New World

Y2K all over

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


recently did some consulting for a small organization, helping it plot out its strategy for the next decade. When I asked about Y2K plans, one of the people I was speaking with laughed and rolled her eyes. "Y2K is nothing but a scam for computer companies to make more money."

I wish she was right. She was quite wrong, however -- Y2K is very real. Unfortunately, she's not alone in her thinking, and people around the world are going to suffer because of it.

The Year 2000 Bug will affect different countries in different ways. The Gartner Group, a US-based market and technology research firm, recently came out with a report detailing the level of Y2K compliance around the world, based on surveys of over 10,000 companies and government organizations. The results were neither surprising nor encouraging. Much of the world has decided that Y2K is not worth the time nor the effort to fix.

The United States and many (but not all) European countries were given "Level 1" ratings, indicating that, in the estimate of the Gartner Group, Year 2000 problems would be isolated and relatively minor. Other relatively advanced industrial countries, including Japan and Germany, were given "Level 2" ratings, suggesting moderate problems and some disruption of official services. Industrializing countries, such as the Czech Republic and South Africa, were assigned a "Level 3" grade, meaning that brownouts and air traffic control problems might occur, as well as severe breakdowns of official services. The lowest rating, "Level 4", went to countries such as China and Russia, which could expect to see widespread loss of power and the failure of governmental services.

[For those of you just hearing about this, Y2K is the computer problem where some computing systems mishandle dates by only using two digits instead of four: "2000" becomes "00", which is then treated as "1900". Two digit dates can be found in computers ranging from big company mainframes to small "embedded system" chips. The consequences of Y2K errors vary from minor errors all the way to total system failures.]

The Gartner ratings only take into account the degree to which Y2K has been taken seriously by the various countries, not the level to which those nations are dependent upon computers. The Los Angeles Times reports that Vietnam, for example, only has 400,000 computers in the entire country; although it received a "Level 4" rating, Y2K should only be a minor bump for most Vietnamese. In Afghanistan, which also received a Level 4, Y2K will be barely noticed in the noise of the Taliban and the 20 year old civil war.

China and Russia will be another story. Both are increasingly dependent upon computers, but both also make heavy use of older, outdated equipment. Even worse is the fact that only now are Russia and China waking up to the possibility that major portions of their infrastructure could fail on January 1, 2000, including computers controlling military warning and response systems (to head off the remote possibility of accidental nuclear war, the US has offered to let Russian and Chinese observers in the "war room" on New Year's Eve). Both countries will be facing the distinct possibility of power and transportation outages lasting for days or weeks in the dead of winter.

As troubling as the technical issues are, Y2K is as much about perceptions as it is about software.

If you plot the Gartner report findings on a map, you'd see that the bulk of the countries that aren't ready for Y2K are in East Asia. Even Japan, nearly as heavily computerized as the US, is a "Level 2" country, and should expect to see some moderate problems. The problem here is that many of the first countries to see the new year will also be the countries hardest hit by the Year 2000 bug.

Late last year, the United States announced that it would be setting up monitors in major cities in every time zone around the world to report on Y2K-related problems as the clock strikes midnight. This must have seemed like a good idea at the time -- an early warning system to let people know how bad Y2K will really be. But the fact that Beijing and New Delhi, for example, will be hit harder than London or New York (or even Jo'burg, for that matter) isn't taken into account in that sort of reasoning. If Y2K is bad in Asia, the monitor reports could end up simply building the worldwide panic in an inexorable, hour-by-hour crawl.

The reality of Y2K is that it will not affect different regions of the world equally. Third world countries with little computerization will get by fine; the US and some of Europe, deeply computerized but actively fixing Y2K problems, will also likely make it through Y2K more or less intact. The countries that will be in trouble are those that have been attempting to leap into the 21st century by introducing computers into the workplace and government, but have not had the financial resources to upgrade and repair them.

Come January 1st, we'll all know just how bad Y2K really is. Some economists are predicting a worldwide depression as a result. Most admit that they simply don't know. Hopefully, when the clock strikes midnight, we'll have a good laugh at how worried we were, raise a glass to the people sitting at their posts keeping things working, and then all get right back to celebrating.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - June 09, 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.



* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online
* Mish Middelman: Dr Byte


* Comments to Jamais Cascio
* Jamais Cascio homepage


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