The Y2K Problem Challenges All of Us

On January 1, 2000, many computer software programs and embedded microchips, programmed to identify the year by its last two digits, will think it is 1900, causing date-driven computations to fail and computer-reliant systems to malfunction or shut down. In fact, current systems that perform post-2000 forecasting on transactions have already begun to experience failures. If these “year 2000” or “Y2K” problems are not remedied, the disruptions that result could range from delays in airplane flights to interruptions of phone services to business bankruptcies to power failures, to global recession and civil unrest.

A few short months ago, I did not understand that this seemingly trivial computer programming glitch could have such devastating social and economic consequences. Like so many other people, I assumed that the problem could be fixed easily by technological experts and that it had limited relevance to my work. Y2K wasn’t my problem.

It is a major understatement to say that I was wrong. Y2K is my problem and yours. Without our fully realizing it, computer systems have become integral to almost every aspect of our lives, whether or not we use computers ourselves. Computer programs and microchips in our country and throughout the world are increasingly part of interconnected systems, so that if one fails, the effects may rapidly cascade and multiply.

Computer scientists and engineers offer no silver bullet for solving the Y2K problem. In fact, they are the first to admit that we have neither sufficient time nor enough personnel to identify, assess, repair, replace, or “work around” the billions of lines of defective code and date-sensitive microchips prior to January 1, 2000. In October 1998, expert testimony by the Gartner Group (to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem) and oversight findings by the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information & Technology have lent credence to this view. As the House report states, “It is now clear that a large number of Federal computer systems simply will not be prepared for January 1, 2000. At the same time, the utilities industry, the financial services industry, the telecommunications industry, vital modes of transportation, and other indispensable industrial sectors are all at risk.”

Offshore oil rigs, for example, won’t be able to pump oil if they experience the failure of a critical microchip, one of thousands embedded throughout such facilities, including equipment far below the surface of the ocean. Supertankers, refineries, pipelines, and railroads won’t be able to produce and transport oil-based products if they aren’t Y2K compliant. Power plants (without even considering their own Y2K problems) can’t function without petroleum or coal. And your car won’t run without gasoline. Of course, if your local gas station does get a delivery, you still have to get the gasoline out of the underground tanks into your car. If the electric power goes down, the pumps won’t work. If telecommunications fail, the pumps won’t recognize your credit card. But you get the point. We have created a world in which every system is six software programs or microchips removed from every other system.

The United States is ahead of almost every other country in the world in dealing with the Y2K problem, in part through the efforts of my good friend John Koskinen and the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion, which Koskinen chairs. But even the federal government and private corporations, which are in the vanguard, are doing triage by focusing only on their own “mission critical” problems. As the report cards handed out by Congressman Horn’s subcommittee have made clear, there is a great disparity in how well different government agencies are doing. The Social Security Administration, for example, started fixing its code in 1991 and has a good chance of being Y2K compliant by the millennium. But Medicare has virtually no chance of being ready. The elderly who rely on Medicare will face the year 2000 not knowing when they will receive their next check. Similar delays can be expected in income-support payments.


Like the federal government, large corporations have already spent billions of dollars and years of person-hours of effort in order to fix their systems. But even those corporations that are furthest along in the process must worry about their suppliers, customers, and local infrastructure systems.

Surveys teach us that failures within the United States are most likely with small and medium businesses and at the county and municipal levels of government. On the international level, many developing countries, most Middle Eastern countries, and Russia, China, India, Thailand, Argentina, and Venezuela are far behind.

There is an enormous amount of uncertainty about the nature of the failures to come, the seriousness of dislocations, and how long it will take to correct them. However, the probability of substantial failures is sufficiently great that careful attention must be given to how we prepare for the date. So, while we must accelerate our efforts to remediate what we can in the time remaining, we must also focus on ways to respond to a world that on January 1, 2000, may look different and more threatening than the world to which we have become accustomed.

The first thing we must do, both individually and societally, is to resist the powerful urge to engage in “us versus them” thinking and to worry exclusively about ourselves and our immediate families. People who are learning how to use automatic weapons and going out into the desert to wait out the Y2K crisis are not only acting immorally, in my view, but are living a fantasy. There aren’t enough weapons or a desert big enough if we all decide to look out only for ourselves. Isolationism is just as dangerous on the international level because we depend on many foreign companies and countries for critical products and resources.

