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Many of us remember a time when a computer was a rare thing. Some of us even remember the first computers that were the size of a room with punch cards to programme them! Today computers are everywhere! These computers will hit a crisis in the year 2000. Just how huge the crisis will be, noone knows ó but the issue forces us to reflect on the fact that we live in a world that has become hugely dependent on the computer.
|If anyone tells you that civilisation will collapse
at the stroke of midnight on 31 December, 1999, you'll probably think that they're
some sort of religious nut with a heavy investment in the bizarre. However, if you
turn to your Net Browser, type in the magic letters "Y2K," then hit return,
you're sure of a big surprise because you will see that lofty figures in business
and government on both sides of the Atlantic are seriously concerned about this very
The Y2K problem is popularly known as the "Millennium Bomb." The potential cause of anarchy, mayhem and the end of the world as we know it is just two little numbers. Computers store the year section of the date as two digits, so 1997 is fed into the computer as "97." That's fine, but in just over two years time, that date will roll over to "00," and computers all over the world will go completely haywireunless something is done in the meantime. They will assume that we have gone back to 1900. By making this assumption, they might be sending civilisation right back to the stone age.
It is difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend how an apparently small problem as this can totally devastate computers everywhere. Suffice it to say that experts are in complete agreement that it can. However, a little thought will show that devastated computers mean a devastated society. Everything is currently controlled by computers.
Take banks for instance. Money is nothing more than a set of numbers in computer memory. Payments and receipts amount to nothing more than shifting data around via electronic communications links controlled by computers. The money is transferred from bank to bank by telephone lines which are controlled by vulnerable computers. The telephone lines need electricity from power stations which are controlled by computers.
Assuming you've got your money, the cash machine in your local shop is computer controlledit probably can't read the price of your purchase without the intervention of a computer. Deliveries in the shop and stock control are in the hands of the computers. The food is delivered by lorries whose operations are controlled by computers. There are computers controlling the engines of the lorries; they need diesel, and the pumps are controlledyes, you guessed it! The list goes on: paralysis of aviation, the police, governments, the stock markets, could set in at the stroke of midnight.
Perhaps you think I'm a misinformed nut who's got things well out of proportion; I wouldn't blame you. The trouble is that I read this in the Guardian Weekly in May, and I, like most people, just couldn't take it in. I read the same thing in Time magazine last month; I still couldn't take it in. Then I read the book, The Millennium Bomb: Countdown to a $600 Billion Catastrophe (Simon Reeve & Colin McGhee, Vision Paperbacks; the bookshop computer will recognize this as "1-901250-00-8" printed just above the bar code). I began to get worried but still managed to dismiss it as sensationalism. Then I looked at the Y2K website, and I was left in no doubt that society was under a real threat. I looked at my credit cards, airline tickets and shop receipts; all had the date as two figures. Absolutely everybody agrees that there will be problems. The only questions are: "How bad will things get?" and "Can we prevent disaster?"
The fact is that nobody knows just what will happen when the chips are down. In theory, nuclear reactors could melt down and military installations could start firing missiles indiscriminately. It could happen, so they say; but it seems a bit far fetched. Emmett Page, the Assistant U.S. Secretary for Defense says, "The Department of Defense is very much aware of this serious problemSome of our weapons systems would not function properlyinaction is simply unacceptable". Ian Taylor, the British Government's science and technology minister stated recently: "Failure to deal with the problem could lead to commercial collapse. I put it bluntly because I need to get the message across. It will not respect international frontiers. Unless we act now, there will be international chaos."
The computer giant, IBM, has issued the same stern warning: "Time is running out. This is a survival issue for some firmsIf you are not already seriously considering the impact that this will have on your business, then it is probably too late." So, logically, if enough firms are seriously working at solving the problem, then we should at least be able to stem commercial collapse and international chaos. If they're not, then the chances are that all hell will break loose.
So how much progress is being made? According to independent research, 75% of North American companies, 90% of British companies, 95% of European companies, and 99% of Asian companies are doing absolutely nothing about it! Logically, therefore, if IBM are right (and they usually are), then we are likely to see commercial collapse on a grand scale. As Time magazine put it, "There are two types of companies: those who are doing nothing about the problem and are not worried, and those who are working on the problem and are terrified."
The scale is just too big for most companies or government departments to take in. The cost of any clean up has been estimated at $600 billion
(internationally), and this has to be found over a period of two years. On the one hand, if the problem is not solved, there is disaster. If money is spent to solve the problem, it spells bankruptcy. To make matters worse, even if there was a benefactor who could magically come up with the money to solve the whole problem, there wouldn't be enough experts to deal with it in the remaining time. Also, computers can't just simply close down for maintenance; they are in constant use. Organizations are afraid even to concede that there is a problem for fear of loss of public confidence.
So where does this leave us, the organic vegetable growers and homesteaders of the world? We've known all along that we were living within an unsustainable system, and some of us have got to feel quite smug about our insight, wisdom, and self-sufficiency. We've done battles to try and change the system, to overthrow this, and prevent that. The real Day of Judgement would now seem to be at hand; most of what we were up against may well collapse before our eyes. However, we need to ask ourselves (and those in our community) some very searching questions before the storm hits us. Do we have more faith in our community than we have in the boffins? How are we going to live without the technological web that enables us to communicate, move, and, let's face it, eat? If anarchy breaks out, how are we to defend ourselves against lunatics of one sort or another? I don't want to sound like IBM, but "Time is running out. This is a survival issue for some communitiesIf you are not already seriously considering the impact that this will have on your community, then it is probably too late." As the Chinese say, a crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity.
David Gibson is resident in Galway. He has recently returned from work in the Fiji Islands.
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