Does Technology Heal Itself? Does the Y2K bug make its own vaccine?

by Peter Kelman, Esquire

This article appeared in substantially the same form in the Aspen Y2K Advisor, December, 1999.


A funny thing seems to have happened on the way to Y2K.  Without trying to be too bold a prognosticator, the Y2K meltdown anticipated by many appears unlikely to occur, at least in this country.  If we experience Y2K “lite” instead of Y2K darkness, it is interesting to speculate on the reasons adversity was minimized.  Perhaps the very same technology that brought us Y2K also delivered its cure.

Recently, I moderated a town meeting on the status of Year 2000 preparations.  There was a cast of speakers now commonplace at such meetings.  Representatives from major utilities and service providers spoke and addressed the state of Y2K readiness of their respective companies.  Each company presented a picture of confidence.  Each reported that internal operations were Y2K compliant and that contingency plans were in place to quickly fix Y2K problems if and when they occur. To present a balanced perspective, we also had speakers who described a more dire Y2K scenario than that presented by the company representatives.  As expected, the skeptics peppered the company representatives with questions designed to pierce the aura of confidence.  Yet for each question, there was a cogent answer.  For example, a utility company spokesperson was asked if the utility had tested all “embedded processers” in its delivery infrastructure.  The questioner probably expected a vague answer or an acknowledgment of ignorance.  Instead, the representative stated that all embedded chips in the New England area were tested, and to the surprise of the utility, approximately 40% required replacement.  At the end of the evening, it was difficult not to conclude that our major companies have taken care of their Y2K problems and skeptics were urging people to prepare for a most unlikely scenario.

I left the meeting pondering what I had witnessed.  I wondered what would cause me, a child of Woodstock, who still has the album, and who has mistrusted the military-industrial complex, for over twenty years, to leave a meeting with the feeling that the forecasts of big business were more credible than the predictions of skeptics.  Should I attribute this sympathy to big business to the onset of stealth conservatism or to a change in the way big business does business?  While I don’t rule out the former, I believe it is more attributable to the latter.  It is the same technology which brought us the Y2K problem which has also provided the mechanism for altering the way big business conducts its business.

It is fascinating to read some of the early works of Marshall McLuhan nearly 30 years after he wrote them.  The Internet has only reinforced his observations about the age of electronic media.  Can there be any doubt that the Internet has supplied the wiring to create a “globally connected village” through which “the medium is the message?”  It is the Internet that serves as a megaphone for the predictions of Y2K doomsday activists, and it is the Internet that wires plaintiff’s attorneys to potential claimants in search of Y2K lawsuits.  And it is the Internet that hosts numerous web sites, bulletin boards and chat rooms in which thousands of people discuss Y2K scenarios.  In other words, the Internet has provided the medium of expression for that disenfranchised group of the 70’s, the silent majority.  The majority may still be silent, but the electrons speak volumes.  The medium is the message.

What choice do companies have about Y2K compliance?  The Y2K problem is well-publicized, Congress has passed laws encouraging companies to disclose suspected Y2K problems and the Security Exchange Commission has mandated that public companies disclose to their shareholders their plans for “realistic worst-case scenarios.”  For example, if you want to check if your brokerage firm is Y2K compliant, go to the Security Exchange Commission’s Y2K compliance web page.  The message is clear.  Unless you want to risk major customer defection, or a major lawsuit or de-listing from your stock exchange, your company had better prepare for Y2K.  It appears that companies have responded appropriately.  In retrospect, it may be that Y2K will be viewed as a widespread problem caused by computer programs that was ultimately solved by computer users.  Ironically, the same technology containing the problem provided the medium for the vox populi  to proclaim its concern and ultimately control the problem.

Copyright 1999, Peter Kelman.  All rights reserved.