Y2K: How to fear the millennium

Just what we needed: something else to worry about. Weapons of mass destruction, global warming, collapsing currencies around the world -- all of that is old hat at the end of the century of the electronic mass media. So now we have the Y2K computer bug. In its most extreme form, this gets us nothing less than the collapse of civilization as we know it.

A couple of things are important to remember:

  • God has nothing to do with it. If grand millennial religious phenomena were in the cards for the 2,000th 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.

  • 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 would crash and burn.

The only “real” problems we face this year lie in the hardware and software of computer systems.

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. So we’ve spent time fixing them.

Little chance of catastrophe

Can there be catastrophic failures if not all systems are fixed properly? Of course. Will there be some? Perhaps, but if there are, I anticipate they will be few and limited in their scope.

So, OK, I’m an “expert” and I say reassuring things. Is that enough? Well, I might be wrong. The likelihood that I am very wrong is not great.

But more important, our economy is driven by advertisers and media who want our attention, and the two sure-fire ways to get our attention are to titillate us or to scare us. And Y2K is a perfect opportunity to scare people.

The biggest fear

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.

In 1974, we faced shortages of fuel and beef -- it was the talk of the nation. So Johnny Carson comes out one night and reads the joke his writers have written -- “Why, it’s gotten so bad, there’s even a toilet paper shortage!”

The supply of toilet paper was exactly what it should have been. 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. In no time at all there was a shortage.

So how does an intelligent and responsible person react to all this? By keeping three 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.

The best hope for mankind entering the 21st 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. But some people 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’m casting a “yes” vote.

Still bugged by Y2K? See “Millennium countdown.”

James J. O’Donnell, Ph.D., is professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing.

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Originally published on September 16, 1999