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What is Y2K -- the Year 2000 Problem?


(If you are basically familiar with the problem,
but would like more solid evidence of its seriousness,
read Is this Y2K problem for real? If you would like
a one-page summary to show to others,
see The Year 2000 Fact Sheet, below.)

Many computers, programs and embedded chips (like those in your car and VCR) have a bug in their date records that will mess them up on January 1, 2000. Programmers dropped the first two digits of the year to save time and computer memory, so that the date goes from "99" to "00". This can result in a wide variety of malfunctions, many of them unpredictable. Although the problem is easily described, it is exceedingly complex and time-consuming to correct. There are literally billions of lines of code to be fixed, many of them decades old, jerry-rigged and undocumented. Worst of all, more time must be spent testing the fixes than doing them in the first place. Thousands of businesses, organizations and agencies haven't even begun to investigate their own Year 2000 problems -- to say nothing of those of the outside systems they depend on. As time goes by, it is becoming increasingly obvious that millions of computer-dependent systems in all sectors of our economy and society will simultaneously begin malfunctioning one way or another early in 2000 -- with problems in one system leading to problems in otherwise healthy systems. Certain social dynamics are impeding timely correction or increasing the chance of social disturbances both before and after New Years Day 2000. (If you want more information about the Year 2000 problem, itself, click here.) Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to predict how all this will play out.

So we are going to hit the iceberg. But none of us knows whether it will just knock some plates off the shelves or sink the ship. And we won't know that until after its over -- and even then, loss of our mass communication systems may leave us in mystery about what is going on elsewhere.

How do we respond to such a weird prospect?

Return to Y2K home to explore some creative ways we might respond, which could even give us a better world when the dust settles.

Here is the best one-page summary I've found so far. -- Tom

The Year 2000 Fact Sheet

compiled by Kay Hagan and Cathy Hope

We are distributing this fact sheet to encourage you to begin educating yourself and your community about the potential disruptions that may result from the "Year 2000" problem. We are two average citizens with no affiliations to any institutions, corporations, or government agencies. Please copy and circulate widely.


Most mainframe computers over ten years old, and microchips over three years old -- and many personal computers, applications and databases -- were not programmed to handle a four-digit year. To them, 1998 is just "98," 1982 is just "82," etc. While the reasons for this oversight made sense at the time (because computer memory was scarce, every space-saving measure was used), the turn of the millennium may cause these computers, chips and programs to malfunction. These computer systems and devices may simply stop, or start spewing "garbage" data, or make faulty calculations. Because there are less than 18 months before the year 2000, and because there are more than 180 billion lines of code-and countless "embedded" microchips-that need to be screened all over the world, there is not enough time to fix the problem before computers start to react. Many people have been working on it, and there simply is not enough time. There will be consequences. This situation is referred to as "Y2K" (K signifying 1000), the millennium "bug" or "bomb", or just "the Year 2000 problem."

THE PROBLEM: Even if you do not normally use a computer at home or at work, and even if you avoid unnecessary "technology," this problem will likely affect your daily life, possibly in dramatic and disturbing ways. Why? Because we live in a world that relies on satellites, air, rail, and ground transportation, manufacturing plants, electricity, heat, telephones, and television-all of which are connected in "networks" of interdependent processes. Financial and banking systems, utilities, government, healthcare, defense-all of these systems rely on computers. This global network is largely invisible to us because it has worked so well, so far. But as random computer systems in various aspects of society begin to fail, they will likely cause "cascading failures" in the systems that are part of their network, and we will become aware, quickly, of our level of dependence.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN: Analysts' opinions vary from predicting the "end of life as we know it"-a catastrophic scenario where all our infrastructures fail and society is thrown into chaos-to those who say it will simply be experienced as a "bump in the road." However, there are three commonly shared views by all who are analyzing the problem (even the most optimistic): first, we cannot fix it in the time we have left; second, there will be consequences that we feel in daily life; and third, the failures of the systems will compound the challenge of fixing the original problem. No one can predict exactly what will occur, but it is safe to assume that the infrastructures that form the foundation for our daily activities-for instance, electrical power-will become unreliable for an undetermined amount of time. We will be forced to find other ways to do things, and we may experience shortages of food and other supplies as transportation systems are disrupted.

WHAT WE CAN DO: We can educate ourselves, our beloveds, our neighbors, and our communities. We can begin to prepare ourselves for the potential and probable disruptions in daily life. We can ask our service providers, local businesses and government official about their level of preparedness, and how we can help them. The best way to insure that you are safe and cared for is to make sure your neighbor feels safe and cared for. "Adopt a crisis mentality without falling into panic." We are all in this together.

THE GOOD NEWS: Regardless of the level of consequences-whether this turns out to be a "bump in the road" or a major worldwide catastrophe-the work we do to create trusting relationships and to build our communities will serve us well as a society. The era of restoration will benefit from these efforts, and we can take this opportunity to rethink some of the ways society has operated in the last few decades.

[If you are printing this out for other people, you can add a "FOR MORE INFORMATION" section here listing your favorite references -- books, websites, contact numbers, etc.]