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Article published in the Ventura Star  (12/26/1999)

Don't Fear Y2K, Beware Hysteria


By William Knoke

Web Postscript:  Knoke accurately predicted in a 1998 radio interview that Y2K would be a non-event.  This article came out just before the turn of the century.

Sidebar article:

Keep Expectations Low

As a noted futurist, I was once advised to never give a prediction within the next five years, as you may be shown to be wrong.  But just for fun, I’m going to take a chance on Y2K.  From a news standpoint, like Halley’s Comet, people are going to wonder what all the fuss was about.  The Y2K computer problems will either not materialize, or fall much short of the hype.  Here’s what will happen:

On Saturday, January 1, 2000, the newspapers will report Y2K on Page 3 mostly for Asia and Europe, which enter the new millennia 8 to 17 hours ahead of us.  Most of our local problems just won’t be known in time for the publication deadlines.  The evening television news on January 1st will start to cover local issues with human-interest stories.  Besides, stories of terrorism or nostalgic summaries of the past century will provide better copy.  It will not be until Monday, January 3rd, when businesses reopen, that some will realize that their order entry systems don’t work the way they used to.  Sales will be lost to competitors who better planned ahead.  Despite many rough spots, the public will lose interest.

Nonetheless, on Sunday, January 2nd, look for a boxed sidebar somewhere inside most metropolitan newspapers that will summarize the Y2K problem.  The details are impossible to know in advance, but it will read something like this:

  • Pocatello, Idaho.  Telephone systems went down, but the phone company was able to reboot the system by dawn.  Billing may be disrupted.

  • Chicago.  Terrorists caught attempting to launch bomb attacks on city.

  • Bombay.  Airplane crashes on landing.  Experts are working to determine if it is Y2K related.

  • China.  A government spokesman reports minor export disruptions, but nothing else.

  • Russia.  Major catastrophe as power grid darkens in two cities, and hospitals have insufficient emergency power backup.  Most of the power was restored by noon the next day.

  • USA.  Circuit City reports VCR sales increased 10% as customers’ old systems give the wrong day of the week for automated recording.  Several companies have disrupted order entry, and may be struggling with manual systems for weeks.  Government spokesperson announces that some welfare tracking will be delayed for 10 days, as some systems require manual entries.  Congress and the White House launch independent investigations.

By January 5th, theY2K coverage will begin to fall back to page 12.  By February 1, “Y2K” will acquire a new meaning, which will be entered in the Webster’s 2001 edition:   “an unrealized exaggeration.”

Let’s hope so, anyway.

            --By William Knoke

A year ago in a radio interview, I said the Y2K was hyped up.  I repeat that now.  Listening to the Y2K paranoia, I sometimes wonder if I live on a different planet.  I grant that there are problems, but they are not the ones the press is talking about.  It’s not computers, but the price of public hysteria.

I rather think that human beings like to worry.  It is a hobby they have that has helped them protect themselves from the forest lions.  Those who did not worry tended to die.  So us survivors are wired to bite our nails.

In a democracy, the government is supposed to reflect the people.  So, it is no surprise that much of the hype comes from the government.  My local library sports a glossy brochure from the Governor’s Office entitled “Y2K–What2Do.”  There, I learned that “thousands of computers and countless computer chips have the potential to malfunction.”  Included is a checklist of the “basic supplies” we cannot do without:  plastic utensils, extra eyeglasses, heavy gloves and a loud bell or whistle.  I was tempted to call the Governor’s office to ask whether he thought a bell or whistle would be better.

The brochure also advises us all to “have some extra cash on hand in case computer-controlled electronic transactions… cannot be processed.”  One problem leads to another.  The Federal Reserve has already printed up an additional $70 billion in cash–about $700 per U.S. household.  Clearly, some people will want $700, but I have a hard time visualizing the average household doing that.

Recently, Singapore Airlines added their name to the list of those that will not fly at midnight, on that dreaded night.  I think that’s a good idea, not because of a flight risk, but because it’s a bum rap to be caught in the air on New Year’s Eve anyway.  Last month on a flight, I ended up sitting next to a 747 pilot for a major airline who is also a senior trainer.  He confided to me that he thinks New Year 2000 will be the safest time to fly.  His view is that air traffic controllers are under trained, and give a false sense of security.  If their computers went down, so much the better.  The airlines have to make a showing for public image; perhaps the government and the banks too.

With all the gloom, many forget the great opportunity that Y2K has been.  All over the world, manufacturers are kicking out inventory to accommodate distribution stockpiles.  Armies of programmers and consultants shifted gears to accommodate the new Y2K industry, reprogramming or replacing whole computer systems.  Y2K trade shows have sprung up selling everything from freeze-dried chicken soup to Franklin wood burning stoves.  And don’t forget the printers that printed up the Governor’s glossy brochure advising me to get a whistle or a bell. 

The problem with Y2K is comparable with, in some ways, the Northridge Earthquake.  The emergency rooms were packed with the wounded, but ironically 90% of them were injured not from the earthquake itself, but from the panic to avoid it:  running in the dark into open doors, and tripping over chairs.  In Y2K, there is indeed a problem, but it is more related to the hysteria than to the reality.  Government, banks and airlines all add to the stampede, stepping over each other to show that they are the most ready.  The public likes that.

As for me, I like backpacking.  Come January, I’m headed to the eBay.com to buy as much auctioned backpacking food as I can.  The Armageddon crowd has been stocking up, and many will be unloading their inventory in a few weeks.  What a once-in-a-millennium opportunity.

-- William Knoke is an internationally recognized futurist and author of “Bold New World:  The Essential Road Map to the 21st Century.”

Article and picture copyright © 1999, 2000 Ventura Star



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