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The Dynamics of Y2K Doubt


by Tom Atlee


Recently I realized that what haunts me most about Y2K is not the solid evidence that there WILL be problems. In fact, the list of ACTUAL reported Y2K-related failures is neither long nor convincingly threatening. Sometimes I get confused by that. And then I return to what REALLY haunts me: the persistent, numerous reasons that there COULD be problems -- in particular, the many reasons to mistrust most reports of Y2K progress.

Here are just a few examples of what I call "the Y2K dynamics of doubt":

- Most organizations have internal dynamics that cause reports to look brighter the higher they move up the chain of command. Everyone wants to look good. No one wants to be shot for being the messenger. The whole system wants to believe in its competence and virtue.

- Our competitive society makes it dangerous to not look good. Legal, political and market forces are all biased towards sharing little solid information with the public and maintaining an optimistic "it's all under control and we'll make it" public image. Even if everyone is far behind, the first ones to get shot will be the first ones to admit how far behind they are.

- Organizations are using a subjective, sloppy, ambiguous triage system. Hundreds of systems have been removed from mission-critical lists in order to beef up highly-visible mission-critical compliance percentages. Furthermore, in most cases the systems designated mission critical are only a small percentage of the total systems. No one is talking publicly about which systems (usually the majority) have been categorized as NOT mission-critical and what the consequences will be if they go down. If the majority of government technical systems are being neglected as non-mission-critical, where is the public debate about which systems are being written off?

- People just can't see the problem. Most people (from the man on the street to corporate and government officials) are too busy to do the EXTENSIVE research that is needed to have a realistic sense of where the overall Y2K crisis stands. Furthermore, few people have the capacity to think systemically, to envision the consequences of interconnectedness and interdependence. And many people are so dependent on the current system -- economically, ideologically, and for their self-image and meaning -- that they can't psychologically accept any vision of its unravelling. Finally, there's the universal reality that when we're habituated and entrained to certain patterns of thought, feeling and behavior, we just don't change easily. For all these reasons most people tend to simply continue thinking and behaving in business-as-usual ways and to actively resist evidence that could upset those patterns. And so they don't take preparatory action or even see the need.

- There are no standards as to what "Y2K compliant" or "Y2K ready" mean, and progress reports are almost always in terms of percentages. However, just because someone is 90% to the top of Mount Everest doesn't mean they'll make it, especially since the last 10% often is the most difficult (often the hardest parts are left till last). Thus readiness announcements themselves usually have an illusory quality. Worst of all, their intrinsic ambiguity is hidden beneath a seductive veneer of exactitude.

None of these dynamics guarantees that there WILL be problems. But the more you realize that such dynamics are at work, the more nervous you get about what, exactly, is going on here. Similarly, the more drunk the driver, the more loose the wheels, the more curved the road, the more crowded the highway, the more rainy the weather, the more rowdy the passengers, the more cell phones are in use by other drivers, the greater the chance of an accident. No guarantees, mind you! But you'll never get me into such a car!

Anyway, the survey below provides on of those great overall glimpses into the Y2K dynamics of doubt as they play out in the real world.



_ _ _


Survey: 45% of Y2K experts worried
By M.J. Zuckerman, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- With little more than six months to go, nearly half the
experts grappling with the Y2K computer problem remain deeply concerned,
according to a unique survey being released Thursday.
"About 45% think it's going to be a bump in the road, and about 45%
think it's going to have significant impact," says Bruce Webster, author
of the survey of 337 professionals fixing or tracking the computer
glitch. "And about 10% think it's going to be the end of the world as we
know it."

The experts are more pessimistic than the public at large. USA TODAY
polls in March found 65% expected minor problems and 12% expected no

Webster is co-chair of the Washington D.C. Year 2000 Group, an
organization of about 2,000 consultants, executives, lawyers and others.
Areas in which the experts agreed: marked optimism about U.S. society's
ability to cope and marked pessimism about the survival of essential
services or infrastructure such as transportation and utilities.

But White House "Y2K czar" John Koskinen takes issue with polls and
surveys. " No one can tell you with any certainty what the end of the
year is going to look like because so much work is still under way."
The Year 2000 bug arises from programming shortcuts that could cause
computer systems to fail after Dec. 31, 1999.

The survey, which can be found at <>, shows deep

* The economy: 38% expect a 20% loss in stocks and recovery by 2001; 45%
expect a mild six-month recession with 6% unemployment.

* Business: 35% predict it will be "jolted a bit" with January "Y2K
holidays" to make fixes; 28% see "major manufacturing disruptions."

