Year 2000 bug proves technology won't save us


BOSTON -- Finally, I have caught the millennium bug. This is not, as you might imagine, a feverish desire to be in some exotic place on the Saturday night we turn 2000. I do not intend to be circling the arctic in a jet sipping champagne. In fact, due to the bug, I expect to be home under the covers.

The bug that is going around is also known as the Year 2000 Problem or just "Y2K." It's a technological glitch that has millions of souls worrying about a computer apocalypse.

Massive crash

When the digital clock strikes midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, at the very ++ least, assorted hard drives will celebrate by crashing. At the very worst, the international economy will collapse.

It appears that our technological visionaries had a visual problem. They couldn't see as far as their millennial noses.

In a desire to save a couple of bytes, they used the last two digits of the year instead of all four. May 22, 1968, was coded as 5/22/68. So when we hit the turn of the century, our older software won't know if it's 2000 or 1900.

Day of reckoning

Many computers, we are told, will go into catatonic shock. Telephones and lights may go dead. Robots may quit work altogether. And at least one executive for Barclay's Bank is talking about "buying candles, tinned food and bottled water." I don't even want to think about the programs governing our ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he was hiring an extra 20,000 computer programmers as "bug busters." And in this country, officials figure it will cost $2.3 billion just to fix the federal government's computer systems.

All this could give anyone a bad, bad flu. But what has given me the vapors is this: Our greatest technological minds, the very nerds in whom we trust our hard disks and our future, the people who are assigned to be leaders in the 21st century, didn't apparently notice something rather, well, obvious.

I mean, the millennium is not a wholly surprising event. The Year 2000 won't sneak up on us, or jump out from behind some Gregorian calendar. We had awhile to prepare. Nevertheless, with a mere 19 months to go, we are just now coping with the fact that the number 1999 is followed by 2000.

My sense is that the millennial bug is in fact part of the great American planning disease. This is a country in which a long-range economic plan on Wall Street is a quarterly report. Planning is positively un-American.

It's not just that we are nearsighted. It's that we prefer to improvise. The much vaunted American optimism, the can-do spirit also leads us to believe that we can-fix. And at the last minute.

The Boy Scout ethic is "Be Prepared." But in fact, being prepared has always come across as a bit dorky. The more romantic, the more heroic, the more dashing style is to pull out a victory, a rescue operation at the very last minute -- on the brink of disaster.

This is the myth nurtured throughout our culture in everything from Superman to Star Wars. It was the theme of World War II victory movies and patriotic egotism. Americans don't have to worry about getting into a pickle because we can always get out of it.

Last-ditch effort

Today we remain far too cheerful in the belief that technology can save us from the troubles technology got us into. There is a sort of sanguine sense, for example, that we don't really have to worry about using up fossil fuels because we will come up with an alternative. We don't really have to worry about global warming because when things get bad enough, we'll just fix it.

Now, however, we are beginning to reckon the cost of cleaning up the mistakes of our relatively recent forebears. Deep in the electronic legacy there's a bug. It's all enough to make anyone nostalgic for the good old days.

But not to worry. On that Jan. 1, we may get a chance to start this century all over again.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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