The Global Y2K Crisis/Opportunity, by Scott Anderson
Y2K is shorthand for "The Year 2000." The Y2K Crisis refers to
the rapidly mushrooming consequences of a seemingly innocent short cut taken
by the first generation of computer programmers. This crisis has the potential
to be a global disaster and the year 2000 is now only 20 months away.
In the early years of computer programming, every digit of computer memory
was precious. Using a two digit year abbreviation became "industry
standard" ­p; 1963, for example, was designated as '63.' As computers
became cheaper and more and more ubiquitous, however, this standard did
not always change.
The abbreviation came to permeate the digital technologies that the global
economy depends upon. The abbreviation is found in both hardware and software.
Although there are chips and software that deliberately used a four digit
year (for example, Macintosh computers), the two digit date remains pervasive
­p; anywhere there is a microchip, the two digit standard is likely to
The problem becomes potentially disastrous with the millennium date change
or "rollover." Computer chips and software using two digits for
the year may not properly interpret the year '00.' This is the origin of
the year 2000 problem, aka "the Millennium Bug."
As organizations all over the world attempt to fix their computer systems
and make them "Y2K compliant," the possibility that this "bug"
might cause widespread disruption on global, national, regional, local,
and personal levels is being increasingly appreciated.
What is being discovered is that the deeper technical people look into computer
systems in an effort to identify where the two digit dates are located,
the more numerous and complex are the Y2K problems being uncovered. Thus,
the scale of the repair job is growing at the same time as time and the
supply of skilled technicians are both shrinking.
While it might seems simple enough to locate two digit dates and replace
them with four, the problem is that there are billions of lines of computer
code, in some hundreds of computer "languages," scattered across
hundreds of thousands of computers. In addition to locating the dates, all
date references and date computation instructions must also be examined.
Furthermore, there are an estimated 25 billion chips "embedded"
in control systems everywhere. Those in critical applications must be located
and either reprogrammed or replaced. Taken together, this constitutes a
Thus, it is generally accepted that there is not now, nor is there likely
to be, a "magic bullet" that can fix all the Y2K problems in time
for 01/01/2000. Computer systems are simply too varied, too numerous, and
Digital computer technology, often invisible, is now ubiquitous -- in all
areas of the economy, every industry, the entire "infrastructure"
of public, private, and non-profit sectors alike. Thus, virtually any device,
system, or organization that uses modern technology of virtually any type
may be vulnerable to Y2K.
Of growing concern is the potential for a huge cumulative impact of many
"small" but simultaneous Y2K failures in thousands of different
systems. Digital technologies are not only ubiquitous, they are also massively
Many large systems using digital technologies have been built up over the
40 plus years of "the electronic era" in successive waves of technical
innovation. This has led to layers of newer technologies being grafted on
top of older layers. Y2K vulnerabilities in older layers can effect all
the systems laid on top.
Many organizations have realized cost savings by "out-sourcing"
of services and "just-in-time" delivery of supplies based on close
integration of vendors made possible by computer technologies. This has
created an extremely dense network of business transactions, most of them
automated and dependent upon Y2K-vulnerable technologies.
There are very few attempts being made by global, national, state, or jurisdiction-wide
organizations to coordinate the Y2K repair effort. It has been assumed that
a decentralized repair effort would suffice. That may not be the case. Many
observers feel that centralized efforts beginning now (such as that of Clinton's
Year 2000 Conversion Council), are already too late to "get the job
What is becoming apparent is that we are faced with an unprecedented situation:
something like an earthquake, global in extant (rather than confined to
a certain area), certain to occur on 01/01/2000, but of unknown magnitude.
Y2K is a major, world-wide crisis which has the potential to cause widespread
disruption in the flow of goods, services, and information at all levels
of the global economy.
Why Aren't We Hearing More About Y2K?
There has been little in the way of major media coverage of Y2K apart from
(and despite) Newsweek's cover story last summer on 06/02/1997
­p; "The Day the World Crashes." After what now seems like
a fairly balanced overview, the article closed with the following ominous
words from an industry expert: "There are two kinds of people. Those
who aren't working on it and aren't worried, and those who are working on
it and are terrified."