* Utilities and infrastructure: 40% predict at least "short-lived
failures" up to seven days; 42% expect scattered supply and utility
problems lasting at least two weeks.

* Government: 19% predict one state government will run into "serious
Y2K problems"; 30% expect "at least one major government agency," such
as the IRS, will fail.

Koskinen says, "The basic infrastructure is going to hold. There are
going to be glitches lasting hours. But, for example, we don't see any
indication that there will be regional brownouts or blackouts lasting
two or three days." And he expects the IRS "to be declared Y2K ready in
several days."

_ _ _ _ _

And now here are some further compilations and comments offered by David Sunfellow of New Heaven New Earth (Email: - Web: )

Most of us have heard about the recent survey that was conducted and
compiled by Bruce Webster, Co-Chair of The Washington D.C. Y2K Group.
According to the information on their website, The Washington D.C. Year
2000 Group is one of the best sources of information on how Year 2000
repair and preparation efforts are actually going. It has over 2000
members, most of whom are professionals working on Y2K projects and
issues in business, government, the military, educational institutions,
think tanks, consulting firms, and elsewhere.

The current survey was sent out in February of 1999 and the results were
made public a few days ago (June 10). Information about this survey,
including pie charts, graphs, comments and other data, can be found at
the two following locations:

Survey Home Page:

Survey Statistical Analysis & Comments:

First Survey:

Four things stand out in my mind:

1. The current survey indicates that there are fundamental differences
of opinion among professionals working on the problem (similar
differences of opinion were also reported in the first survey).

2. Those working in the trenches believe there will be more problems
than the public at large.

3. Webster says the overall response of this survey appears to be
slightly more optimistic than the first survey.

4. Many survey participants reported that the corporations, government
agencies and other groups they were associated with WERE NOT accurately
reporting their Y2K status (most were claiming that they were further
along publicly than they actually were).

5. The Internet has and continues to play an extremely important role in
all aspects of y2K.

Here are a couple summary comments from Webster:

"Over 340 responses came back in the period February-March, 1999, of
which 337 provided usable data; 141 of those included comments. The
responses divided roughly into two overlapping groups: an 'optimistic'
group, usually voting in the 2 ± 1 range, and a more 'pessimistic' group
voting in the 5 ± 2 range. A small 'apocalyptic' contingent, about 15%
of the total, voted in the 8-10 range. These results substantiate was
has been observed informally, namely, that there are fundamental
divisions of opinion among Y2K professionals, analysts, and observers.
The comments made likewise reflect deep divisions, with some dismissing
Y2K as a problem already solved and others describing organizations far
behind in their Y2K efforts (and usually covering it up)."

"The three greatest points of consensus are:

-- that the social impact will be modest (65% saw it in the 0-4 range);

-- that the government is not as prepared as it claims to be (74% saw it
in the 4-10 range);

-- and that infrastructure (utilities, transportation, supply chain)
will be impacted more broadly than is generally asserted (65% saw it in
the 4-10 range).

The overall response appears to be a bit more optimistic than the WDCY2K
surveys conducted a year ago (March and May of 1998)."


About the Internet, one survey responder wrote:

"All I can say is that thank God the Internet and the Web has become a
broadly used and accepted part of our cultures because I do not think
the amount of information, solution sharing, hand-holding, mutual
support and collaboration, never mind reuse and leveraging others work,
could have been done any other way. Even with all of this leveraging and
sharing Y2K is hard. Think what it would have been without it."


Finally, here are a few interesting comments taken from survey

"My client is placing a lot of faith in the providers of some critical
systems rather than conducting their own roll-date testing."

"I have been inundated with companies that want me to advise and consult
for the Y2K problem. I have not been given straight answers from any
companies that supposedly are experts in the problem. I have a
consulting office within a law firm, most of the lawyers in this area,
(Central New York State, Syracuse) are not sure what to do. They have
been in the same boat as I, as far as gathering hard information on
their own systems. Simple questions like, Is Win98 ready? Is
Wordperfect8 Suite ready? Most have a plan to go to pad and pencil if
there really is a problem."

"As many have already noted, Y2K related issues are hitting us now. The
recent example of the problems at the PA nuclear power plant which was
undergoing testing is a timely example. In some ways the next 9 months
are as scary as 1/1/2000 since many organizations will be testing
systems (some in live conditions) between now and the end of the year.
We all know how smooth system testing goes!"

