Y2K and the Collapse of Modern Civilization
We now know how civilization could end, and exactly when. Not with a nuclear war, not with famine, and not with pestilence. No, the collapse of civilization might be caused by a ridiculous computer error. Something bad will happen on January 1, 2000. The problem is called the "millennium bug" or "year 2000" or Y2K, K meaning 1000.
The problem began back in the 1950s when computers first came into use. Back then, believe it or not, computer users did not have TV- like monitors. The input medium was punched cards which held 80 characters. Those 80 characters were called a "record." With so few characters, the programmers squeezed as much information into a record as possible. For the year, they only put in two digits, so that 1959 was entered as 59.
Computer memories were tiny back then, and disk space was very expensive. So the dates were also stored in memory and in disks with only two digits. Records had to be as small as possible so that as many as possible could fit in memory and disks. If anybody thought of what would happen in the year 2000 when the two digits 00 would be treated as 1900, programmers and managers figured that the old program code would be long replaced with new programs.
Even after punched cards were replaced by monitor terminals, years continued to be coded with two digits because new systems had to be compatible with the old ones. Over time, computer memory expanded and disk space became ever less expensive, but few thought of the year 2000. There was a hint in 1970, when 30-year mortgages extended to 2000 and programs dealing with that had to be fixed. We are now seeing ever more signs of the problem. For example, some credit cards expiring in 2000 or later have been rejected by computer systems.
The problem will escalate in 1999 when many systems look ahead one year. But most system crashes will occur in January 2000, when software will crash, freeze, or malfunction due to the wrong date. Since January 1, 2000 is a Saturday, the problem may not be realized until Monday, January 3, the big hangover after all the big year-2000 parties.
Of course many people in government and business now know about the problem, and are spending many billions of dollars to fix it. Estimates of the global cost to reprogram or replace computer systems range up to $1 trillion. At best, Y2K will cause interruptions and a decrease in productivity as resources become devoted to repairs and replacement rather than new technology. At worst, some alarmists claim that the entire global economy will collapse as computer systems world-wide crash. They say this will be the end of civilization. Some are taking this quite seriously and are cashing out their investments. A few are even moving to remote areas away from possible chaos in the cities.
One of the problems is that many systems continue to use very old programs, and the original programmers are long gone from the field. In some cases, the written programs and documentation are missing. So it takes much time for a programmer to figure out how the program worked and where to fix the date problems. Secondly, there is now much communication among computers. Even if one company is year-2000 compliant, the computers it talks to may not be, and may pass bad data. Third, a big part of the problem consists of computer chips now embedded in many products, such as cars, televisions, machines, and military equipment.
Another worry is that many countries have only just begun to examine, let alone fix the problem. Even if the problems are mostly fixed in the US, if Europe crashes or computers in Japan don't work, trade will come to a halt. That alone could cause a global depression. Add to that satellites not working and a possible disruption of the distribution of goods, including food, and we could be in deep trouble. The problem is that parallel to the physical production and distribution of goods there is a financial counterpart: goods go one way, and money goes the other way. You buy food; the store gets money. If the financial chain is broken, the physical goods will sit there and rot. The most scary aspect is the possibility of computerized nuclear missiles malfunctioning in the U.S., Russia, and other nuclear powers. If the U.S. defense system cannot operate, there is a danger that some regimes could take advantage of the situation, such as taking over the oil fields in the Middle East.
Despite this pending possible doom, most folks are going about their business as usual. Many businesses are doing nothing, figuring they can fix the program if and when it crashes. The stock markets don't seem to reflect the problem. Are the alarmists wrong, or are we living in a fool's paradise? The problem is, nobody really knows. The year 2000 is a wild card in the global economy. It might be no worse than a bad blizzard, it might cause a minor recession, or it could be the end of civilization.
Personally, I am not yet in a panic, but I am concerned, and will watch events closely, especially during 1999. There are several web sites that are examining Y2K. I suggest not reading these in late the evening, if you want to get a good night's sleep.
Publisher's note -- here's a collection of resources on the Y2K situation, compiled by a Progress Report staff member -- try this http://www.taxpolicy.com/year2000.htm