More on the Year 2000 Problem
Important Note: The Y2K scene is constantly
changing. I have chosen to focus on finding and creating materials to help
people use Y2K for personal and social transformation. I have found that
trying to keep general Y2K pages like this one updated takes a tremendous
amount of time. Since there are dozens of sites that do that job better
than I ever could, I've decided to refer you to them and to spend my time
on what I do best -- collecting materials on transformation. Good sites
to keep up with current genral Y2K information include: Wild2K,
Douglass Carmichael's site
(see especially his archived weekly newsletter), the Napa
Valley, CA community group's site, Alan
Lewis' Y2K Pages: Y2-KO or Y2-OK?, Larry Sanger's Daily
links to and intelligent summaries of 6-10 top news stories about
Y2K, Westergaard, Peter
de Jager's year2000.com/ site and the comprehensive news source
Y2Ktoday. I wish you good
luck in your explorations. -- Tom Atlee
You can check out many Y2K web sites or
you can read the excellent Y2K problem summary, below. You can also read
some other Y2K scenarios in this
and related web sites. Other excellent summaries are The
Year 2000: Social Chaos or Social Transformation by John L. Petersen,
Margaret Wheatley, and Myron Kellner-Rogers, and the
other articles noted at the end of this page. Perhaps the easiest to
read summary is the one
in the "women's only" Y2K web site. If you think this is all
a figment of fevered imaginations, you might like to read Significant
Y2K Quotes from various mainstream leaders or the list of some Y2K
Breakdowns Which Have Already Happened -- or Is
This Y2K Problem for Real?, which contains many items from those two
May 20, 1998
The Year 2000 Problem: A Critical Survey
by Mason Mulholland
This paper began a month ago as I had come to a deeper understanding of
the Year 2000 Problem (Y2K). During the following month, one of serious
research, I found just how complex this issue is and how difficult it is
to write about in its entirety. Some of the aspects I will attempt to
cover here are what the problem is and how it came to be, the various
areas of concern, how the global infrastructure is threatened, and what
some of the various scenarios may be in the coming 18 months.
What is Y2K?
Since the dawn of the Computer Age, programmers took shortcuts to save
room in the limited and expensive memory banks of the mainframe
computers with which they worked. The use of dates were, and are,
very important pieces of data. To conserve space, these dates were
written as dd/mm/yy, a style that we are familiar with ourselves. We
normally assume the 19 is in front of the year given, for example
would just be 75. This saved only two digits, but the savings
compounded millions of times as dates are used as a reference point, an
indexing constant, and for calculating time-oriented projects.
As time went on, the conservation of memory became less of an issue, but
this programming style had been institutionalized, meaning it was
perfectly normal to write it that way. The early mainframe programmers
did not think that their work would be used for more than five to ten
years. As time progressed, programmers began to realize that the date
change on 1/1/00 would not be recognized by these computers and would
think that it is now 1900. In a two digit year field, when dates are
compared, someone that was born in 1960 would be considered to be either
-60 years old or 60 years old, but not 40 which would be correct. Some
computers are not programmed to operate past 12/31/99, while still
others are not able to deal with negative numbers and will shut down. In
any case it is a problem that should have been addressed many years ago,
but unfortunately was not.
The reason that many managers and CEOs ignored the pleas from their
staff programmers is that the Y2K issue is a problem without symptoms.
Most systems will operate fine until mid-1999 or 1/1/00. It is an issue
that requires large amounts of money in which there is no return on
investment, save for the continued existence of the firm. In some cases
the messenger was killed. Those that repeatedly asked for funds were
fired. This being a possible result, other programmers opted to stay
quiet, hoping that their managers would hear it from other circles of
this problem. Once decision makers understood the problem, many waited
for a "silver bullet" to come on the market. A "silver bullet"
program that would automatically scan and replace the two digit date
fields in a computer system. Unfortunately this is a mythical creature
because every mainframe system is different and requires painstaking
inspection by a trained programmer. By waiting for a solution that never
came, many companies hesitated until it was too late to proceed in the
normal fashion. Year 2000 consultants agree that a successful
conversion of a large system should have started by late 1996.
Today many companies are not yet to the code remediation stage. For
them it is a forgone conclusion that they will not be finished in time.