Less prominently, numerous items have appeared around the world in newspapers
-- often on the business pages, and in high-tech trade periodicals. TV stations
run an occasional segment relating to Y2K. There is, however, a massive
amount of discussion about Y2K on the Internet. In recent weeks, more substantial
pieces have begun to appear on the front pages of the Washington Post,
the San Francisco Examiner, and the Wall Street Journal.
These articles have painted a picture of how Y2K "won't be all that
An effort is underway to stay optimistic. One major reason is that the goose
of Wall Street is busy laying a huge golden egg and national business and
government leaders are eager not to create panic while millions are making
unprecedented profits-no one wants to cry "wolf" and be accused
of creating an investor stampede.
There are other reasons why the full extent of the Y2K crisis is being kept
from the public: fear of litigation. There is growing evidence that legal
departments of large corporations are advising their executives to not disclose
their state of real Y2K preparedness nor the amount they are spending in
their Y2K readiness effort. Y2K lawsuits have already been filed and many
anticipate the costs of litigation will more than double total Y2K costs
over the next five years.
Nobody knows what is going to happen as a result of Y2K. Scenarios range
widely from minimal impact, to "we'll muddle through" disruptions,
to deep global economic depression and widespread social unrest. Y2K could
also trigger a series of "after shocks" the effects of which could
persist for decades.
The likelihood that the impact of Y2K will be minimal seems to decrease
with each passing day. As more organizations get seriously involved in efforts
to prepare, more and more of them are being forced to consider that time
and skilled programmers have already run out, that they will not be able
to make their own organizations completely "Y2K compliant," or
that it will be impossible to assure that their myriad vendors and clients
won't "pollute" their systems with bad data.
In recent months, therefore, there has been more and more discussion about
adding "contingency planning"to the repair effort. A wide variety
of "what ifs" are being looked at as organizations realize how
dependent they are on a complex web of potentially Y2K vulnerable systems.
At a recent "industry breakfast," for example, John Koskinen,
Clinton's recently appointed "Y2K Czar" made a number of less
than reassuring statements. He said that the Year 2000 Conversion Council
that he heads (with a staff of 3, little budget, and no legislative authority)
will "move through four phases ­p; organizing the government's response,
monitoring performance, contingency planning, and crisis management."
On the last point he said that the National Security Council has offered
the use of its communications network in the last months of 1999.
He went on to comment on the tenor of the current Y2K debate and characterized
the "background noise" surrounding the issue as "becoming
increasingly apocalyptic, some of which," he said, "is hard to
dismiss out of hand."
A number of other vocal and well-informed Y2K observers have become sufficiently
alarmed to make calls for the US to declare a "global state of emergency."
This includes Professor Leon Kappelman, of the Society for Information Management,
and Edward Yardeni, New York economist for the major German investment bank
Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. We may soon see consideration of Yardeni's proposal
for a global Year 2000 Alliance at the upcoming G8 meeting, May 15-17 in
Given the enormity of the challenge represented by Y2K, the lack of widespread
crisis mentality at this stage means that fewer resources are being devoted
to both repairs and contingency planning efforts. This only increases the
likelihood of major Y2K disruptions.
Preparing for Y2K
- Declare a "personal state of Gaian emergency" in order to
maximize energy and attention devoted to inner and outer preparations.
- Educate yourself regarding the many ramifications and potential seriousness
of the Y2K threat. Consider many points of view, not just "expert"
- Seek out others among friends, family, coworkers, and church members
who are also preparing for Y2K and with whom you can share your fears, hopes,
- Balance fear of potential negative Y2K impacts with attraction to
the opportunity Y2K represents for an authentic transformation towards a
post-Y2K world that is humanly sane, ecologically sustainable, and aligned
to the heart.
- Establish strategic alliances with others working in various Y2K arenas.
Much expertise exists out there that may be of use. Find it, establish relationship,
and put it to work.
- Invest time, energy, and money in community and family self-sufficiency
as the best way to prepare for Y2K by minimizing individual and collective
dependence on vulnerable infrastructure.
- Appreciate that Y2K preparations will also serve you well in the case
of any other potential calamities that may occur.
- Stay focused in the heart ­p; via prayer, meditation, or "cardio-contemplation."
By this means you will make better plans and a better world than via fear
alone. Use fear as a reminder to reactivate the heart and motivate the body
to effective action.
