It Aint Over Till Its Over
Illustration by Bob AulCecil Adams once noted there are two kinds of silence: suspicious and embarrassed. As the world rumbles along in the wake of an almost disappointingly calm New Year's Eve, it's actually difficult to tell which variety Y2K doomsayers are currently exhibiting. Maybe both.
These are, after all, the people who have been predicting the end of the world would come Dec. 31, 1999, that when the clock ticked over to midnight around the world, computers would crash, the electricity would go out, cars would fail, heat would vanish, planes would plummet from the sky like rocks, and civilization would collapse back into barbarism. All before dawn on Jan. 1.
In point of fact, none of that happened, although come to think of it, I was at a party at a friend's house when the cable TV suddenly went out at 12:03 a.m. But that was the worst of it. Russia's nuclear reactors hummed right along, allaying fears of a second (and third, and fourth . . .) Chernobyl. The United States and Russia failed to fire nuclear missiles at each other. Japan and Italy, considered among the worst-prepared First World countries, exhibited nary a stumble. By the time midnight hit North America, it was almost anticlimactic.
So one has to wonder: What are all the Art Bells, Ed Yourdons and Gary Norths going to do now that their disaster scenario has fizzled so dramatically? It's a little like standing on the hilltop after the spaceship that was going to take you and your followers to a distant planet failed to materialize, trying to figure out what you're going to say next. Not to mention there are probably a lot of cranky people out there who took your advice and are currently sitting on a generator and two tons of freeze-dried food, wondering what the hell they're gong to do with it all.
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North, the Chicken Little of TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It) crowd, has gone with the "we're not out of the woods yet" approach, a popular one among those doomsayer sites that are acknowledging Y2K's non-event. "We got through the weekend," North wrote on Jan. 3. "Phones and power plants stayed up. Now we will see how the strategy of 'fix on failure' works with small businesses. We will see what noncompliant spreadsheets do for business efficiency and cash flow. We will see how well pre-1998 PCs work."
Fretting about spreadsheets and PCs is a far cry from North's original scenario, in which he predicted that precisely at midnight, most of the world's mainframe computers would shut down or start producing bad data and computer chips would shut down, creating, as he put it, "a nightmare for every area of life in every region of the industrialized world."
Computer consultant Yourdon, co-author of Time Bomb 2000, also has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, although he's considerably less grouchy about the world not ending than North seems to be. And for that, we should give him full credit —this is a man, after all, who in preparation for Y2K sold his apartment in New York, liquidated his stock holdings, and moved his entire family to northern New Mexico to avoid the rioting that was sure to take place on Jan. 1.
"In my opinion, Y2K isn't over," Yourdon posted on his site (www.yourdon.com) on Jan. 1. "I'm less worried than I was 24 hours ago, and I'm delighted that things have worked out so well, so far. My family is delighted that they won't be subjected to a diet of tuna fish and rice, but I'm going to hold on to that food for a while. We do actually get three-day winter snowstorms from time to time, and the power occasionally goes out even without Y2K as the explanation. I have no regrets or apologies for the preparations I made, or the precautions I took—no more so than I regret the money I spent last year on automobile insurance, health insurance and fire insurance, none of which turned out to be necessary."
Other Y2K prophets of doom are so far maintaining a dignified silence. Utne Reader, that bastion of progressive thinking, published a guide to Y2K back in December 1998 loaded with disaster-speak, apocalyptic scenarios and weak assurances that it would all work out okay as long as we gathered around the campfire at the end of the day and sang "Kumbaya." To my mind, it was one of the more irresponsible instances of journalism throughout the Y2K buildup, filled with the opinions of such pessimists as Paloma O'Riley, founder of the Y2K-prep Cassandra Project, and scaring the bejesus out of its many Birkenstock-clad readers.
The Utne Reader's Y2K site (www.utne.com/y2k) still contains headlines along the lines of "Despite Efforts, Organizers Say Few Prepared for Y2K Disruption," "Y2K Problems More Severe in Minority Colleges" and (my favorite) "Last-Minute Y2K Tips From a Cub Scout Mom." Nothing along the lines of, say, "Y2K Proves Big Flop" or "Utne to Readers: 'Oops.'"
Likewise, the Y2K Family Survival Center (www.virtualvoyage.com/y2k/home.htm) still insists, in big red capital letters, "NON-COMPLIANT COMPUTERS WILL BREAK DOWN JANUARY 1, 2000. . . . If you think Y2K is not a threat to your family, consider that no power company is compliant, no railroad is compliant, no bank is compliant, and no phone company is compliant."
In fairness, most disaster scenarios look silly in retrospect, and the more lurid they were, the dumber they seem. Indeed, the discrepancy between what had been predicted and what actually happened was so vast that a number of people have gone overboard and started muttering into their beards that the whole thing was a massive hoax, a profit-making scam for programmers.
Peter de Jager, the technology journalist whom many credit with awakening the world to the Y2K problem, addresses these suspicions on his Y2K Information Center site (www.year2000.com). "The irony is that our sole goal was to avoid all problems," he wrote on the site. "The greater our success, the more 'evidence' we will provide to the critics to help them 'prove' that Y2K was an illusion. Why was there no chaos? Because programmers and managers around the world rose to the challenge and did their best to solve this potential problem before it became a reality.
"I wish you a happy New Year," he concluded, "compliments of programmers around the world."
Break the silence to Wyn at email@example.com.
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