I first heard of the problem in March 1996, only two years ago. At that
time, I was in the Internet / Computer business, and received much of my
news from those more knowledgeable than I. Even so, the issue did not
impact me in the least. The next time I heard of it was six months
later, in an article that concerned the military's computers. Still, I
was too busy to look into this further. Almost a year passed. Then I
read an article which explained how transportation could be affected. I
started to think about this. But it wasn't until the first of March this
year (1998) that I finally investigated this issue in depth. In the last
month I have easily logged over two hundred hours hunting on the
Internet and reading about the Year 2000 Problem. What I have found are
various shades of evidence that are confusing, disturbing, reassuring,
and otherwise total in scope. No matter what the actual truth is, we
will all be impacted by this problem. To what degree is yet to be seen.
What Is Affected By Y2K?
The one thing about Y2K is that it is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. It
is found in systems and equipment that one would not normally assume
would be date sensitive. I will endeavor to outline some of the key
areas below. Keep in mind that all
of these areas are interrelated; if
one suffers, then the others do as well.
This field is heavily reliant on computers. The banking industry could
not function without the speed and exactness that computers deliver.
Somehow the banking industry had not addressed the Y2K problem until
1996 for the most part. Very few are out of the assessment stage. The
are various stages that one must go through in correcting the problem
are: Awareness, Inventory, Assessment, Planning, Code Remediation, and
Testing. The first three comprise about 10% of the effort. The actual
code changing is about 40% of the effort, and testing should be about
50%. The major banks have hundreds of million of lines of code to
inventory and assess.
As of this writing there are no major banks that are Year 2000
compliant. Many claim that they will be ready by December 31, 1998,
which gives a full year for testing. We will have to see just how much
can be done in the remaining seven months. The problem with this
deadline however is that if it is simultaneously achieved, then there
will not be enough available mainframe computers left to test the
corrected code. The banks, as well as every other industry, will be
clamoring for testing platforms while their own computers continue to
operate in the 24 hour / 7 days a week manner in which they must. In
every programming task there are additional bugs (mistakes) that are
added. This is why testing is mandatory, in order to find those bugs
before the program is deemed compliant.
The FDIC which issued the guidelines for bank compliancy is not yet
compliant itself. The Federal Reserve Board is quite concerned about
this. They are more concerned, however, about foreign banks. Europe is
preoccupied with the conversion to the Euro dollar, Asia is suffering
set backs due to their current recession, while South America, the
Middle East, and Africa are totally unaware of the problem. The Federal
Reserve has already stated that non-compliant banks will be quarantined.
The entire scope of International Banking, and thus the Global Economy,
is in a dire situation.
Every aspect of Government is affected by the Y2K issue. No Federal
agencies are yet compliant. Several will not be done at their current
progress until 2019. The Social Security Administration has been working
on their system since 1993 and is not yet done. The IRS is way behind
schedule, and has had several key people resign in resent months. If the
IRS can not function, then the revenue generation of the United States
is crippled. The FAA has been in bad shape to begin with, and now its
aging IBM mainframes are said to be impossible to upgrade. Without the
FAA planes do not fly. If planes do not fly, the aviation industry
collapses. The Department of Defense has found that its brand new
Command and Control systems are not compliant. Without them, we can not
defend ourselves. It has been reported that our nuclear missiles are
somehow affected. If this is true for us, then the same can be said our
our allies, and for Russia. The geopolitical implications are
By industry I am including power generation, telecommunications,
manufacturing, health care, shipping / transportation, and municipal
services. Another very important element of the Y2K problem that is
essential to industrial processes are noncompliant chips, otherwise
known as "embedded systems". These are microchips that are in
computers that have their instructions burned in, and that function
perpetually at their specific jobs. "Embedded" means these chips
typically hardwired into pieces of machinery that govern many types of
activities such as process control, environmental monitoring, automatic
fail-safes, security systems, routing systems, among many others.
Billions upon billions of these chips have been produced in the last
several years. Only a small percentage are date sensitive, but each chip
has to be found, tested, and replaced if necessary. These chips cannot
be queried remotely, nor can they be reprogrammed. Somehow the chip
manufactures did not take this situation into consideration when
designing these chips.
In industrial settings these embedded systems are prevalent and outstrip
the problem of making mainframe computers compliant by a factor of four
to one. Unfortunately an estimated 96% of companies have not even
inventoried their embedded systems as of yet. These chips are of crucial
importance in power generation plants. A recent test by a power plant in
England found that when one system was set to 1/1/00 that it shut down,
and it in turn shut down other systems in the plant. It took 13 days to
get that part of the facility back on line. Oil rigs are particularly
affected by these chips. There can be up to 10,000 chips on one
platform. Some are encased in silicon and are far below the surface of
the ocean. Many industries, including the oil companies, invested
heavily in computerized automation in order to become more competitive.
