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The End of the World

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

A strange new illness has been going around lately. It seems to be affecting many normal and otherwise healthy individuals, and there is reason to believe that it is highly contagious. It goes by the name of "the millennium bug," and those who succumb to its ravages share a unique set of symptoms. Telltale signs of affliction include a permanently furrowed brow, cryptic, abbreviated speech and an overwhelming need to go camping. Many people also report struggling with uncontrollable impulses to close checking accounts, buy gold and silver, stockpile batteries and store powdered food.

The condition is expected to reach pandemic proportion on January 1, 2000. This is the day, according to a group of cyber-pundits, when a whole series of digital disasters are going to occur. Power sources will fail, airplanes will crash, banks will close and the world will be plunged into the depths of calamity. And to think it is all because the pocket-protector crowd was too lazy to include four digit years when designing the software that is used to control utilities, commerce, finance, government and dating services in the United States and throughout the globe. These technological prodigies had the capacity to invent everything from the laser printer to the World Wide Web, but apparently they forgot that the number 2000 comes after 1999. Now computers are unable to distinguish whether the beginning of the next century is actually the restarting of this one. Prognosticators woefully predict that the confused circuitry will either malfunction or freeze up.

No doubt, the extent of this problem is sizable, but the fallout may not be as apocalyptic as some might suggest. The idea of a massive, multi-state power failure is highly unlikely. Most electricity is routed manually. If an overload is detected on a line, the system automatically shuts down. Similar to the breakers and fuses that protect a home from catastrophe, these industrial safety mechanisms don't care what year it is. In the case of electric utility companies, date coding plays only a minor role in the production of electricity, but it is crucial to the metering of usage. This gives the power companies great incentive to solve the problem so that they can collect their money.

Dire predictions concerning the airline and finance industries are also exaggerated. Large banking institutions and security firms have been moving steadily towards a solution to the problem. Expenditures have been underestimated, though. When it comes to assessing overall costs for Year 2000 conversions, only three percent of companies are on target.

Worldwide estimates for Year 2000 expenses is greater than $1.3 trillion ­ equivalent to about sixteen percent of the U.S. gross national product for 1997. The potential effects on the economy are real and serious.

One member of Congress considers the problem to be at least as important as teen smoking. Representative James Leach has introduced a new bill in the House of Representatives that would compel the Clinton administration to take immediate action to help mitigate the millennium bug damage. The legislation would require a comprehensive assessment on how potentially crucial private industries are dealing with the problem. Government agencies too would have to provide periodic reports to the public detailing their progress. Most people would just as soon have the IRS take its sweet time. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.

It is encouraging to know that such efforts are being made by our representatives, but we have to question why this concern wasn't addressed a bit earlier ­ like some time during the 1980s?

Despite the fact that many of the victims of the Y2K disease are prone to exaggeration, they may have provided a valuable service. The worst case scenarios that are being disseminated may motivate industry and government to take the whole issue seriously. An economic recession, or perhaps a series of troublesome, albeit temporary, system failures, could quite possibly mar the advent of the 21st century. While we need not panic or despair, likewise we cannot afford to sit back and wait for Bill Gates to fix things. After all, no one wants to see the world end in this way. No bang. No whimper. Just a little ol' error message.

Copyright © 1999 -
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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