The Big Picture: the Y2K Lesson

January 13, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I spend a lot of time doing photography. Often, my camera takes a close, intimate look at everyday objects – highlighting texture and detail.

When I’m involved in a writing project though, when I’m analyzing a subject as massive and complex as the climate change debate, I frequently employ the opposite strategy. I step back. I try to understand context and history. I strive to see the big picture.

It’s easy to lose perspective when one is in the thick of things. Imagining how the situation will appear to a disinterested observer ten – or 100 – years hence is immensely helpful.

Certain ideas resurface again and again throughout human history. One of these is the notion that the world as we know it is on the brink of collapse. That the gods, Mother Nature, or our own technology, will wreak havoc – will, in essence, punish us for our transgressions.

Yesterday I read a number of news reports written prior to January 1, 2000 – the day the Y2K computer glitch was supposed to bring the world to its knees. I’ve long assumed that the reason we didn’t encounter massive problems was because lots of time and money was devoted to preventing such an occurrence. But in recent months more than one source has argued persuasively that countries that paid almost no attention to the matter escaped similarly unscathed. [See, for example, the opening pages of Flat Earth News]

Those pre-2000 news reports are fascinating. A cover story published by Newsweek in June 1997 is titled “The Day the World Shuts Down.” Readers are told that, by one estimate, half of all US businesses won’t have their computer code fixed in time. Three paragraphs later, they’re advised:

“It’s staggering to start doing mind games on what percentage of companies will go out of business,” says Gartner’s Hotle. “What is the impact to the economy of 1 percent going out of business?” Or maybe more: Y2K expert Capers Jones predicts that more than 5 percent of all businesses will go bust. This would throw hundreds of thousands of people into the unemployment lines…

A bit later, the article quotes a tech expert saying there are two kinds of people: “Those who aren’t working on [fixing the Y2K bug] and aren’t worried, and those who are working on it and are terrified.”

Another Newsweek story published in late 1998, tells of a San Diego doctor who quit his practice, moved his family to a farm, and began lecturing about Y2K preparedness because he was convinced he could “save more lives getting people to make contingency plans.”

Yet another news account tells readers that the “chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, puts the odds of a [Y2K-triggered] global recession at 70 percent.”

None of the really bad things happened, of course. Not even close. The power grid in big cities did not fail. Nor did large numbers of businesses. Nor did the economy. No matter how certain the well-educated consultants, economists, technology experts, and doctors were in their opinions – no matter how persuasive they sounded when quoted by the media – their fears were overblown by a wide, wide margin.

It’s important to recognize that not everyone got caught up in Y2K end-of-the-world thinking. In May 1999 Newsweek published an admirable essay by technology expert Danny Hillis who declared: “I have come to believe that the Y2K apocalypse is a myth.” He felt “like a traitor,” he said, “for breaking ranks with my fellow computer experts and admitting what I really think.” In his view, Y2K would cause little more than inconvenience.

Ten years later it’s clear that Hillis’ sober-minded, quiet assessment was the correct one, that he was the voice of reason in a roomful of alarmists. He ended his essay with an observation that’s highly applicable today, when we’re being encouraged to believe in an impending global-warming-induced catastrophe:

There are no real experts, only people who understand their own little pieces of the puzzle.

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Entry filed under: historical perspective, media, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , , , .

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