Apart from the many technical computer books on the subject, the best overall
book for the lay person on Y2K is Edward and Jennifer Yourdon's Time
Bomb 2000, Prentice Hall PTR, 1998, widely available and out in paperback.
General Y2K sites:
garynorth.com -- perhaps the most
comprehensive, includes commentary and extensive links to other sites on
Year2000.com -- one of the better
technical sites, this one is Peter de Jager's. Includes newsclippings from
English speaking world at /y2karticles,
updated daily. For a detailed authoritative introduction to Y2K, see his
to Be Kidding"
tmn.com/~doug -- one of the most
thoughtful overall Y2K scenario discussions
is an excellent 86 page on-line text book re Y2K
Y2K preparedness sites:
There are a number devoted to y2k preparations of various sorts: individual,
church-oriented, community oriented, etc... The best of these are http://millennia-bcs.com,
www.y2knet.com, and www.y2ksurvival.com.
Www.gaia.org is a site that deals with
the global eco-village network of conscious eco-living experiments around
Y2K email updates:
There are several of these available. I've been following "the Y2K
Weatherman" Dennis Elenberg available at y2kwatch.com
or by subscribing to regular email updates: send mail to email@example.com
with no subject and a single body line: subscribe. Reports are coming out
every few days. There is also a more technically-oriented service from de
Jager available at his year2000.com.
This report comes out every few weeks. Gary North evidently has a service
for Y2Kpreparation of churches that I've just subscribed to by email request
I. Y2K Status of the Major Categories of Computer Technology
Mainframe "legacy" systems are the bedrock stratum of the Computer
Age: Approximately 100,000 "mainframes" worldwide. Millions to
hundreds of millions of lines of code in each one. Some code undocumented,
idiosyncratic, or in languages no longer used. Programs written in over
500 computer languages still in use.
Organization's information technology (IT) systems and their networked connections
have often been laid on top of the mainframe bedrock in layers.
25 Billion "Embedded chips" in control systems everywhere throughout
the economy. Critical ones have to be identified, then assessed, reprogrammed,
or replaced. "A gargantuan job."
The Internet, despite spot-fault-tolerant design, may not do well--or may
fail entirely--if there are widespread failures in power supply or signal
PCs can malfunction as well ­p; and, if connected to networks, can "pollute"
the larger system, i.e., both client and server need to be compliant. Approximately
300 million PCs worldwide. Older BIOS (part of computer system not on main
CPU chip) systems non-compliant.
II. Y2K Status of Core Infrastructure (aka "The Iron Triangle")
Electric Utilities -- currently not prepared and may be
only partially by 01/01/2000. Some 6000 plants all interconnected. Deregulation
of the utility industry and associated restructuring are hitting industry
simultaneously. 110 nuclear plants also dependent on digital technology.
Telecommunications -- huge legacy systems and lots of embedded
chips ­p; see garynorth.com/y2k/results_.cfm/Telecommunications
for details. Evidently lawyers for the big telecoms have advised against
full disclosure. This has been commented upon recently by Federal Reserve
Governor Edward Kelley in testimony before congress -- "We can't get
any information from the telecommunications industry. They won't tell us
the status of their Y2K efforts. We need this information in order to test
our systems. We simply don't know what they are doing and we very much need
Finance -- maybe the best prepared, but only now looking
at "connections." Wall Street -- "The Crash of '99?"
Many predict drop of 30%. Bank closures, freezing of assets, penalties for
withdrawals of IRAs? Currency devaluations to follow? See yardeni.com
III. Y2K Status of Major Industries
Information Technology -- conflicting stories, conflicts
of interest? See industry surveys and updates atitaa.org. Most recent survey
suggests that the "y2k fix-it industry" expects to run out of
technically skilled workers in the near future.
Banking -- major alarm signals being heard at global level.
See "Time to Declare War on Y2K" by EdwardYardeni consisting of
his prepared remarks at recent presentation at the Bank for International
Settlements (world's top "bank for bankers") at yardeni.com.
