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The Dream of a Technical Fix for Y2K

I have been through several false alarms, believing reports that this or that technical fix would make it certain that all the Y2K bugs would be cleaned up. After the last one, in early July, I wrote:
I think there is a stage that some of us go through with Y2K. We read an article in some seemingly responsible source (mine was in Scientific American) which claims a fix, and we start telling everyone about it. When it turns out to be far less impressive than we thought, we retreat into skepticism.

IMHO skepticism is a good starting place for responses in this subject. The Y2K problem is FAR more complicated than those of us outside of the technical Y2K-remediation scene can comprehend. We need technical rumor control (which I think Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility is doing).

At the same time, ANY automatic stance may blind us to possible opportunities or resources. What I wish someone would do (and I suspect only non-profits or the government could do it) is work out where all the hundreds of fixes fit in the overall remediation picture. This is not something to be left for the marketplace to work out. We can't afford companies buying software that isn't right for them and only learning that fact days or months later. Those days and months are too precious. A remediation staffer should have somewhere to go where, once they've analyzed their Y2K problem, they can pick the proper tools to help them. Right now all they have is a market place screaming BUY MINE! BUY MINE! BUY MINE! Or maybe there is some resource I don't know about....?

One friend clarified why this latest technical fix was not The Answer. Another friend told me about an article that explains why the so-called "Silver Bullet" technical fix (The Answer to Y2K) is a fantasy, and gives questions to ask anyone who says they have one. It is called "Biting the Silver Bullet" by Peter de Jager that answers those who say "Surely someone is smart enough to come up with an automatic 'solution' to this problem so we aren't faced with this impossible amount of work!"

But, in a way, all that is beside the point. During my last Silver Bullet episode, I began to wonder about the implications of technical fixes for our society. I wrote the following:

What if There Is a Technical Fix for Y2K?

For months I have been warning people about the Y2K problem and promoting its potential for cultural change. And now I learn that there are promising technical fixes for both computer bugs and noncompliant embedded chips. If Y2K has such ready technical solutions, I guess I will have pie in my face.

Or will I?

Suppose a drunk driver is going 90 miles per hour down the wrong lane of a two way street. As he comes over a hill he encounters another car heading directly towards him. If he manages to swerve back into the right lane and survive, we would probably consider him both lucky and very foolish. If he has a head-on collision, we might well consider him criminally misguided. But we would hardly be surprised. Drunk driving like that makes an accident fairly likely.

But what if our drunk swerves to safety just in time and then, laughing gleefully at his prowess, drives right back into the wrong lane, accelerating as he goes? What do we think, then? Perhaps: "This person is foolish to the point of insanity, and pretty surely doomed. I wish someone would stop him before he hurts someone!" I see this as a perfect metaphor for our use of technical fixes to continue on our business-as-usual path.

The cause of death for the drunk isn't the collision, when it happens. It is his driving on the wrong side of the road, or the mental state that makes such driving seem workable to him, even fun.

Similarly, Y2K is not, at its roots, a technical problem. It is a problem that arises from our social, economic and cultural vulnerability and our blindness to that vulnerability. When a man with a blindfold walks over the cliff, the problem is not with the cliff, but with the blindfold.

Y2K is one collision that our culture, driving on the wrong side of the road, may or may not have. We may be able to swerve in time. But that's not the point. That's not the lesson we're called to learn here. Y2K is only a problem because our society is not organized for resilience and sustainability. Instead, we are bound together by computer networks and centralized infrastructure that, if broken in the right way, could unravel with breathtaking speed and thoroughness, leaving our just-in-time civilization in ruins. There is no redundancy to save us, no stockpiles to hold us over, no knowledge of how to live without our high-tech paraphernalia, no deep roots in local communities and nature to sustain us when the tubes, wires and pathways of our support systems are cut.

The same off-the-wall technical brilliance that may ultimately solve the Y2K dilemma can also be used by hackers or info-saboteurs to break the system at its knees. Or perhaps a meteor shower wiping out our satellites will do it. Or the right combination of weather and fire. Or drug-resistent diseases. We are getting repeated warnings (the AT&T satellite, the Northeast America blackout, Y2K) that we are vulnerable. When will we wake up, and deal with this vulnerability?

One thing is clear: Whether or not there is a technical fix for Y2K, there is no technical fix for our alienation from nature, from the nurturance and constraints of the very real, very non-human world we live in and, ultimately, depend on. We need to eat, to breathe, to drink, to be safe from poison, disease and predation. The more we depend on vulnerable, overextended, unsustainable systems for these things, the greater our danger. And the longer we go without dealing with this obvious vulnerability -- the more we apply our technical brilliance to move further out on the limb -- the more certain it is that we will fall and the more clear our collective stupidity and insanity become.

Mother Nature has told us repeatedly to drive on the right side of the road, to take the time to make our social and economic systems resilient and sustainable. But we've wanted to prove how clever, powerful and independent we are. So as we manage to avoid one accident, we accelerate gleefully towards the next. We can no more continue this than the gambling addict can continue a tantalizing run of wins. The wall, the fall, the crash, the end is inevitable.

They say that most addicts will deny their addiction to the end, trying to get away with it again, over and over. They seldom change until they "hit bottom." Only those rare addicts who manage to admit and confront their addiction successfully avoid that fate.

A whole civilization hitting bottom is not a pretty sight. If we find a technical fix for Y2K, and let it go at that, we won't have gotten away with anything. We won't have proven our brilliance, just our addiction, our weakness and our stupidity, thinking we're so smart when we're just heading for another catastrophe.

So I will eat the pie on my face with relish and carry on with my work. Perhaps if I do it well -- if the many of us awakened by Y2K do our transformational work well -- we'll be able to act as designated drivers for our technology-drunk culture, and get it safely over into the right lane.

Thank you, Y2K, for the wakeup call.



If there ever were any real Y2K Silver Bullets, we could still ask:

Will those fixes be available to, and used by, those who need them, in time?
What will be the role of the marketplace in enhancing or undermining the potential social benefit of these fixes?
Will developing countries have access to these benefits?
How about small businesses and poor nonprofits?
Why would we (or would we not) make access to these benefits a right, available to anyone who asks, for the benefit of the entire culture's functionality?
Who will win, and who will lose?
Will we still ensure the Y2K compliance of our essential infrastructure?