Without these systems working properly, it makes the operation of these
industries virtually impossible.
There are many devices and vehicles that require routine maintenance.
They have chips that will shut down that item if it is not maintained
within a certain amount of time. If the chip thinks it has been 99 years
since its last oil change, it will refuse to allow that machine to work.
This includes sophisticated hospital equipment, modern fire engines, jet
fighter airplanes, just to name a few.
Aside from embedded systems, the mainframe computers of companies large
and small will have to be converted in time. Some of the smaller firms
have found the cost to be overwhelming and have opted to not become Year
2000 compliant. Either they will ride out the date change and see to
what extent they are affected, or they are planning to sell the company
to someone else. A true case of Caveat Emptor! (Buyer
Beware!) The larger corporations have too much invested to take such a
chance and are spending millions of dollars in the process.
The interconnections of various industries makes them dependent on the
compliancy of others. An obvious one is the Banking Industry. Data from
one system will corrupt the compliant data in another one. Other
examples are not so obvious. General Motors has 85,000 suppliers. Let's
say one third are critical. That is still 28,000 individual companies
that have to be complaint themselves. If they suffer shutdowns, then the
assembly line of GM stops. You can not build a car with missing parts
and put them in later.
The telephone system is another concern. It is a system of systems, and
they all have to work in unison in order to work at all. British Telecom
has already written off many Third World countries who will be cut off
from the rest of the world come 1/1/00. Without telephone service, trade
will slow to a standstill. This affects the industrialized countries
because we import many essential goods that are critical to our
As you begin to see, the threat that the Year 2000 Problem presents is
The Global Infrastructure
far reaching. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the problem one
must see the global infrastructure, and its resulting economy, as an
interlocking system. Throughout history, nations were agrarian. News and
information traveled slowly, and there was not much to go wrong. The
Industrial Revolution changed that, and brought us many conveniences.
But there was a trade off. We became dependent on these advances and
today find ourselves in a symbiotic relation with technology.
The various industries that I have commented on so far are dependent on
one another for their continued survival. Without banking, everything
stops. How are goods and services to be exchanged? How will people be
paid? Without power generation, everything certainly stops. Even without
telephone service, the coordination of society would be thrown into
turmoil. Without transportation, shipping would end, and in turn stop
power production, as coal and oil would not arrive.
When this happens, there is a breakdown in the division of labor.
Without a high degree of coordination, society can not bring together
the various materials in order to create even the most basic things. The
average person has lost the skills it took to get by a hundred years
ago. We assume the light switch will work, and the stores will be
stocked. That is a dangerous assumption. Additionally, the smooth
operation of an urban infrastructure is mandatory for a city to
function. A sustained lack of services will make a modern city
uninhabitable within a matter of days. The massive populations of these
cities are maintained artificially by means of these services. A
breakdown in these services will drive out the people that make the city
operational. An exodus of skilled technicians will make any remediation
an impossibility. Multiply that situation to every city, in every state,
in every country, and you will start to get an idea of the magnitude of
such an event.
The Year 2000 Problem is a very complex one, with many variables. The
But Is Y2K Real?
one constant is the deadline. December 31, 1999 is coming up fast. As of
this writing we have only 590 days left. Or 14,160 hours +/- if you
would like. No matter how you look at it, it is an issue that is only
getting closer by the day. So the real question is one of severity.
There are many who claim the whole thing is made up; that Y2K
consultants are to blame for the hype surrounding the issue. Others
refuse to believe that such a problem is either severe, or could be
capable of creating anything 'major'. I have spoken to those that work
in the computer industry. A number of them share this belief; that it is
a minor issue, nothing to be alarmed at. There is one person however
that works for a company that coordinates the computerized stock trading
in this country. He has told me that they have been working steadily
since 1996 to fix their systems. Even if they are compliant, any others
that they share data with that are not will destroy all of their
There is a spectrum of concern, or the lack of it. Many say that it is
hype; that there is nothing to be concerned about. Then there are others
that see this as the end of the world and have sounded the alarm. In the
middle are those that are not quite sure and are still investigating.
But keep in mind, Murphy was an optimist. Anything that can go wrong,
will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment. What a better situation
than a simultaneous global event such as Y2K to test such a theory.
But this is not an intellectual exercise that will be debated for years
to come. It is a situation that must be assessed and addressed as
rapidly as possible. If it is "no big deal" then we can relax
the dawning of the new millennium in high style. If it is a cause for
concern, then we must spend these remaining days preparing for the
eventualities that will result.
