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Apocalypse When?

Over the last decades of the 20th century, we have learned to rely on computers to flawlessly manage every aspect of our lives, from communication to transportation to commerce. Yet inherent in every technology including computers is the possibility of failure. Indeed, computers crash with maddening regularity, as we can all attest. Despite these failures, we expect the complex technological systems upon which our infrastructure depends will always function properly.

The potential Y2K computer disaster looming on the horizon threatens to change all that. While complex systems such as the electricity grid, transportation, and commerce may not fail here in the United States—and all indications are that they won’t—our faith in technological progress is bound to be shaken.

Even now, just six months before the dawning of the new millennium, we can’t predict with any certainty the extent of the problem. With global costs for hardware and software fixes approaching $9 billion, however, few experts still claim the problem is exaggerated. "That there will be a global disruption is a given; the extent and magnitude of the problem still remain to be determined," say Arnaud de Borchgrave and Stephanie Lanz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At the heart of the uncertainty is our global interconnectedness. "It is not a question of one thing going wrong," say de Borchgrave and Lanz, "but the possibility of tens of thousands of little failures occurring all over the world."

The greatest risk may be economic. "Information is the life blood of our global and domestic markets," says Edward Yardeni, chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities. Yardeni warns that if information systems fail in 2000, a global recession could result.

Senator Robert Bennett, chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem, also warns of the threat Y2K poses to the global economy. "It would be naive to think that Y2K disruptions abroad will be constrained by national borders," he says. "If these disruptions involve countries that either buy or sell U.S. goods, we will feel the impact."

While some countries—including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and the United States—are far along in Y2K remediation, developing nations are far behind. "In an age where capital can be withdrawn from an entire nation by a simple keystroke—as we saw in the Mexico peso crisis—some developing nations may simply fall off the economic map and be plunged into extreme poverty," Bennett says.

By far the most perilous scenario regarding Y2K failures centers on Russia. Hundreds of nuclear submarines, scuttled after the Cold War, could become mini-Chernobyls if the loss of electrical power results in a meltdown of their nuclear fuel rods, says Michael Kraig at the British-American Security Council.

Y2K errors may also plague Russia’s nuclear arsenal. "Y2K-related glitches will not cause a spontaneous unauthorized launch of missiles or the explosion of nuclear warheads," Kraig says. However, "if Y2K were to produce ambiguous data or blackouts of crucial surveillance sensors, or the failure of critical communications between command posts, nuclear commanders could interpret these events as evidence of an ongoing surprise strike...and act accordingly."

If there is anything positive in this crisis, it’s the opportunity it provides us to rethink the role of technology in our lives. If our infrastructure is so fragile that it can be threatened by a 2-digit computer glitch, it’s time to work toward something more sustainable.

Futurist Robert Theobald has labeled the 21st century the "healing century," one that will heal the wounds of the current "economic century." Y2K is a warning, he says, that it’s time to move beyond seeking ever-increasing economic growth based on technological innovation, to create a more human-centered world.

The Editors

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