The Year 2000

By now, many readers have at least heard of the Year 2000 Y2K) problem. But confusion remains about what this problem really involves and what the consequences could be.  Because of the widespread use of computer technology, it is important to become informed about this problem, whether or not you own or use a computer yourself. 

In the coming months, ACCESS PRESS will be running a series of articles on this topic.  In this issue, we will provide back­ground information about Y2K.  In subsequent months we will discuss individual and community preparedness, report what is known about city governments’ readiness, and provide information on available resources.

The Y2K problem exists because of a “shortcut” taken by computer programmers many years ago.  To save time and costs, people programmed into computers only the last two digits to indicate a year, for example 99 was used to indicate 1999.  This trade-off, not storing the additional 2 digits in order to save computer space, worked fine for over 40 years.  But with the turn of the century approaching, this design “flaw” has become visible.

In many computer programs, dates are crucial to maintaining accurate records.  Let’s say a program was designed to generate reminder notices to clinic patients.  If your last appointment was August 1998 and you were scheduled for annual checkups, the computer would “remember” to include your name on the list it generated for a reminder notice in August 1999.  But when the year 2000 comes around, the computer won’t have it so easy.  The two zeros could be interpreted as meaning the year 1900, in which case you’d be 99 years overdue for a checkup (and probably dead!).   

Or, as is often the case with computer programs, when a computer receives data that it is unsure how to interpret, it could just shut down.  Other problems could also occur, such as the computer “locking up,” and the data being lost.  Any of these scenarios could result in delays, meaning you may not get the timely health care you need.  If we substitute “pharmacy records” for “clinic records” in this example, the consequences could be much worse for someone who relies on daily medications.

The above is just one example of how a glitch in database soft­ware could cause problems.  Because so many records are now computerized, there are many other possibilities for breakdowns in information systems.  Think for just a minute about the kinds of information now computerized:  bills; pharmacy records; government data, including benefits; driver’s licenses; bank records; reservation systems; public transit schedules; retail inventories; payroll systems; the list goes on.

In addition to this more or less obvious problem with programs that rely on dates to deliver accurate information, there is another, more insidious one.  Billions of computers around the world are built with “embedded microchips” that are date-sensi­tive.   The chips were made that way and are used extensively throughout the world.  One might expect that if a date function is merely present, but not used, that if it failed, it wouldn’t matter, because it wouldn’t affect what the computer is supposed to do anyway.  But computer experts say this is not the case. 

A compelling example will illustrate this.  Evidently, oil tank­ers, those huge ships that transport oil around the world, are steered  with complex computer technology (instead of  “old-fash­ioned” mechanical steering wheels).  It seems these computers are equipped with the “embedded chips” mentioned above.  It doesn’t take much to realize the potential problems that could be caused by an “unsteerable” oil tanker. (remember the Exxon Valdez?)  In fact, some tankers have already been banned from certain port cities because of this problem. 

Let’s say all the “unsteerable” ships are identified early and kept home, thus avoiding accidents and spills.  Could this lead to oil shortages?  If so, there could be problems for many indus­tries and utilities, which could lead to problems that would affect all of us.  Considering the interdependence of these and other “supply lines,” the “cascading” results of Y2K failures could be broad and severe.

What should we make of all this?  It sounds like a wide variety of potential problems could occur.  But no one can accurately predict what the problems will be, where they’ll happen, or how widespread they’ll be.  Most media coverage that I have seen downplays the possible effects of Y2K.  At best, they may suggest that Y2K problems will be like a “bad winter storm,” requiring little more preparation than most Minnesotans do every November anyway.  And some “experts” insist there will be no problems, in spite of the widespread use of computers in every area of life. 

So what should reasonable people think?  It seems to me we are faced with a situation that requires critical analysis of the information being provided to us, and prudent action to prepare ourselves and our communities for possible disruptions.  Upcoming articles will discuss preparedness, but I want to take a minute to stress the need for critical analysis of Y2K information.

Many interviews and public relations statements include phrases like: “we have tested our systems and they are Y2K compliant”; “our company has spent millions of dollars to fix this problem – we have 250 people working on it”; “we do not antici­pate any major disruptions.”  Do any of these statements really say the problem is solved?  How do we know whether the amount of money and time being spent is adequate? 

Mike O’Connor, a key advisor to St. Paul’s Y2K efforts, uses the “term paper” analogy to express his concern with these “reassur­ing” statements.  He says that if your teenager tells you that their term paper is “almost done,” you probably won’t relax.  You’ll try to get a lot more specific information from them about just what is done (and, more importantly, what’s left to do) before you’ll be satisfied that the paper will be done on time.  We should expect very specific information about Y2K readiness as well.

Once a particular company has “fixed” their computers, we should turn our attention to all the companies in their “supply chain” that they rely on to actually produce the goods or services  they provide to us.  This will bring us back to the fact of interde­pendence.  Think of all the “links” in the supply chain that must function properly in order for us to be able to bring fresh food home from the grocery store in January.

This technological interdependence is what makes it difficult to say, with any reasonable assurance, that there will be “no dis­ruptions.”  There are simply too many variables. 

Sometimes reading about possible Y2K scenarios is upsetting to people, and they deal with this anxiety by simply ignoring  the problem.  But the most effective approaches to problem-solving begin with acknowledging problems, no matter how complex they may be.  Then, we can begin developing solutions that promote commu­nity-wide well-being and safety.  These will be the topics of upcoming articles.

Mike O’Connor has an interesting website worth visiting: www.haven.com/y2k