the cash slot. Armed bands of out-of-work Y2K programmers will roam the streets, hungrily seeking the next computational crisis so that they can feed their families. Pasty-faced Internet addicts will freak out when their screens go blank, consumed with fear that they might actually have to engage in human conversation. Even law-abiding old folks will refuse to die until they know their insurance policies are still good, leading to massive lines outside nursing homes.
Survival of the tannest
Then there are the Y2K survivalists. Ordinarily I wouldn't be troubled by them, since they are all moving to rural Arkansas, which is exactly where I want them. But some of these nuts are likely to be politicians, and when they buy their little plots of land with pre-microprocessor vintage double-wide trailers, we will undoubtedly be faced with another five years or so of Whitewater-style investigations. We'll use up our entire treasury surplus investigating these yahoos, and only Kenneth Starr will be left to serve the nation after all the impeachin' is done. A few airplanes falling out of the sky at midnight pales in comparison to that millennial nightmare.
There is also a certain unfairness about this Y2K thing. Some parts of the world will experience the end of the computational world well before others simply because of the time zone in which they reside. Many people are planning vacations on remote islands where the millennium hits first. Perhaps the smart money is on vacations to Alaska, most of which is as close to the back side of the international date line as you can get. A relaxing few days in the Aleutian Islands, in particular, will give you the maximum time to "duck 'n' cover" when you hear about mass chaos in the rest of the world. There are probably relatively few computers there too.
Or, if you're planning to usher in the new era at a Disney resort, California's Disneyland is a much better bet than Florida's Disney World or, God forbid, EuroDisney. When the Space Mountain roller coaster falls off its tracks in Florida, California vacationers will still have plenty of time to get Mickey's autograph before peacefully evacuating the park.
I am also nervous about other problems in our computers that we haven't even thought about. If we were dumb enough to program only two digits for a four-year date code, there are probably lots of other things we've overlooked that will go astray shortly. For example, think about the following:
What if computer records on Jim Hoffa Jr., the current president of the Teamsters Union, can't be distinguished from those of his father, Jimmy, the missing former president of the union? Without a legitimate leader, the union could go out on strike, causing mass chaos. Or the confusion could paralyze police computers, which are seeking a missing person who is seemingly no longer missing. Criminals throughout the land could be unleashed to wreak havoc on the citizenry.
What if the entertainer and New Year's Eve television host Dick Clark was actually programmed without a biological clock? His seeming agelessness could simply be the genetic equivalent of the Y2K problem. If his body has no date code whatever, we could be watching him on New Year's Rockin' Eve well into the 22nd century.
Or what if the new European currency, the euro, becomes confused in computer programs with the medical term uro, short for urogenital? Millions of schoolchildren doing Web research for reports on "What's New in the Old Country" could be exposed to explicit diagrams of urethras and vas deferentia. Markets could crash if financial analysts mix up "Euro distress" with "uro distress," a commonly used euphemism for prostate problems. And "Eurotrash" young people will certainly not take being called "urotrash" lightly.
The tough go island-hopping
While all these potential computer bugs -- even rodents -- are valid concerns, I believe we have to chill out about such apocalyptic visions. Most of the world still runs pretty well without computers; my mother always told me, "Son, the best things in life have no date code." Actually, we'd probably all be better off with an enforced two-week vacation from computers every thousand years or so.
In fact, there are certain computer failures I'm praying for. My New Year's Day will be a delayed Christmas if, for example, the processors in my sons' Nintendo 64 are a couple of digits short. Maybe all the unset digital clocks in my house will stop flashing their silent "12:00" rebuke. If voice mail and e-mail go down, I'll have time to read a book by firelight. Frankly, the New Dark Ages are looking pretty bright.
Thomas H. Davenport is a professor of management information systems at Boston University School of Management and director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The seedy side of Y2K
RELATED IDG.net STORIES:
The wackier side of Y2K
Y2K Fun Page
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.