Manufacturing -- late to get started on embedded process
controllers. The manufacturing sector has the most to worry about, for its
year 2000 problems are more complex, widespread, and difficult to remedy
than those in straight-forward computer applications such as accounting
and finance. Worse, manufacturing corporations were slow to wake up
to the enormity to the task they are belatedly tackling. Article in most
recent issue of Fortune Magazine, "Industry Wakes up to
the Year 2000 Menace" at pathfinder.com/fortune/1998/980427/imt.html.
Gas and oil industries -- no news is good news? "A
single off-shore oil platform may contain over 10,000 embedded microprocessors.
There are over 100 such platforms in the North Sea alone." I've not
yet found any really informative material on the state of the gas and oil
Transportation -- rail, trucking, air, and autos all vulnerable.
Merger of major rail lines GP and SP led to a huge computer incompatibility
snafu still being unraveled. Trucking companies use computers extensively
for routing and inventory management. Air traffic control systems may not
be compliant in time -- huge legacy mainframes involved. The typical American
car now has 10-50 microprocessors with up to 100,000 lines of code!
Retailing -- heavily dependent on all core infrastructures.
Systems massively dependent on electricity, telecommunications, transportation,
Healthcare -- also very heavily dependent on core infrastructure.
See http://www.rx2000.org for updates
re y2k and the healthcare industry.
IV. Y2K Status of Global Governments
US -- too little, too late, too many committees? President
issued Executive Order 2/5/98 creating Year 2000 Conversion Council. John
Koskinen, head -- "don't panic" from office with a staff of 3.
Koskinen recently quoted as saying that the increasingly "apocalyptic
tone" of current debate cannot all be "dismissed out of hand."
Senate Committee appointed 4/2/98 to be headed by Bob Bennett (R-Utah).
IRS, Medicare, SSA -- a wide spectrum of preparedness: "Failure to
achieve compliance with Year 2000 will jeopardize our way of living on this
planet for some time to come." Arthur Gross, CIO of IRS, 10/17/1997
SEC -- key player sat out the game with no y2k disclosure
requirements. Finally issued requirements, 1/12/1998 -- too late for 1997
annual reports. It is not, and will not, be possible for any single entity
or collective enterprise to represent that it has achieved complete Year
2000 compliance and thus to guarantee its remediation efforts. The problem
is simply too complex for such a claim to have legitimacy. Report
to Congress on the Readiness of the United Sates Securities Industry and
Public Companies to Meet the Information Processing Challenges of the Year
2000. June 1997. At sec.gov/news/studies/yr2000.htm
Military -- no news is good news? Congressional acts granting
exceptions to the original prohibition of Posse Comitatus have significantly
altered the manner in which the armed forces may assist law enforcement.
Plans for Emergency Military Powers and Domestic Control, Parameters
Magazine, Autum 1997 (Full text is at carlisle.www
.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/97autumn-/lujan.htm.) Is secret military
planning going on behind the scenes? Ed Yourdon thinks so.
Canada -- conflicting reports -- see globalmf.org
Australia and New Zealand -- lots of worried public pronouncements.
See year2000.co.nz, afr.com.au,
England -- active contingency planning. Guenier then Cruickshank
at Taskforce 2000, supported by PM Tony Blair have all been outspoken. 3/31/1998
Guenier called "informed anxiety essential."
Europe -- a huge mess with the euro currency conversion
already underway and causing massive headaches. See communication from European
Commission at ispo.cec.be/y2keuro/src/com_1998_102-en.htm.
Japan -- not much news in the English press. Very distracted
from Y2K by the Asian economic crisis.
Third World -- way behind. See usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/ctc469.htm.
V. Misc. Quotes
The code is broken. The deadline is fixed. We're not good at meeting deadlines.
Peter de Jager at Year 2000 Roundtable, Bank for International Settlements,
4/8/1998 (full text is at year2000.com/y2kbasle.html)
Governments and organizations worldwide must immediately address the very
serious threat posed to individuals, organizations, governments, and economies
by the Year 2000 computer problem, a threat that could disrupt our economies
and social systems. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility @ cpsr.org/program/y2k/.
Things are interconnected in ways we can barely understand. garynorth.com
This is a problem of gigantic dimensions and with so many complexities that
it's very hard to think something will not slip. Bichlien Hoang, year 2000
network solutions at Bellcore 03/04/1997
Be prepared! -- Boy Scout's motto.