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The Real Year 2000 Crisis

by Michael Maynard,
President, Azimuth Partners, Inc.
Minneapolis, MN, July 9, 1998

For the past three and a half years, I've done a lot of
consulting on the Year 2000 issue with both vendors and users of information
technologies. I find this issue more intriguing than most that I usually deal
with because of the societal impact and implications, not because of the
technological challenges or breakthroughs. This issue sparked a need in
me to go back and look at both the history of the computer industry and of
society in general. The more research I've done, the more it has caused me to
stop and reflect. It appears that Santyana was right: Those who do not remember
the past are doomed to repeat it.

The following lines were written in anticipation of the coming of the
Millennium -- the transition from year 999 to 1000: "... as love waxed cold
and iniquity abounded among mankind, perilous times were at hand for men's
souls. For by many assertions of the ancient fathers we are warned that, as
covetousness stalks abroad, the religious Rules or Orders of the past have
caught decay and corruption from that which should have raised them to growth
and progress.... From this (covetousness) also proceed the constant tumult of
quarrels at law, and frequent scandals arise, and the even tenor of the
different Orders is rent by their transgressions. What then can we think but
that the whole human race, root and branch, is sliding willingly down again
into the gulf of primeval chaos?" (Excerpted from Ralph Glaber, Miracles
de Saint-Benoit

One thousand years later, many of us approach the Second Millennium with the
same dread and confusion. We're terrified that our cars won't start, traffic
lights won't signal, bank machines won't dispense money, the power will be off
and our homes will be cold, the phones, fax, pagers, and cell phones will go
haywire, and computers will miscalculate the data accumulated about our

The only real difference between 999 and 1999 is the source of our fear.

It didn't have to be this way. In all the research on computer hardware
vendors I've done, the two vendors who have had no reports on Year 2000
problems are two dinosaurs, Digital Equipment Corp. [DEC] and Apple Computer.
Whatever the faults of the founders and subsequent professional managers of
these companies have been, both companies were built upon the same
concept: Computers can change the world for the better.

But have they really?

While productivity gains from computers are demonstrated in numerous
business cases, I often wonder just how conclusive these studies really are. Do
they include the time corporate flunkies spend generating non-productive CYA
memos? Do they include the now easily created presentations, corporate
newsletters, and spreadsheets generated with no content or useful purpose other
than to keep the creators busy?

PCs have made it easier to enter business and compete. But have they also
helped lower the quality threshold? A venture capitalist friend of mine told
me that the worst thing to happen to his industry was the invention of the PC
and the corresponding word processing and spreadsheet software applications.
He said that it was now too easy for would-be entrepreneurs to write business
plans. He believed that only the really committed entrepreneur would
write a business plan without the availability of those authoring tools.

Ken Olsen, the legendary founder of DEC, once asked why anyone would want a
computer in their home. Sure, I'm using a PC to write this article now, but if
I had to, I could use a typewriter. There are those who say it would be better
for me to use a typewriter because it would keep me from typing up my various
rants so quickly. But what do we really use computers for that we couldn't
easily do manually or with other devices? Keep our calendars? Send letters to
others? Create a catalogue of recipes? Balance our checkbooks? (Well, maybe
balance our checkbooks!)

The real crisis of the Year 2000 issues is that it has distracted our
attention from asking the questions about why we've let technology
pervade our lives.

Technology has given us incredible access to information. But is having more
information available making us more knowledgeable or sophisticated about the
real world around us? Is getting that information faster overwhelming the
editorial standards needed to verify the accuracy of that information? Or is
slander and malice more acceptable because it's being disseminated more
quickly and frequently?

Is the threat to our privacy and personal freedoms an equitable trade-off to
our ability to transmit our views and personal information faster and to
sources we don't know?

What about our kids? Are we using computers as a soporific to entertain
our children instead of to educate them?

And do we really need to be "connected" 24 by 7 [24 hours x 7 days]?
Or are we just adding more stress to our lives?

And if computers are supposed to be bringing the world together, then why do
we feel a loss of community and connectedness to others? Is having more
tools to communicate with others causing the content and impact of what we
communicate to be lost? Or are we just kidding ourselves that we really
are having two-way communications at all? Aren't we really just talking at
one another while hiding behind our computer monitors?

Is easier and faster really superior? Is more efficient more effective?
Is all this technology really serving our betterment or are we creating an
infrastructure that supports the technology just to maintain its functioning?
Has the physical damage caused by manual labor been replaced by other
physical and psychological ills caused by sitting in front of electronic devices
all day?

In all honesty, I don't know the answers anymore. When I first entered
the industry, I thought I did.

I'm not turning into the Unibomber, nor am I advocating getting rid of all
technology. But there is no sadder commentary on my life than the fact that
I'm able to reach my neighbor across the street more easily by using e-mail
than by going over to his house. We're both "so busy" that we don't have the
time to meet in person without checking our calendars first. What's so
important and urgent in both of our lives that we can't find time for
one another?

I'm concerned that the tools we've created to bring us together are driving us
further apart since we no longer are required to meet in person to
communicate. I'm concerned that the world community created by
telecommunications has caused us to lose a sense of community in the world
closest by us. I'm concerned that an industry legacy based on the quality,
integrity and compassion imparted by Ken Olsen, Dr. An Wang, and other
industry founders has been replaced by a fool's gold rush to get rich quick
through IPOs (initial public offerings). And I'm concerned that the
visionaries who dreamed that computers would improve our lives have been
replaced by sociopaths who are using the technology as a means to gain more
and more control over our lives.

What does this have to do with Year 2000? This: Billions of dollars are being
spent to solve an industry-created, easily avoidable crisis that could have
been avoided if the current leaders in this industry had half the integrity of
the industry's founders. Billions of dollars are being spent that could be
better used to eradicate the hunger and the disease that plagued mankind in
the First Millennium and still exist today, despite all the technological
improvements we claim to have made.

This year, I've worked in the computer industry for one-half of my life.
I'm proud that some of the work I've done has helped my clients make
products that improved the quality of health care or helped them to make safer or
better products. But I would be less than honest if I said I thought the
industry has really improved the quality of our lives. IMNSHO,* I don't think those
who have the money and influence to shape the future of computers and
telecommunications even care. If they do, it is secondary to their
personal needs for power and fortune. And that makes me as frightened as our
ancestors were at the end of the First Millennium.

As we enter the Third Millennium, it seems we haven't learned a damned
thing in the past 1000 years. We're still worshipping false gods that will
only betray us in the end. We just have more technologically sophisticated
ways of doing so.

Michael Maynard is President of Azimuth Partners, Inc. of Stow, Mass., a
consultancy specializing in bringing business and technology together
for the improved development of strategies, products, markets, channels and
sales and better usage of technologies to do them. His company's World Wide Web
site is http:/// You can write him personally on this article
or business or technological issues at [go to top]

NOTE: Thanks to Paul Halsall of Fordham University.
This material was taken from his World Wide Web site at .
Also thanks to The Center for Millennial Studies for
additional background material on this subject.

* IMNSHO = In My Not So Humble Opinion [return to text]

See also: Technology issues