Y2K Uncertainties: Learning About Ourselves

When I first heard about the Y2K problem, my reaction was, "You've got to be kidding!" The idea that something so petty as this old practice in computerland - of designating the year with two digits instead of four - could cause big problems come the turn of the millennium seemed ludicrous. Couldn't they just do a "find and replace" operation? Could this need to correct dates really be such a big deal?

And then there was the comic element. This "Millennium Bug" seemed just too much like a satiric literary device to be true. How choice! How apt a way to capture the hubris and folly of the technological civilization.

Here are a bunch of guys - some bosses of big organizations, some computer nerds - choosing to do what works for now, and as for tomorrow, well, let that take care of itself. It's not as though the eventual changing of our dates from "19" to "20" couldn't be predicted. But with a "maana never comes" mentality, they strewed these little computer mines into all the bricks that ended up being embedded in the foundation of our whole civilizational edifice.

If I'd seen this Y2K used as a plot device in a movie, I'd have had to work to suspend my incredulity.

But soon it became evident that businesses and governments around the world were agreed that this problem was going to take hundreds of billions of dollars and years to correct. So, obviously, it's no laughing matter.

Nonetheless, the question of just how big a deal this is has persisted, but now with the options ratcheted up to a higher level.

Over the past year, e-mails have arrived in my in-box saying that Y2K is not just a savings-and-loan-bailout-sized problem but potentially a major crisis of civilization. Not a bump in the road but a bridge washed out.

What to make of it?

My first response was to dismiss this as mere Chicken-Littling. I'm old enough to have lived through previous rounds of prediction that the sky is falling. In the '70s, I was told that if anyone who wanted to survive the coming economic breakdown he would have to live on the land and grow his own food. Having gathered no more off the land than some loquats and a few handfuls of pine nuts, I still survived.

Besides, a lot of the alarmists are clearly using Y2K to push agendas they've long proposed: This crisis requires that we work together as citizens and communities; we need to change the structure of civilization from hierarchical to more democratic; etc. Good ideas, perhaps, but the sound of axes being ground made me listen less to the alarms.

And then there was the millenarian dimension, the way that - just like 1,000 years ago - the coming of the new millennium brings apocalypse to the minds of many. On the big screen, we have "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." In my in-box, predictions of wholesale systems breakdown.

But, on the other hand. Some of the alarmists write very cogent, intelligent analyses. Some of them are people who have spent a lifetime working in these systems. And we have seen how the past decades have knit together such interdependent systems that a glitch in one place can cause cascading breakdowns elsewhere - in telephone systems, paging devices, electric power.

Maybe the concern is not so fanciful.

The alarmists might be Chicken Littles, true. But maybe the reassurances we hear are like those issued by the people in charge of the Titanic, so complacent in their belief that their ship was unsinkable. Sometimes, history shows, the sky does fall.

My broker says he always bets against extreme scenarios.

I respond that had Jews in Germany in the 1930s debated how much a menace Hitler was, anyone who proposed the scenario that actually unfolded would've been dismissed as way beyond extreme.

Uncertainty seems an appropriate stance here. It appears that we have built a technological civilization of such complexity that even brilliant people cannot compute with certainty just how all the hidden loci of the Y2K bug, and all the dense links of interconnectedness, will play out when the clock strikes midnight. How much of our great global carriage will turn into a pumpkin? Who knows?

In the face of ambiguity, as in a Rorschach test, we humans manifest much that warrants our exploring in depth. And, as one who lacks the means to decide between the competing views of the predictors, and who seeks to understand humankind, this is what gives Y2K its special relish: that it seems uncertain whether the human folly here is the catastrophism of the alarmists or the denial of the business-as-usual types.

With that uncertainty, I'd say let's hold both possibilities in our minds and see what we can learn about ourselves, with our capacity and impulse both to imagine nightmares that are not there and to deny painful realities until they engulf us.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler writes from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His Web site is www.worldwide-interads.com/

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