The Year 3000 Problem
Y2K is all hype. It's Y3K we should be afraid of.

The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, January 28, 1997

Cyber-apocalypse is less than three years away, if you believe the hype about the Year 2000 Problem. Known in geek-speak as "Y2K," this is the bug that affects mostly older computers, which store dates as two digits and thus will choke on the year 2000, reading it as 1900.

If the problem goes untended, we are warned, chaos will ensue: Banks will be unable to process transactions, the IRS will be crippled, and centenarians will be forced to enroll in first grade. "Think of 1996 as 1936," investment analyst John Westergaard, a leading Y2K alarmist, wrote last year in his online newsletter. "Warning clouds were there for all to see but no one imagined World War II's eventual breadth or horrors. The millennium meltdown is analogous. It will occur on a world scale and will lead to financial and economic chaos far worse than anyone today imagines." Yikes!

The good news is that deliverance may be at hand. Just reach for your wallet. A bevy of consultants are offering their services to managers whose computers may be susceptible to the problem. The Gartner Group, a Connecticut-based computer consulting firm, has garnered wide publicity for its estimate that fixing the Year 2000 Problem world-wide will cost up to $600 billion--much of which, conveniently enough, will go to computer consulting firms like the Gartner Group.

In truth, the problem is less dire than the warnings. The Economist recently debunked the Gartner estimate, pointing out that "perhaps half of all affected programs will be deemed not worth fixing, will have only cosmetic errors (printing the date wrongly on reports, for example), can be replaced easily with off-the-shelf software, or will disappear as part of the move away from mainframe and minicomputer systems." All told, the magazine reckons, Gartner overestimates the cost by a factor of three.

As for Mr. Westergaard, his writings on the matter are, shall we say, charmingly eccentric. He predicts--I'm not making this up--Y2K will so profoundly unsettle America that voters in 2000 will turn to Microsoft CEO Bill Gates as their savior, electing him president of the United States. (It's not clear why, if Y2K works as advertised, we wouldn't end up re-electing William McKinley instead.)

But if it seems a safe bet that the world won't end in 2000, this doesn't mean we can rest easy. For a much more serious problem looms on the horizon, one that will make the Y2K debacle look like a child's birthday party. I refer, of course, to the Year 3000 Problem.

Believe it or not, even computers that can handle the year 2000 are unprepared for 3000. On my Pentium laptop running Microsoft's Windows 95, I entered the date "1-1-2000." The computer didn't miss a beat. But when I tried "1-1-3000," I got an "Invalid date" message. Call me a cynic, but I'd say this is politics as usual. President Gates is quite content to ignore a problem that will lie dormant for 991 years after he completes his second term.

It gets worse. Computers will be ubiquitous 1,003 years hence. A lot of apocalyptic talk preceded the year 1000, but history records that none of it had to do with data processing. After all, there were no computers then. In the next millennium, as computerization continues unabated, malfunctions will hit much closer to home.

Consider the following all-too-plausible scenario: It's Dec. 31, 2999, seconds before midnight. You're speeding down the highway en route to a New Year's Eve party. Suddenly, the computer that controls your car--thinking it's traveled back in time 1,000 years--spins the vehicle into reverse, causing a massive pileup in which you're injured. Paramedics are unable to access your medical history, because the bioelectronic implant that stores it has erased 1,000 years worth of records. Later, you can't pay your hospital bill, because the limit on your credit card, which had been $250 trillion, has dropped to $4,721--the equivalent sum before 1,000 years of 2.5% inflation.

Multiply this incident by billions of people, throw in the total upheaval of a world economy that's completely computerized, and you have a recipe for catastrophe beyond human imagining. And don't get me started about what this will do to the Social Security system.

Scared? Good. Luckily, disaster can be averted--but there's no time to waste. Dear reader, hire a consultant today to assess your Y3K vulnerability.

Next article: The Cigar Bar (3/27/97)

Previous article: Tax Incentives I'd Like to See (9/11/96)

Go to main list