"I feel that after Labor Day and the news flashes on how things on
9/9/99 went, people will start their contingency planning then. This
will be the first 'magical date' to the government, medical,
supply-chain, banking, utilities and transportation. 9/9/99 will be the
day the 'rubber' hits the road for the average 'Joe'..."

"Just a general comment that I saw a commentary on "60 Minutes" by a
renowned computer scientist from MIT that in the end, no one can predict
what will really happen on 1/1/2000 because there is no way simulate
that worldwide...I strongly agree and that is the part that really
scares me."

"Despite the fact that we are in February 1999, some offices are just
now beginning to take Y2K as something worthy of management's attention.
In very deep denial because management just want Y2K to 'go away.' Some
offices are in the beginning stages of assessment. Of course, we are
reporting that we are 'clean and green' - as the politicians require us
to report."

"Based on my experience, I expect at least 10% of all small businesses
to go out of business due to the failure of critical business systems.
It isn't going to be pretty, but the strong (and prepared) will

"Even though it has moderate contingency plans, this organization is
very dependent upon trusting vendor statements about its COTS hardware
and software Y2K compliance. Neither manpower nor effort is being set
aside for actual testing to verify these statements."

"In my role as independent Y2K verification test director (and hands on
tester) I have observed a number of Y2K non-compliances in both COTS and
custom applications that were deemed as Y2K compliant."

"During DoDIG [Department of Defense Inspector General] Y2K audit, it
became apparent that definitions were so vague that reporting is
probably best rather than worst case. Federal agency I work for changed
items from 'mission critical' to 'mission essential' so as to buy an
additional 3 months to bring systems into compliance. DoD has promised
purchase of software testing tools, but has yet to deliver on it."

"Many contingency plans are still focused on single event failures and
do not consider multiple, simultaneous failures. As a result many
contingency plans are manpower intensive. Manpower resources may be
insufficient to handle multiple, simultaneous failures resulting in
inability to fully implement contingency plans and subsequent service

"Plan is not doing as well as they are stating publicly. Concerted
effort to hide deficiencies. Deleting systems from critical list to show
greater progress than has actually occurred."

"As a company insider, I know that the utility company I work for has
been very accurate in reporting Y2K progress to the public. We will be
complete in June 1999 and almost all software has been final tested on a
Y2K LPAR. No doubt there will still be some problems when you modify
almost all systems in your company and all of the changes take affect on
the same day."

"I work with several government agencies. The Pinocchio factor is
severe. These guys don't know how to tell the truth, especially when the
truth is bad news, and it's been going on since long before 'Slick
Willie' was elected!"

"I suspect the real problems will be with corrupt data, not found until
March or April 2000, after it is again off everyone's radar screens.
Death by a thousand cuts."

"Ground systems on satellites fail (not the birds, not chip-related). I
have seen the discussion by the military folks about GPS ground systems,
and Japan just pulled back one of its experiments in space due to ground
systems problems. I have suspected this for at least 18 months (I used
to work for GAO in NASA work)."

"I've been studying this for months, and will continue to do so, but I
still fully expect to be surprised by something unexpected."

"One of my concerns is that 'data' will or is becoming corrupt because
of lack of action on the part of companies in timely renovating their
systems. Because of the unknowns in this scenario, no one can guess at
the size, symptoms, date of occurrence, or the impacts."

"We've redefined compliance and critical systems after first 10 Q's got
us reamed by the market analysts."

"Upper management is just getting a clue, even though we have been
working with clients on Y2K issues for over a year."

"We know that the Titanic sank in an ocean that was better than 99%
iceberg-free and that the damage to its hull was confined to holes
totaling about 1 square meter in surface area, again far less than 1% of
the surface area of the hull. And we know it sank."

"As the situation develops, I wouldn't be surprised by military drafting
of programmers, [a] Manhattan Project approach to Y2k. The public will
take an increasingly high-level perspective on problems, will eventually
be ready to sacrifice or alter industries as though waging a war."

"The current approach to 'avoiding public over-reaction' will ensure

"I talked with a fellow Reservist who was working on Norfolk-Southern's
compliance. He said that they (contractors) were forced by the
customer's IT staff to push the remediated system out the door before
the completion of testing in order to meet the HQ-imposed deadline."

"[Y2K] will roughly follow the X stages of project management, which
ends up with 'search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, praise
and honors for the uninvolved.'"

"[Progress] is not doing as well as they are stating publicly. Concerted
effort to hide deficiencies. Deleting systems from critical list to show
greater progress than has actually occurred."

"All government agencies are not telling the truth. And we all know it!"