Y2K: Connecting the Dots, the Dates, and the Data

By Tooker Gomberg, Edmonton, Alberta.

If the Millennium Bug bites, we could be in real trouble. We would be wise to consider contingency plans sometime soon.

Now that the solstice has passed and the new year is upon us, have you hung a new calendar on the wall? Note the last day – Friday, December 31, ’99 – and imagine beyond that to the new millennium.

As I ponder moving into the year 2000, I reflect on three characters that recently have shaken me deep in my consciousness: Y2K. Together, they stand for ‘year two thousand’ and represent a potent computer bug that may cause rippling, unpredictable effects around the globe.

It now seems possible that the year two thousand computer problem (a.k.a. Y2K) may destabilize computers and computerized devices around the world as the new millennium dawns early on January 1, 2000. Given that computers are woven into the very fabric of our techno-society, programs that go wonky or chips that malfunction could mean the elevators won’t work. Or your computer might crash. Or buses and trains may not function. Or worse. Electric utilities may not operate. Could we, in Edmonton, keep warm through the dead of winter without electricity or natural gas for heat?

Flash back a few decades. In order to save the expense of additional memory, computer programmers wrote the date in shorthand: 82 meant 1982. But some computer programs, and some pre-programmed computer chips, will become unreliable when the year 00 rolls around. Some will think it is 1900 and freeze up; others will keep going thinking it is 1900 or 2000. Some industries that have been testing for Y2K realized that disasters could happen. But what may happen is unknown.

In a society where just about everything relies on computers, from the growing and delivery of food to the electricity, gas, water, and sewer systems, it starts to look like we had better get organized over the next 52 weeks. As a Boy Scout in my youth, I learned the motto ‘Be Prepared’. That would be a reasonable response to a possible catastrophe.

Flash back to 1912. The Captain and crew of the Titanic knew there were icebergs in the vicinity, but they could not imagine that the ship could sink. They were so confident that only half the necessary lifeboats were brought along.

Lloyd’s of London insured the Titanic believing that the chance of it sinking was one in a million. They learned their lesson the hard way. Today Lloyds of London won’t insure any vessel that doesn’t have a certificate proving Y2K compliance. In fact, many insurance companies that ensure against business interruption won’t offer Y2K coverage due to perceived risks.

Flash back one year to January 1998. Lucky for Montrealers that when the ice storm hit there were ‘lifeboats’ available; people from around the country were able to pitch in. But even so, many thousands of people had to do without electricity for weeks. My Dad, who lives in Montreal, tells me that “when the power goes out you are literally thrown back into a different age, and you’re not prepared for it. Your house becomes a burden. You can’t prepare food, and you couldn’t go out to a restaurant.”

Flash forward a year. What if the whole region, the nation, the world teeters on a computer glitch? Maybe very little will happen, but how trusting are you that the system is invulnerable? Billions and billions of dollars are already being spent around the world to try to repair the computers, yet nobody believes that all the problems will be corrected in time. Consider:

* “More than one-third of the most important (government) systems won’t be fixed in time” – U.S. House Panel Y2K report, September 1998.
* Perhaps due to the trauma of the Quebec ice storm, that province recently announced that they will spend $725 million over the next year to try to prevent computers from crashing in 2000.
* The Canadian army has a Y2K plan they call “Operation Abacus” where they would offer support as they do during a natural catastrophe.
* Due to Y2K concerns, Canada’s RCMP will not allow vacations from late December ’99 to the middle of March 2000.

Maybe the computers are, in a strange way, telling us something: if we quickly learned to behave like it WAS the year 1900 then there could hardly be a catastrophe. Can we re-learn how to become self sufficient? If necessary, can we shut down industry and technology step by step? If we can’t imagine doing that, we have forgotten Union Carbide’s catastrophe in Bhopal, India. And we are trying to ignore all those nuclear weapons sitting on hair-trigger alerts.

It seems a good time to get organized. With just 52 weeks to go, there is little time to waste. Now is the time to hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.

Concerned people can begin gathering, sharing information, and planning responses. Utilities can be prodded for accurate and detailed accounting of their Y2K preparedness. Knowing what may fail can help us to collectively prepare contingency plans.

Alternative systems for water, food, heat, shelter and the like can be considered as discussions start on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis.

Around North America, ‘community preparedness’ groups are springing up. Last Sunday, thirty Edmontonians including computer folks, parents, youth, and professionals, held an impromptu meeting to begin discussing the issue. We considered ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most wanted more information. Some had blind faith, or hope, that someone would take care of the problem. Most felt that preparing now could have positive ripple effects. The community coming together to prepare could help shape the pieces of a better society.

All seemed to feel that doing something, anything, was better than nothing. The group will continue to meet, and a public meeting will take place soon at City Hall. A group calling itself the Edmonton Y2K Community Task Force, modelled after a group in Santa Cruz, California was born to help provide information and to catalyze a community based response (phone: (403-988-4830).

Of course, all the preparations may be for naught, and if we’re lucky come January we will be calmly munching on the carrots and cucumbers we canned in our snug, warm kitchens. And we could chuckle about the needless worry we went through. If that happens, we will still have stronger communities and we’ll better know our neighbhours. And we will have a much greater appreciation of the vulnerability of the complex, interconnected technologies we have come to rely upon to help keep us alive.

Futurist and author Robert Theobald writes: “Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem using the consciousness that created it. Grasping this reality is central to our success or failure in dealing with Y2K. We need to learn to work with each other creatively across the boundaries which normally keep us apart. This is the true challenge of Y2K.”