Some wonderful examples of communities coming together to meet Y2K challenges have begun to emerge throughout the country. For inspiration, go to the Cassandra Project web site (www.cassandraproject.org) or to the web sites of specific communities such as Lowell, Massachusetts; Northern Virginia; Tucson, Arizona; and Santa Cruz, California; and the many equally helpful sites that are springing up on an almost daily basis. But we must also begin to take a look at how our larger society, not just the local neighborhood or community, can respond to the Y2K crisis.

This is a time for each of us not only to help our own local communities pull together but also to try to revive the idea of “public citizenship.” By public citizenship I mean taking responsibility not only for the people who live close to us or who are our natural kindred spirits, but for those vulnerable and politically powerless people and countries who so often go “unseen” and neglected. In this highly interdependent world we have created, their problems are, in fact, our problems.

Thus, public citizenship is essential to meeting the Y2K challenge. We must work together to increase public awareness about Y2K. We must identify systems critical to the larger society, such as access to health services and protection of the environment, and make the necessary Y2K preparations that will safeguard these systems. In all our efforts, we must pay particular attention to assuring essential services for the poor and vulnerable. (See “What Public Citizen’s Can Do about the Y2K Crisis,” on page 36. –ed.)


This is a time for each of us not only to help our own local communities pull together but also to try to revive the idea of “public citizenship.” By public citizenship I mean taking responsibility not only for the people who live close to us or who are our natural kindred spirits, but for those vulnerable and politically powerless people and countries who so often go “unseen” and neglected. In this highly interdependent world we have created, their problems are, in fact, our problems.

Thus, public citizenship is essential to meeting the Y2K challenge. We must work together to increase public awareness about Y2K. We must identify systems critical to the larger society, such as access to health services and protection of the environment, and make the necessary Y2K preparations that will safeguard these systems. In all our efforts, we must pay particular attention to assuring essential services for the poor and vulnerable. (See “What Public Citizen’s Can Do about the Y2K Crisis,” on page 36.–ed.)

We need to know how much of our national infrastructure is ready for Y2K. We can’t fix critical problems or plan work-arounds without such information. Accordingly, all of us need to press businesses and governments for much more openness about the state of their Y2K compliance efforts. We need to know about the risks associated with the failure of embedded chips in hospital medical devices and systems, and breakdowns of the supply chain for life-preserving pharmaceuticals. We need to know the Y2K status of key infrastructure components in our localities, such as transportation and firefighting systems. We need to develop contingency plans for possible failures in power grids, in communications systems, in water and food supply networks, and in solid waste disposal.

We must make contingency plans to address some of the “worst-case” scenarios if we hope to be able to mitigate them. Community organizing efforts led by churches, synagogues, schools, and other local institutions, for instance, could consider setting up emergency relief centers, complete with supplies of food, water, and blankets, as well as backup generators and fuel. Such relief centers might help members of the public feel protected against freezing or starving in the event of a major infrastructure breakdown. If people are aware that such relief centers and plans exist, they will have the confidence to remain calm and can help prevent or minimize the risk of civil disorder that could follow from hoarding and other individual/exclusive behaviors, rather than community/inclusive responses to infrastructure breakdowns.

We must be citizens of the world and participate in setting global priorities–identifying and attending to those Y2K-related risks that threaten us with global disruption and massive damage to public health and the natural world. At the top of the list should be nuclear power plants and other ultra-hazardous processes such as toxic chemicals and weapons systems.

Obviously, no individual or group can solve the Y2K challenge alone. Each of us must take responsibility, individually and collectively. The Y2K crisis requires collaboration among neighborhoods, communities, cities,states, and governments across the traditional boundaries of competition and national borders. In working together to meet this formidable challenge we can affirm our interconnectedness and common humanity.

Charles R. Halpern is president and chief executive officer of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a national grantmaking organization that supports the arts, environment, Jewish Life and democratic values. During the past six months, he has convened a number of foundation meetings on Y2K. He is a pioneer of the public interest law movement and served as founding dean of the City University of New York Law School at Queens College.

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