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© 1999 Michael S. Hyatt

Ira Rifkin of Religion News Service recently wrote an article for MSNBC in which he noted that many Evangelicals had “tempered their rhetoric” about Y2K and that some had backed off their dire predictions. I was one of those whom he claimed had “modified their public pronouncements.” He said, “In The Y2K Personal Survival Guide, Hyatt said it was ‘downright impossible in my view’ for Y2K to result in anything less than major disruption. Now, he calls himself ‘a Y2K agnostic.’”

Not only is this a misquote; it is misleading. In Chapter 7 of “The Y2K Personal Survival Guide,” in discussing the need to carefully evaluate one’s location, I said, “Even if the Y2K crisis turns out to be a ‘bump in the road’ (downright impossible in my view), you might still be glad you moved away from the city.” Please note: I did not say that Y2K will be a “major disruption”; I simply said that I thought it was impossible it would be a “bump in the road.” In my view, that leaves at least two other possibilities: a middle-of-the-road scenario or an end-of-the-world scenario.

By quoting me in this way, Mr. Rifkin, made it sound like I had earlier advocated TEOTWAWKI (i.e., that Y2K would result in the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it) and then changed my perspective. If he had taken the opportunity to actually read anything of mine beyond the brief passage he cited, he would have seen that I have always considered myself a “Y2K agnostic.”

In Chapter 9 of “The Millennium Bug,” my first book, I made it absolutely clear that I do not know, nor do I believe it is possible to know, what is going to happen. I wrote,

    But there is one event that we know will come to pass: the Year 2000 Computer Crisis. This is one event we can date with absolute precision — down to the exact second it will begin. That’s a fact. What we don’t know is exactly what effect it will have on our world. Try to guess is speculation, and I will be the first to admit it (p. 161).

I then went on to outline three possible scenarios: brownout, blackout, and meltdown. Although my editor wanted me to focus on the scenario I thought was the most likely, I argued that, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, I need to give people a range of possibilities. He wasn’t entirely convinced but did acquiesce.

I reiterated this in the introduction to “The Y2K Personal Survival Guide.” There I wrote,

    I now speak several times a month on Y2K to various trade associations, businesses, and church groups. I also appear on numerous talk radio shows. … In addition, I get hundreds of e-mails a day from people visiting my website. All combined, I interact with scores of people on a weekly basis about Y2K. Without a doubt, the number one question I get is this: “So how bad do you really think it’s going to be?”

    The honest answer is: I don’t know. I get up each day hoping for good news. I browse the usual Y2K websites along with the major media, reading anywhere from 25-30 articles a day. On average, the bad news seems to outweigh the good by about 20-to-1. While it is true that we are making headway in getting computer systems repaired or replaced, it is also true that the days are slipping by more quickly than the progress being made. Perhaps — just maybe — this will turn around as the year progresses. But right now, based on what we know, I believe that we are still at risk for substantial disruptions after the first of the year (p. 3).

So, for those of you who wonder what I now believe Y2K will bring, let me articulate my view as a series of propositions:

    1. I do not know what will happen on Jan. 1 or in the months following. However, Y2K is not, nor has it ever been, about predicting the future. It is about risk management. That’s why I continue to advocate personal preparation.

    2. I do believe that the bump-in-the-road scenario is the least likely based on what most unbiased surveys continue to show. The only way you can assume that this is a likely scenario, in my opinion, is to take the self-reported data at face value and read nothing more than Y2K press releases. Whether it is the recent Senate Report on Y2K (Sept. 22) or the most recent surveys from CIO magazine (Sept. 30), Cap Gemini (Sept. 30), Weiss Ratings (Oct. 11), or Infoliant Corporation (Oct. 11), the reports all indicate that Y2K remediation is lagging, even in some of the largest organizations and in some of the most significant industries. I honestly don’t know how anyone can assess this data and be optimistic. It appears to me that it is in spite of the facts rather than because of them.

    3. I expect Y2K to be a crisis event in some locations and a chronic process everywhere. This will be true even in the good ol’ USA. Unfortunately, we don’t know where these problems will occur, how severe they will be, or how long they will last. My best guess is that things will unravel over time as corrupt data is passed from system to system and as the “domino effect” comes into play. Just what effect this will ultimately have is anyone’s guess. Jim Lord describes this as the difference between a hand grenade (a crisis event) and a termite infestation (a chronic process). Some will be hit with hand grenades; everyone will have termites.

    4. I would not jump to the conclusion that “all is well” if Jan. 1 comes and goes with few problems. The major impact of Y2K will likely be much more insidious and long-term. In other words, hang on to your prep supplies. I will not personally feel that we are “out of the woods” until we get to at least September of 2000, maybe even longer.

    5. I still have an informed hunch that Y2K is going to be a rough ride. As I said in “The Y2K Personal Survival Guide,” my family is preparing for at least a year’s worth of disruptions. I realize that not everyone can do this, and that is fine. You have to do the best you can and not worry about the rest. But in recent weeks, I have begun to think even this may not be adequate. As a result, we are re-evaluating all of our preparations and adding additional items, as we can. My greatest fear is, and always has been, the secondary effects of civil unrest, domestic terrorism, and international war.

    6. I would be delighted to be wrong in my assessment. I pray every day that Y2K ends up being nothing more than a bump-in-the-road. But, as I have also said ad nauseam regarding preparedness, it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

    7. I believe it is foolish and irresponsible to tell people they do not need to prepare. Ultimately, people have to ask themselves the question: “What is the price of being wrong?” If I prepare for Y2K and it ends up being nothing more than an inconvenience then I will have emergency supplies that I can use for any crisis. On the other hand, if I do nothing to prepare and Y2K ends up being a significant crisis, I will have endangered myself and my loved ones. I prefer to hope for the best and plan for the near-worst.

In summary, I do not think my view has changed. It has matured, to be sure, and I think I better understand the long-term implications of Y2K than when I first began my research. But I do not think that I have “backed off my rhetoric” or “changed my tune.” I still believe that Y2K poses a significant risk to our way of life and is something every person should prepare for to the extent of their understanding and available resources.

Finally, I honestly do not know why some evangelical leaders are reversing their positions — if, in fact, they are. Perhaps they are feeling the pressure of their peers in the evangelical establishment. Perhaps they don’t want to be embarrassed if they are wrong. Or perhaps they are honestly afraid that they may indirectly contribute to a public panic if they hold their position. Regardless, I think they are premature to assume that the crisis has passed and there is nothing left to fear but fear itself. Very little that I am reading would indicate that this is so. I think the far greater danger is complacency — something that could be devastating if they are wrong.

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