index

Thoughts on Y2K

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 1999

(Note: Few things recede faster from community awareness than doomsday predictions that fail to happen. But, they are replaced regularly so they are an interesting topic for understanding humanity and science fiction writing. This chapter was written in March 1999 as I noticed how curiously overblown Y2K was becoming.)

Over the last couple of years, Y2K has been growing in public awareness. Y2K is a catchword for all those computer problems associated with dates changing from beginning with 19__ to beginning with 20__.

At least that was its original definition, but it has been fascinating to watch Y2K grow during the 90's from being just another computer problem in the early 90's, through being the computer industry's worry du jour in 1998, into a US national hysteria as the end of the millennium draws nigh.

The Worry Du Jour

A worry du jour is my term for a small problem that's getting treated as a huge problem.

Its life cycle is characterized by:

Worries du jour are picked for their emotional content. When computers are considered mysterious and powerful, they are often involved in worries du jour, and Y2K is a classic case.

Worrying about computers has a long history. Metropolis, one of the first big budget science fiction movies (a 1927 German silent film), featured a robot acting as agent provocateur. The word robot was coined in the same era as a play off the Czech word for peasant in R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1921 gloomy Czech science fiction play.

During my career in the computer industry, dating back to 1977, I have witnessed a parade of overblown worries related to computers. Prior to Y2K, there was hysteria about computer viruses.

Worry = money

These worries du jour should be meaningless, but they are not. These worries change how resources are spent. Mountains of resource -- money and manpower -- are diverted to dealing with a problem that is really a molehill, while real mountainous problems are not addressed properly.

Worries du jour are based on something real, but the amount of attention they get, as measured by media bandwidth and money spent on consulting pundits, is a hundred-to-a-thousand times what the root problem deserves. Worries du jour get this attention because they contain anthropomorphic elements, something in them that maps closely to instinctual human concerns.

Y2K's anthropomorphic element is the “end of the world” element.

Comparing end of the worlds

The last millennial change, Y1K if you will, happened in the middle of the Dark Age of Europe. The long-lived Western Roman Empire was five hundred years dead, Charlemagne's short-lived replacement empire was two hundred years dead, and no replacement was in sight. The Eastern Roman empire was alive and well, but threatened by Slavs to the north and Arabs to the south, and it was now, well, Byzantine. Pagan Vikings were in full swing; Moslem Arabs were in full swing; England was a battleground for Danes, Saxons, Celts, and Normans; Italy was a battleground for Lombards, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Franks; and so on. Europe was not a placid or prosperous place.

The end of the world theme was alive and well in the years 999 and 1000, and it expressed itself as a religious theme. Wild-eyed, wild-haired prophets, wearing hair shirts, roamed the lands and were taken seriously by many people as they pronounced, “Repent, the end of the world is nigh!"

Wind the clock ahead a thousand years and what do we have?

Boom has replaced doom. Religion is important in the 1990's, but it's no longer the center of our cultural attention; technology is now the center. In response, the gloom and doom spouters we pay the most attention to are those talking about technology, not religion. Many people still worry about the end of the world as the millennium approaches, but the framework to express that worry has shifted from the religious frame of Y1K to the technology frame of Y2K.

Is the Y2K problem real?

Running out the clock element on a computer is a real problem, but it's a minor technical problem. It's minor because it's a well-identified problem: This is not the first time an internal computer clock has overrun its counting ability, and it won't be the last. UNIX operating system has a clock built into it used for date- and time-stamping of files. That clock has run out twice since UNIX was invented. Each time, most system administrators knew about the problem long before it happened and installed patches and updates that fixed the problem. A few administrators got caught flat-footed and had to take some grief and burn some midnight oil to get their systems running again.

Every year, banks experience a "Yn" problem: A few routines fail when January 1st rolls around. While most of us are sleeping off New Year’s celebrations, the bank computer administrators are taking a few hours to find and fix routines that don't come up right. By January 2nd, things are rolling smoothly again.

So, are there Y2K issues? Yes. Will these Y2K issues cause enormous grief? No. They are too well known. Compare Y2K to the Chicago River Flood of 1992 (A real multi-billion dollar data processing (DP) disaster that came as a real surprise. Here is a Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Flood), and Y2K is going to look like small potatoes. Y2K is going to be as exciting and surprising as a Bill Clinton court testimony.

The Y2K recession

Y2K itself won't be exciting, but as I said earlier, the worry du jour diverts resources. Billions have been spent preparing for Y2K; billions have not been spent for what happens January 2, 2000, and beyond. Not just billions of dollars, but billions in attention span and emotional feeling.

So, I predict a Y2K recession as DP budgets take a pause from Y2K mania. This may be a small recession, limited only to contract software types who now have to find other projects to put bread on the table, but it may be much bigger. I'm reminded of the Hong Kong Turnover mania in East Asia, which preceded the current Asian Flu recession we are at the end of experiencing. Before the turnover in 1997, many real estate projects were started partly on the justification that, "Hong Kong is going to have to go somewhere." When the turnover turned into a political and economic non-event, many of those projects turned sour and the collapsing of the East Asian real estate market begin in earnest.

The Y2K recession may stay small or it may trigger a larger pause. It may signal the end of the US “miracle boom” of the late nineties that has held up in spite of the Asian flu recession.

If the US economy is going to turn down, the Internet stocks will be the first to go, and they will become the symbol of the era. Soured deals in Florida real estate were the symbol of the end of the 1920's expansion in the US, and Internet stocks will be the symbol of the end of the 1990's expansion. Watch them. Remember, the market is pretty good at leading trouble by about six months. My crystal ball says: "If there's going to be big Y2K trouble in the economy, the Internet stocks should collapse in the next six months or so."

Y2K: more human than computer

Y2K, as a technology issue, is going to be a huge non-event.

As a human issue, it's going to be much more interesting. It is an end of the world issue that is resonating with a primal concern of humanity. Watching this concern express itself as Y2K mania and then watching the depressive aftermath are going to be the Y2K events worth watching.

Epilog

The Y2K mania did end in the Dot-Com bust of 2000. Sadly, the recovery was dramatically interrupted by the 9-11 Disaster, and the 2000’s were filled with War on Terror mania. One way to look upon the Great Recession that began in 2007 is that it is a “hangover” from the War on Terrorism mania.

Y2K is just one example of a mania. Human communities experience manias and hangovers quite regularly, but the participants rarely think of them in those terms. In the next chapter, Markets and Manias, I will cover this aspect of human thinking in more depth.

 

-- The End --

 

index