By now you have heard about the coming apocalypse. Computers, advancing their clocks into the double-zero abyss of the new millennium, will plunge us into chaos. Power grids will fail, elevators will crash and pacemakers will stop midbeat. Personally, I doubt it. Here is my version: Thousands of hotel guests will fail to get their wake-up calls. Dog licenses will fail to expire.
I feel like a traitor for breaking ranks with my fellow computer experts and admitting what I really think. The truth is that society is not nearly so dependent on bug-free technology as the experts would lead you to believe. Most mainframes are not doing anything of earth-shattering, time-critical importance. The paychecks they write can still be verified by humans before they are mailed. And most microprocessors embedded in industrial equipment do not even know what time it is, much less depend on the date's being right.
What interests me most about the Millennium Bug is why this particular potential for disaster has captured the collective imagination. Why Y2K (as we experts call it) instead of bio-terrorism, the next energy crisis or the return of the swine flu? I believe it is because this story has all the makings of a great rumor: Convincing Detail, Cooperative Experts and a Hint of Deeper Truth.
For Convincing Detail, just mix a little Millennium Bug with any technology that makes you nervous. Whether it is nuclear power plants, elevators or airplanes, this bug can supply a persuasive dose of precision. Like Caesar's warning of the ides of March, we are promised an unspecified disaster on a specific date. I remember a fortune cookie that said: "You will receive bad news from Canada on February 22." I didn't. Yet among all the fuzzy promises of happiness, love and success, this is the fortune I remember.
The next ingredient of this rumor is Cooperative Experts. These come in two flavors, talkative and silent. The talkative experts are willing to speculate: Maybe pacemakers have calendar routines? Maybe elevators will crash? The responsible experts mostly keep their mouths shut. They know that any problems with their own computers are more likely to cause inconvenience than disaster, but they don't know for sure about the extent of other industries' problems, so they just keep quiet.
Combine these two types of experts with a resourceful journalist, and you get a story. You can imagine how the elevator story got started. After talking to a series of experts with vague concerns, a reporter finally finds someone who speculates, "Maybe elevators' microcontrollers will crash." All the expert really knows is that some industrial machines have microcontrollers that keep track of whether they have received regular maintenance. If so, on Jan. 1, 2000, a calendar error might cause some of these elevators to think that they have not been maintained for a hundred years. "Anything could happen," the expert says. "Anything" would probably mean the elevator's quietly sitting on the ground floor waiting for maintenance, but the image of its plunging to the ground makes better copy. Pretty soon we are all thinking of taking the stairs on New Year's Day.
This explains how the rumor begins, but it would have no staying power without the Hint of Deeper Truth. The deeper truth in this case is that technology has become so complicated that we no longer understand it. Most people have suspected this for a while, but now they know for sure that there is not somebody somewhere who understands how it all works. Of course, those of us close to technology have been certain of this uncertainty for a long time. We know that there is no map of the Internet. We accept the fact that there is no master engineer who completely understands the airplane we are flying in.
I took my car in to be serviced a few months ago because it was losing power at high speed. After plugging the engine into some kind of diagnostic device, the mechanic told me authoritatively, "It's The Module. We'll have to replace it." "What does The Module do?" I asked. He shrugged. "It breaks."
I was annoyed at how much the mechanic charged me, so I exacted my revenge as I paid the bill. "This better be year-2000 compliant," I said ominously. For the first time since my arrival, he looked a bit concerned.
I have come to believe that the Y2K apocalypse is a myth. The truth is not that civilization will come to an end, but rather that civilization as we once knew it has ended already. We are no longer in complete command of our creations. We are back in the jungle, only this time it is a jungle of our own creation. The technological environment we live within is something to be manipulated and influenced, but never again something to control. There are no real experts, only people who understand their own little pieces of the puzzle. The big picture is a mystery to us, and the big news is that nobody knows.
First published in Newsweek in 01998.