[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Illustration Big Bang Theory: Winston Smith (see separate article) lets his postmillennial vision loose in such collages as 'The Futility of a Well-Ordered Life' (above).

Illustration by Winston Smith

World Wide Y2K

While we can afford to be fairly sanguine about Y2K stability in the U.S., things appear less rosy at the international level

By Mark K. Anderson

ON NOV. 21, NBC will air a made-for-TV movie called Y2K. In it, a harried systems analyst for the federal government, played by Ken Olin, races to save the world as the power grid on the Eastern seaboard goes down, as airplanes go haywire, as a nuclear power plant outside Seattle nears meltdown and as the public flips its collective wig.

All fine fodder for sci-fi-adventure high jinks. But for predictive value, Y2K is at least a few shades of purple too overwrought and at least a year out of date. By midway through 1998, when both Y2K and Y2K were still in their formative stages, enough variables still remained to formulate worst-case scenarios that involved domestic infrastructure failures and everything short of rapture and the second coming. But, as the granddaddy of all Y2K experts, Peter de Jager--who wrote what's considered to be the original Y2K article, "Doomsday 2000," for Computer World on Sept. 6, 1993--told me in an interview earlier this year, "I really believe that the TEOTWAWKI scenarios that are so rampant on the Internet and in much of the media are, quite frankly, no longer possible." (One occasionally finds this unwieldy acronym plastered on chat sites and usenet threads relating to Y2K. As REM's Michael Stipe would say, it's "The End Of The World As We Know It.")

What is possible--and what causes greatest concern among those whose business it is to monitor the progress of Y2K fixes--is a far more convoluted and complex situation involving our interdependence on the countries who haven't been doing their Y2K homework over the past few years.

As Thomas Barnett, strategic planner for the Naval War College, put it in an interview in September, "Y2K is like a deadline for a big test on who's got their stuff together in the new global, information-technology-driven economy. Now the question is, who's giving the test? Who's taking the test? And who's going to get pissed at the grades?"

In the waning weeks of millennium No. 2 (yes, we've heard it before: Technically the millennium doesn't begin until 2001, but try telling that to computers), a full overview of international Y2K preparedness would require a war room with world maps, bales of classified reports and lots of colored pushpins.

Lacking such a setup, though, one must turn to one's government. And, in a refreshing surprise, the Feds have done a fair-to-admirable job of both assessing where things stand and predicting where they could go.

Even extremist Washington-hating survivalists have been turning to their nemesis for the most reliable and accurate information. For instance, the Y2K Survival Handbook (a periodical put out by Harris Publications in New York), in its "Crisis Countdown!" issue, quotes a September report by the U.S. Senate as its prime source on Y2K preparedness efforts overseas.

The report, timed to coincide with the 100th day before Jan. 1--Sept. 22--represents the culmination of more than a year's worth of information gathering by the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, chaired by Sens. Christopher Dodd and Robert Bennett. (For more information, see the committee's website at y2k.senate.gov.)

"Several countries of strategic and economic importance to the U.S. are severely behind in Y2K remediation efforts," the report states. Citing the Y2K watchdog organization International Monitoring, the report isolates 28 countries as running the highest risk of serious Y2K-related infrastructure failures: Albania, Bangladesh, Colombia, Congo, Zaire, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Madagascar, Moldova, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, Vietnam and Yugoslavia.

Only eight days previous to the latest senatorial revelations, the State Department issued its most detailed list yet about which countries have fallen short in Y2K preparations, and thus are likely to have problems ranging from utility outages to healthcare delivery problems.

This list alone (on the Internet at travel.state.gov) offers a useful reality check against some of the more wild-eyed TEOTWAWKI prognostications found on the Internet. On the other hand, the State Department is also surprisingly blunt in a few places, giving those inclined to worry plenty to cogitate over. What follows, for instance, is the State Department's forecast for a third of the world's population.

* China: "May be a risk of potential disruption in the key sectors of banking and finance, telecommunications, medical services, and in electrical power and infrastructure systems outside of the coastal cities."

* India: "Largest question is the readiness of the electric power sector and the ocean ports, parts of which have been slow to address the Y2K issue."

* Russia: "Disruptions are likely to occur in the key sectors of electrical power, heat, telecommunications, transportation, and financial and emergency services."

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation followed suit with their appraisal of airport and airline safety worldwide after Jan. 1. (For all their information and analysis, see the "fly2k" website at www.fly2k.dot.gov.)

In short, according to U.S. Inspector General Jacquelyn L. Williams-Bridgers, half the 161 countries around the world are at medium to high risk of experiencing Y2K failures in their telecommunications, energy and/or transportation infrastructures. "The global community is likely to experience varying degrees of Y2K-related failures in every sector, in every region and at every economic level," she testified this summer.

"Various countries in South American, Africa, Asia, and even parts of Europe are clearly unprepared for Y2K," Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, vice chairman of the Senate's Year 2000 committee, told the National Press Club on Sept. 9. "And many more have much to accomplish in the remaining 115 days or so."