The sources that I base my concerns on are not the opinions of those in
the computer industry, but of those giving testimony to Congress and the
Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS is the most important
secular institution in the world. If they are concerned, I am concerned
There have been several Congressional testimonies that are notable. One
was from a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers
Association regarding the FAA's systems. Basically it was a bleak
assessment. Statements from the IRS comptroller admit that if they do
not fix their system that the economy of the United Sates will fail. I
do not see any motivation for hype from the IRS.
In another more recent testimony, the Y2K PR man for the White House was
painting a pretty picture for Congress and assuring that all critical
systems will be fixed in time. Senator Fred Thompson (R-Utah) demanded
to know that if that was the case then "why are there reports coming
that are so disturbing that they have to be classified?" I would worry
about what is in those reports myself.
Then there are industry newsletters that speak of the dangers presented
if their own issues are not adequately addressed. One from the World
[newsletter from Gulf Oil] states plainly that only 30% of the industry
can be remediated, and that present strategy should be for contingency
planning. To think that a 70% loss in energy production is possible is
enough to make one pause.
Business Week asked the experts in the field of power generation
could disrupt the electrical grid of North America. The Electric Power
Research Institute (EPRI) basically said "I donít know."
grid of North America is interdependent and a sudden disruption in power
could knock the grid out. This has never happened before, and apparently
the experts don't know what would happen.
Similar statements are made throughout the various industries. If they
are publicly, but quietly, making pronouncements this dire, I would err
on the side of caution and plan accordingly. At least it demands closer
attention over the next several months. But as we approach 1999, time
runs out for any meaningful personal contingency planning.
I hope this essay will clear up any lingering confusion on this matter.
If you desire to see further evidence, I have compiled an ever growing
notebook of articles such as I have touched on above. I would be happy
to loan you a copy.
Thanks for reading, and remember, only 590 (or less) days left!
In a 5/26/98 email to me, Mason noted the following:
There is enough information to
satisfy me that the possibility of Total Global Breakdown is imminent.
One very educated friend of mine was nonplussed by my warnings. He said
that throughout history there have been many disasters; plagues, wars,
volcanoes, droughts, and yet "civilization" has survived. There
been many ups and downs over the ages. Governments and empires have
risen and fallen, yet we are here and progress has proceeded unabated.
Well, my undergrad was in history, especially in military history. What
my friend failed to understand is that the world from 5,000 B.C. to 1900
A.D. was very insulated. There was little interaction between regions.
Disasters were local in nature. While one empire was rising, another was
falling. Case in point: during the Dark Ages, China was doing quite well
and the Mayans and Arabs were both advanced civilizations. At no time
was one region dependent on another. Since 1900 the world economy has
grown closer through transportation. Urban cities exist because of
electricity, and the telephone serves to coordinate activity and trade.
Since 1950 the computer has automated this activity and the machines
which drive the infrastructure. As with any machine, telephones go out,
blackouts occur, and computers go down, but only locally and very
rarely. What we are about to witness on and around 1/1/00 is the first
simultaneous shut-down world wide across every industry. This has
happened before, it has never been imaged, and there is no way to
support the current global population once this happens. This is the
point my friend failed to appreciate.
[This breakdown will, indeed,] wipe out many of
the old patterns. That may be considered an understatement. Think about
the current infrastructure that keeps industrial nations alive. Without
banking alone, the economy is turned into confetti. ...The current
paradigm cannot comprehend not getting paid, nor continuing operations
out of an "altruistic" motivation. Even in war-time, industry
for its production.
Various agencies of the U.S. government are in dire straits, notably the
IRS and the FAA. It is obvious what the absence of the IRS would do to
both banking and government operations. But the lack of the FAA would
end air travel nation-wide. The head of the FAA has said (publicly!)
that their contingency plan is to go back to "paper and pencil"
just "space the planes further apart." Problem is, no insurance
would cover any airline without guidance and coordinating facilities in
place. No airline would dream of flying without coverage, needless to
say just how many people would think of stepping on such a plane.
(Note: This insurance aspect is a growing dimension of the problem. Australian
insurance officials have told hospitals they will not insure against malpractice
suits resulting from Y2K-caused breakdowns. What hospital or doctor can
afford to practice without malpractice insurance? As one emergency room
physician I know commented: "It will certainly separate out those who
are in practice for the money and those who are in medicine to help people!"
-- Tom Atlee]
But the number one weak point is electrical production. Without that,
everything stops and billions will die. Let me show you why. The thing
about electricity is just how many things that have to come together,
every day, in order for it to be produced and delivered. Like so many
industries, power plants have mainframes to make compliant, as well as
embedded systems that control automated systems throughout the plant.
