Turning to One Another

The Possibilities of Y2K

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The year 2000 problem (Y2K) sits in our midst, terrifying some, boring others. No one knows for certain how we will be affected by worldwide failures in computers and computerized equipment when the calendar shifts to a four-digit year. But we do know some things for certain. Y2K is a powerful teacher about our modern life. It makes visible the interconnections by which we have woven the world together through technology. It illuminates the extent to which both local and global systems are computer dependent. It displays the limitations of traditional approaches to leadership and planning. It reveals our very human tendency to deny and hide from issues when they are too complex to comprehend. And it exposes our dissatisfactions with our hectic and lonely lives.

One other thing is true about Y2K: It is no longer merely a technical problem. Whether it was ever capable of being solved technically, we have run out of time and resources. It has transformed itself into a social and political issue. How we respond to the year 2000 in our communities and organizations offers us the possibility of real transformation in our relationships and capacities. And we do need to learn how to deal with Y2K, because it represents a new type of issue: the failure of complex systems. In the 21st century we can expect to be confronted with more and more of these increasingly complex problems.

The Nature of the Failure of Complex Systems

Complex-system failures share a set of distinguishing features:

--The longer they unravel, the more extensive their effects.
--Costs always far exceed what has been budgeted for fixing them.
--As effects materialize, unknown interdependencies become visible.
--The more that problems come into focus, the fuzzier they appear.
--Past experiences with simple systems don't apply.
--Cause and effect are impossible to track; consequently, there is no one to blame.

These features describe the most frightening realization about problems with complex systems: They are inherently uncontrollable. Since prediction and control are impossible, traditional approaches to solve them simply don't work.

Each of these characteristics has become increasingly evident with the year 2000 problem. Initially, Y2K was thought to affect only software; it seemed to be a relatively simple problem. But then we learned that embedded microprocessors were vulnerable to the date change. These chips are so prevalent in modern life--in cars, satellites, home appliances, utilities, oil rigs, transportation systems, telecommunications, manufacturing, and medical equipment--that the average American is in contact with seventy microprocessors before noon each day. Failures in these chips will occur throughout the infrastructures that make modern life possible, threatening the functioning of all major systems: health care, utilities, governments, transportation, food supplies, public safety, finance, telecommunications, and defense.