According to Lloyd's of London, year 2000 computer problems will cost the world upward of $3 trillion. Of course, figures that rival the national budget or Bill Gates' net worth hold little, if any, practical meaning.

To paint a more useful picture of the extent of the millennium bug's bite, the U.S. Naval War College recently published its Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project Report. Spearheaded by Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and supervised by War College senior strategic researcher Thomas P. M. Barnett, the report presents a more substantive examination of the global political, economic and strategic implications of Y2K than anything yet released for public consumption.

The War College's effort is not to be confused with an August report by a different branch of the Navy that sparked controversy in the online world with its dire warnings of utility outages. That report was quickly pulled from the Navy's website and revised.

And like the August report, this study (available at www.nwc.navy.mil/y2k) can be misinterpreted too. It's not a forecast--prediction is folly in the face of an event as complex as Y2K. Rather, Barnett and Cebrowski's work is closer to the definitive hitchhiker's guide to the millennium bug: outlining the forms Y2K problems could take, the way they'd propagate and the long-term effects they could have.

Rather than view potential Y2K problems as a single incident that will happen on New Year's Day or thereabouts, Barnett et al. believe a more likely scenario is one of gradually unfolding consequences and aftershocks that could propagate into 2001 or 2002.

In short, do not expect the "Big Bang" theory as applied to the new millennium; it's likely to be a more drawn-out affair.

But look for the Y2K aftershocks to affect world finances and politics. Barnett and his scores of consultants envision the potential for something they term a new "Global Rule Set."

That is, if Y2K hits hard enough in enough corners of the globe, the report suggests that it could force global scrutiny on the new economy in a way similar to what happened at the end of World War II, which ended the isolationism of the 1930s and begat the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank--the modern foundations of global politics and economics today.

"Naturally, the United States is not particularly enamored with the call for a new Global Rule Set," the report states, "for it is doing quite nicely in the current set, and most of the calls for new rules typically center on placing restrictions on the free flow of international capital, something the U.S. does not wish to see for reasons of its obvious economic success over the course of the 1990s."

The report continues: "In the end, if Y2K proves to be an historical turning point between one era and the next, it won't be because of what Y2K is, but because of what it told us about the status quo and the need for change. In short, it's not what Y2K destroys that will be important but what it illuminates."

What, exactly, would it all mean for the world's economy and political landscape? On that, the War College experts produced few specifics.

The potential scope of Y2K problems will largely depend on how quickly events unfold after 1/1/2000. To measure the possibilities, Barnett and Cebrowski developed meteorological analogies that took into account both the robustness of a country's infrastructure systems and the incidence and duration of Y2K events.

From best-case to worst-case scenarios, the four onset models are tornadoes (robust systems, discrete and episodic events), floods (robust systems, widespread and sustained events), hurricanes (vulnerable systems, discrete and episodic events), and ice storms (vulnerable systems, widespread and sustained events). Using such known events makes it easier for planners to grapple with potential Y2K problems, Barnett says.

Perhaps the report's most valuable contribution is its consideration of the long-term aftershocks that Y2K could bring. Don't expect the problems to be gone with the confetti and the hangovers, they caution.

That view is echoed by the private sector. For example, the Gartner Group, a Connecticut-based consulting firm, has concluded that only 10 percent of all Y2K-related failures will happen within the 10 days on either side of 1/1/2000. Indeed, the Gartner Group estimates that Y2K problems will stretch out over the entire year, and a few will not surface until 2001.

So Barnett argues that, to be most effective, government and business leaders should concentrate their efforts on the preparations that lead up to Jan. 1 and on the long-term fixing projects that will arise after Y2K's immediate effect is known. But they will be the least effective--and stand to do the most harm--if they try too hard to intervene during the crucial first couple of weeks of the new year. It's best instead, the report suggests, to ride out the wave.

"Too many decision-makers in positions of authority will, in their concern for maintaining control over what we perceive will be a largely uncontrollable situation surrounding the millennial date change event, squander precious resources that should be held in reserve for the failures yet to come," predicts the report.

"Our underlying philosophy in all of this advice," the report cautions, "is that people in general respond quite well during disasters or crises, but that the panic potential beforehand and the battle fatigue danger afterwards are far more important management points than the actual threshold event."

Stemming the panic--or what they term "iatrogenic"--potential of Y2K is perhaps the key element for handling any crises to come. But instead of the say-nothing approach most world leaders have taken, Barnett reports that when some of the country's leading speculators on political, economic, social and military affairs gathered to concentrate on the Year 2000 technology problem, they became far less afraid of Y2K and far more awestruck.

"When you get off this 'last mistake of the 20th century' stuff, you come to the conclusion that we'll be experiencing Y2Ks all the time in the 21st century" Barnett said. "The more you study it, the less frightening it is--because the more it starts to be life as you're coming to know it."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.