I have resisted writing about the possibilities of a massive computer calamity associated with the Year 2000 for good reason. I freely admit I simply don’t know how serious the problems are. I don’t want to be a fear-monger. I surely don’t want to make predictions of doom and gloom that are laughed at only 18 months from now.
Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the potential exists for unprecedented economic, political and social upheaval due to the Y2K bug. I have been unable to find any responsible, informed expert who will state with assurance that the threat has been grossly exaggerated and that there is no cause for alarm. Not to notice the warning signs, one literally has to bury his head in the sand.
“A global financial crash, nuclear meltdowns, hospital life-support system shutdowns, a collapse of the air-traffic system are possible without proper attention now,” explained a sobering New York Times story more than a year ago. Government and industry have spent hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, since then, yet no solution appears to be in sight.
Last summer, Newsweek carried a cover story titled, “The Day the World Shut Down: Can We Fix the 2000 Computer Bug Before It’s Too Late?”
“Drink deep from your champagne glass as the ball drops in Times Square to usher in the year 2000,” the story read. “Whether you imbibe or not, the hangover may begin immediately. The power may go out. Or the credit card you pull out to pay for dinner may no longer be valid. If you try an ATM for cash, that may not work, either. Or the elevator that you took up to the party ball room may be stuck on the ground floor. Or the parking garage you drove into earlier in the evening may charge you more than your yearly salary. Or your car may not start. Or the traffic lights might be on the blink. Or, when you get home, the phones may not work. The mail may show up, but magazine subscriptions will have stopped, your government check may not arrive, your insurance policies may have expired.”
Or all of this and more could happen simultaneously. How many of us are prepared for such an ordeal?
For those, like me, just beginning to comprehend the potential nightmare scenario that lies ahead, the problem stems from a fateful decision about 30 years ago by computer programmers trying to save disk space while writing mainframe software. They designed year codes as two-digit entries — “67″ instead of “1967.” Since then, millions of computers worldwide have been similarly programmed.
Because computers are only designed to do what they are programmed to do, many will recognize the year 2000 as 1900. Others will revert to 1980 or 1984. Unless codes are rewritten, every non-compliant mainframe computer around the world — about five of every six, right now — will shut down.
More and more experts are saying the problem is unsolvable. There just is not enough time to rewrite all the codes.
Worse yet, the problems will begin long before Dec. 31, 1999. One date to watch is July 1, 1998. That’s the first day of the fiscal year 1999 in 46 of the 50 states. Another key date is Sept. 1, 1998, the beginning of the fiscal 1999 calendar for the federal government. The next date is Jan. 1, 1999, when the first data and software failures globally are expected.
Another biggie is Sept. 9, 1999 — or 9-9-99. Programmers have used this code to store a wide variety of files. Some shortsighted programmers used 9999 to denote infinity, others have used it to trigger a computer test for shut down.
But the most significant “test” will occur on Jan. 1, 2000. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that modern civilization, as we know it, will cease to exist — at least temporarily. Power grids, telephone service, all the necessities and conveniences of modern life may suddenly be rendered undependable, if not useless.
With all this in mind, I recently watched one of those old “cult classic” movies called “Panic in the Year Zero,” starring and directed by Ray Milland. While computers weren’t a part of everyday life in America when the film was made, it focuses on a more familiar threat — nuclear war and its devastating aftermath.
In that film, society is so wracked by disaster that the decision is made to reset the global calendar, as families, communities and nations begin putting the pieces back together.
Could this be the way freedom is extinguished in America and throughout the world — not with a bang of a nuclear blast, but with the tick of a clock? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question. But it’s certainly a possibility worth considering, praying about and planning for by every freedom-loving person in the world.