Many plants are very behind in making corrections. Even if they are
successful, then the fuel must be delivered on time. 51% of U.S. power
comes from coal powered plants. The average amount of coal on hand is
two weeks worth. Most of that is delivered by railroad. Needless to say,
the railroads have their own problems, but assuming they are running,
then the trains must pass though many regions to get to the destination
power plant. Any region that is blacked out will prevent that train from
passing because the switching is all automated and tapped from the local
power lines. The train stops, which in turn throws the rest of the other
trains off. Once that destination plant does not get its coal, then it
shuts down, and the resulting blackout prevents other trains from
passing through that region, which in turn causes another blackout
the region in which that train was heading. Without electricity the
cities become uninhabitable. Gasoline does not get delivered. Modern
farming grinds to a halt. Food production unravels....
Scott Anderson, M.D., has a similar excellent
overview, "The Global Y2K Crisis/Opportunity".
For a somewhat more technical summary of the likely dynamics of a Y2K catastrophe,
see the article "Synergistic
Mitigation and Contingency Preparation" by Harlan Smith, which
includes the following note relevant to the railroad discussion above: "Manual
switching of RR cars precluded as RR switchyards have been torn down and
replaced with computer-controlled distributed switching on sidings distributed
geographically throughout the entire network." Environmentalists may
favor the Y2K perspective given by Rachel's Environmental
& Health Weekly. Transformationally-oriented people who know the
work of Paul Ray may be interested in his The
Year 2000 bug and its social effects. A good summary from a Unitarian
perspective is the sermon
by Rev. Dacia Reid.
[Thanks to Tom Greco for this reference.]
The free booklet, "Y2KCPR," available from http://www.y2knet.com
will convince the most ardent skeptic. You can order it on-line or call
Swiss America/Y2KNET, 14455 N. Hayden, Suite 226, Scottsdale, AZ 85260.
This little booklet is an invaluable tool for planning your own preparedness
efforts, and convincing others of the seriousness of the looming crisis.
It contains articles and testimony of several credible witnesses, including
Craig Smith, Tony Keyes, and Dr. Edward Yardini. It is not a Y2K-breakthrough
text, but a personal survival guide, containing lots of data on the nature
and extent of the crisis.
An acclaimed 3 hour Y2K presentation from CSIS (Center for Strategic and
International Studies, June 2, 1998) is available from C-Span (#106506).
This program featured the world's leading Y2K speakers, Peter de Jager,
Ed Yardini, and Alan Simpson, introduced by Sen. Bob Bennett, and commentary
from Howard Ruben, Bruce Webster etc.
Links to transcripts (196 Kb) can be found on http://www.comlinks.com
A personal note from Tom Atlee
If you aren't convinced yet that this is likely to be a major problem, feel
free to spend a few days or weeks searching the Web on this topic. Optimistic
sites are becoming increasingly rare, I hear.
My own personal perspective (and this is Tom Atlee, speaking for himself)
is that the more I learned about the system dynamics involved in (a) the
denial, delays and failures regarding remediation and (b) the possible domino
effects of cascading system failures, the less I needed continual input
of new information about how the problem was unfolding. I just knew
it would grow bigger and become increasingly visible -- simply because the
dynamics are real and at work. I decided to put my attention, instead, on
trying to help a resilient new society arise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes
of our over-extended, unresponsive, arrogantly materialistic and ultimately
unsatisfying industrial culture. I would rather move forward positively
than watch (smugly or fearfully) as the old structures of our world start
to jiggle, crack and crumble. Enough of us moving out of spectatorism into
action, can change this from a catastrophe into an opportunity.
In any case, it seems highly unlikely is that Y2K will just be a "blip."
Although many people assert that, they seldom offer convincing information
or arguments. What I hear from them adds up to wishful thinking (e.g., "The
corporations [or the government] wouldn't let that happen." or "Human
[or American] creativity is just too great. We'll find a solution for this
[or bounce right back]."). The resemblance between these "arguments"
and the voices aboard the Titanic is hard to ignore.
I haven't yet found anyone who was aware of the system dynamics I mention
above, who thought that Y2K was anything less than an impending disaster.
For a compendium of authorities, research evidence, and stories designed
to present the case for taking Y2K seriously, read: Is
this Y2K problem for real?
Have a neighbor or a friend who doesn't understand Y2K
and isn't on line?
Have them call 1 (800) 2000 BUG for free printed information
on the problem.
This is not our service, but is the effort of a volunteer
individual trying to help folks out.