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Answering "Y2K will only be a speedbump"


by Tom Atlee


Take a minute to think about the phrase "it's only a speedbump"...

Even if it's only a speedbump, we'd better slow down. At 90 mph speedbumps are deadly. That's why they're called speedbumps. They're there to MAKE us slow down.


Shortly after I wrote this, I got the note below in my email.... - tom


Date: Wed, 16 Jun 1999 11:47:26 -0700
From: Rebecca Kaplan <>
Subject: [bay2k] "A Bump In The Road"

The recent emails regarding the WDCy2k survey continue to use the
quote "only a bump in the road" to refer to the opinion of those
who think y2k will NOT be a big deal. Presumably, they think
that it will only be a bump in the road in the sense that people
will be slightly jarred, and then continue on the same road, with
course & speed unchanged, and no long-term impact.

This analogy is interesting to me, because at first I thought
it was a bad analogy to describe a "minimal impact". Now I think
it is a good analogy, but not in the way that the "pollyannas" think
it is.

So, you are driving on a road, and hit a bump. What happens?
Well, the impact of hitting the bump is dependant in large
part on what speed you are travelling. The exact same bump might
do no damage if you are driving at 20mph, might injure you
at 50mph and might kill you at 90mph. What "speed" is our system
travelling, as it approaches this y2k bump? It looks to me like
our global infrastructure/economic system is travelling at an
unsafe speed, rushing headlong unquestioningly along the road.

How big is the "bump"? Perhaps an optimistic picture would be
that a small bump would be the failure/malfunction of 1-3% of computers,
chips, etc. But where will the bump hit? Will we hit the bump with
our tires? Will it scrape the bottom and rip out the muffler?
Will it puncture the gas tank?

Even a small bump can have big impacts, depending on where and how
it hits. Also, there can be a chain reaction. The first car hits
the bump, and slams on the breaks. The bump itself doesn't destroy
the car, but then, the car behind it on the road doesn't stop
fast enough, and smashes into the car that slammed on the breaks.
Then you have a big wreck. One might argue that the wreck was not
caused by the bump, but by the too-slow reaction time of the second
driver. But most disasters are caused by multiple problems. The
too-slow reaction time, AND the bump. So, we have a small bump, only
a few malfunctions. The malfunctions close one plant that makes one
seemingly-trivial part. But this part is needed for the production
of something big and important. This is the bump. Then we have the
too-slow reaction time of the globally specialized profit-maximized
market using just-in-time delivery, in which there is no surplus
stock of the part, and no other plant that can make it. Then, the
combination of the bump and the slow reation time combine to
create a situation in which production of the big important thing

What kind of safety systems do we have in place when we hit this bump?
After all, if you take two different drivers, and send them to hit
the same bump at the same speed, you might find that the one
wearing a seatbelt made it through fine, but one without a seatbelt
was jarred into the roof or windshield, and seriously injured.
Do we have our seatbelts on as we approach this bump? (e.g. contingency
plans, emergency supplies, etc).

Finally, are we watching the road ahead? A bump might have
almost no impact if the driver is paying attention, and slows or
steers properly. But what if the bump hits when the driver
is changing the radio station and talking on the cellphone and
distracted, with hands off the wheel? Then the bump might cause
the car to spin out of control.