09/14/98

Part One of a Five-Part Series

Once in a Millennium: The Year 2000 Problem
by Yi-Hsin Chang (TMF Puck)


This Feature

Part 1
A Problem, Not Armageddon

Part 2
The Source of Y2K Doomsaying

Part 3
What the Y2K Problem Actually Is

Part 4
How Companies Are Working to Fix It

Part 5
The Problem is Y2K Hype, Not Software

Y2K Message Board
Features Archive

Y2K Posts

Read what other Fools are saying about the Y2K problem and post your comments on our board.

We should've all listened to Prince when he sang "1999" in 1982. Long before millennialists and Year 2000 (Y2K) consultants started creeping out of the woodwork, the artist formerly known as Prince foresaw the challenges of the problem computers would have with the number 2000: "Oh, they say two thousand zero zero party over, oops out of time. We're runnin' outta time. So tonight we gonna party like it's 1999."

Prince predicted the sky would be all purple and people would be running everywhere, but that's mild compared with some of the doomsday Y2K scenarios being propagated today. The cover of the March 2 issue of Business Week warned: "ZAP! How the Year 2000 Bug Will Hurt the Economy (It's worse than you think)." Books on the Y2K problem have such titles as The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos, Time Bomb 2000, and The Computer Time Bomb: How to Keep the Century Data Change From Killing Your Organization. Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Ed Yardeni says there's a 70% chance that the Y2K bug will cause a severe global recession.

One Y2K alarmist, Gary North, has dedicated his website to the Y2K problem. He calls the Year 2000 "the year the Earth stands still" and Y2K the biggest problem the modern world has ever faced. He believes that computer programmers will soon quit their jobs in the cities and head for safer, rural places, and that stock markets around the world will crash months before January 1, 2000. North, who isn't a programmer and whose doctorate is in history, predicts that at midnight on that fateful day, "most of the world's mainframe computers will either shut down or begin spewing out bad data."

It's no wonder that some folks have been scared into packing up and heading for the hills or at least preparing for daily life without basic necessities such as electricity and water. Y2K "survivalist" Ed Yourdon, author of Time Bomb 2000, recently moved from New York to a solar-powered outpost in rural New Mexico. Rev. Steve Wilkins of Monroe, Louisiana, recently bought a water purifier and a small mill to grind wheat into flour, and tells his church members to pare down debt and maybe plant a vegetable garden. Pastor Robert Andrews and his wife from the Seattle area left their house unsold and relocated to eastern Washington, and are fixing up a farmhouse and working on a 50-by-100-foot garden.

Grassroots organization The Cassandra Project gives detailed instructions for preparing for the Year 2000. Here's a short list of the things you'll need: enough cash to support you and your family for six to eight weeks; canned and dried foods; bulk quantities of wheat, corn, beans, and salt; 360 gallons of drinkable water (for a family of four); toiletries; candles and hurricane lamps; and a CB radio and/or Family Channel walkie-talkie. The aforementioned Gary North advises also getting copies of your birth certificate and school transcripts and making hard copy printouts of all your insurance records and government related transactions. An organizer of the Concerned Christians for Christ Preparedness Group sums it up this way: "Gold, guns, groceries, and God -- the four Gs of Y2K."

Software problems aside, the Year 2000 is itself culturally significant. First of all, the dawn of a new millennium occurs only once every, well, 1,000 years -- even if this one doesn't technically begin until 2001. Plus we are culturally predisposed to like zeros. We round off numbers, and we even derive a strange thrill from watching a car odometer reach 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, etc. We confer a special status on birthdays and anniversaries that are a multiple of five or 10. It's a big deal when you turn 30, 40, or 50 but for some reason not so much so when you hit 31, 46 or 52.

In addition, in Christian tradition there's a belief that the end of the millennium will be The End -- the apocalypse. That's why Prince refers to 1999 as judgment day and sings that we can't run from revelation or destruction. It's also why Hollywood has been cranking out apocalyptic movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact. Robert Andrews, the Seattle-area pastor-turned-farmer, says that if God misses 2000 to judge, "He will have missed a great opportunity."

While the Y2K problem is a real problem with real consequences that needs to be -- and, in fact, is being -- addressed, it is not a Black Plague that threatens to send us back to the Dark Ages. Despite what the doomsayers and millennialists would have you believe, the Year 2000 problem will be more of a glitch than a blunder. Come January 1, 2000, we will no doubt be annoyed and inconvenienced by Y2K-related problems, but we won't be living in darkness scrounging for scraps of food.

Next: Part 2 -- Consider the Source
Why the doomsayers and moneymakers may be one in the same

Other articles by Yi-Hsin Chang (TMF Puck):
-- The Color of Money
-- A Closer Look: Gap Inc.
-- Market of Stocks