Chapter 3: Sudden, Radical Change
“Fate is not satisfied with inflicting one calamity”
-Publilius Syrus 1
“Year 2000 computer bug will turn machine against man!”
“Hundreds of planes will fall out of the sky!”
“Cars will stop dead in their tracks!”
“Nuclear missiles will launch themselves!”
The above statements can be found on the cover of the February 16, 1999 edition of the Weekly World News, a tabloid devoted to stories so sensational they might even achieve the impossible and make Jerry Springer blush with embarrassment. But while these warnings about the possible effects of Y2K may be more colorful than most, are they really any more alarming than the following words uttered about the bug by Deputy Defense Secretary, John Hamre on June 5, 1998?:
“This is going to have implications in the world and in American society we can’t even comprehend.”
If the most dire predictions about the bug come true, radical change is coming, not only for America but for the world, so it’s no wonder that it has led otherwise sane, respectable public leaders to making statements that echo headlines in the most outrageous tabloid of them all. Still, only the most extreme doomsayers have followed the lead of a professor who tells the Weekly World News that the computer bug is guaranteed to send the world right back to the Dark Age.
“Virtually all the progress made since the 1400s will be wiped out overnight,” Professor Douglas Sturling told the paper. “On January 1, 2000, Western civilization will come crashing down like a fragile house of cards and we will be plunged into an era of darkness and chaos from which we will not emerge for at least 10 centuries--if ever.”
Sturling’s prediction may be a bit too dramatic for most of us, but for anyone who has been around for at least half a century, or even has some knowledge of history, the threat that the bug represents is worthy of alarm. The world can be turned upside down overnight. Sudden, radical change can occur in an instant. It’s happened before. It can surely happen again.
In the early days of October 1929, there was little indication that the good times Americans were enjoying were about to come to an end. In Florida, the market for real estate was so lucrative, Americans saw the state as an “inexhaustible gold-mine.” Then two hurricanes ravaged the land and killed hundreds of people. Suddenly, most of the investments made in the area were worthless. But it was merely a portent of the economic crash to come. On Wall Street, the ticker-tape carrying the news of increasingly rising stocks cast such a spell that even people with little money to spend quit their jobs to stakeout the Stock Exchange. Traffic stood still in the noon hour as thousands greedily awaited the latest news concerning their improved finances, and even people who were flat broke got in on the action when brokers lent them the money to buy shares, in the belief that when their ship came in, they’d share the ride.
Then, one day, the bubble burst. Some industries suffered a decline in fortunes, causing worry among investors. All it took were a few alarming words from an obscure financial advisor to set the crisis in motion. “A crash is coming,” he said, and sure enough, on Friday October 29, it came. The dream was definitely over. A block of stock worth $100,000 only a week earlier was had for one dollar.5
Suicide became a popular way of dealing with financial ruin. One financier shot himself, other people jumped from windows to their deaths, and one man even doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. More than 2,500 suicides were reported in the month after Wall Street went bust.
The stock market crash of October 29, 1929 led to just the kind of sudden, radical change many now fear the Y2K bug will bring. The Great Depression, which left millions of people unemployed, was one direct result of "Black Friday," and America, indeed the world, did not fully recover until the outbreak of World War II a decade later.
What kind of change can we expect from the bug?
How bad will his bite be?
Corey Hamasaki, computer software engineer: “In general, my assessment is that the work is not being done, and the consequences of that is that the systems will fail and the essentials won’t be available sometime after the year 2000.”
A few observers find America’s current economic boom reminiscent of the days preceding the crash of 1929. Heritage West 2000 calls the current economic situation, “An over-sold and over-heated economy, with stock markets at historical highs without performance justification.”
America's emergence from the dark days of the Great Depression came only through the even darker days of war. Our entry into the bloody conflict that was World War II came about just as suddenly as the stock market crash of 1929. The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941 brought America into the battle it had spent two years resisting.
The man whose aggressive actions brought about this global war rose to his position of power rather suddenly, as well. Resentment over the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which brought the first world war to a close, and an economy in shambles made the German people ripe for a strong leader, even one whose strength was not tempered with reason, or even sanity. Adolf Hitler was a failed art student whose watercolor paintings found buyers only because they were used as filler for the frames that were the primary items for sale. He lived in flophouses, participated in an attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria, served a stretch in prison, wrote Mein Kampf and, once free, began a rapid ascent to power. Who could have known that a man of such inconsequential origins, would emerge as the 20th century’s greatest nightmare and conquer more territory than Napoleon?10
Hitler came to power when Germany was in chaos.
Will chaos reign after the bug’s attack in the year 2000?
Will another dictator rise from the wasteland left behind?
Michael Harden, president and chief executive officer of Century Technology Services, Incorporated: “If the breakdowns that occur in the infrastructure of the country are significant, it will open up a lot of opportunities for all kinds of fringe elements to do some rather drastic things.”
Hitler’s quest for more and more power brought the world into a battle that would leave millions dead, including some 4 million Jews at Auschwitz.12 World War II ravaged the globe from 1939-1945, a relatively short time in terms of history, but a radically different world would rise from the ashes of the conflict.
What can we expect from the bug?
Joseph E. Connor, Under Secretary-General Management of the United Nations: “All we know for sure is the timing. The scope...is simply daunting.”
But sudden change can have positive consequences.
Certainly, the United States did the right thing by entering WWII, helping the world fight the madness of the Third Reich. Some do argue that the United States acted unconscionably by dropping the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, killing some 130,000 people,14 but whatever your point of view, there is no question that dramatic, sudden change occurred for both Japan, which was reduced to economic, political, and physical ruin, and the U.S., which brought the worldwide conflict to a triumphant close with the dropping of the bomb.
On the other hand, the end of WWII saw a rise in totalitarianism. Communism not only enslaved millions of people in dictatorial societies like the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, but also affected those countries blessed with freedom. The United States had no choice but to invest billions of dollars in defensive measures that would not have been necessary had revolution not given rise to powerful and power mad dictators who vowed to bring America to its knees.
But what about the bug?
Can Y2K do to the United States what the Soviet Union failed to do?
Will the bug bring the U.S. to its knees?
Edward Yourdon: “I will tell you that my own personal Y2K plans include a very simple assumption: the government of the United States, as we currently know it, will fall on January 1, 2000.”
The Black Death.
It arrived in Europe during the 14th century after disease ridden corpses from a siege at a trading post in the Crimea were catapulted into Genoa. Before long, the plague spread to Sicily, North Africa, Spain, England, France, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. One-third of Europe’s population was wiped out. By 1400, England’s population is believed to have been reduced to half of what it had been a century before, and it wasn’t until the 16th century that western Europe’s population returned to the level it had been prior to the Black Death’s visit to the area.
All these deaths took a severe toll on the economics of Europe. With so many workers felled by the plague, many landowners were ruined. Those that survived found that their bargaining power had been weakened as laborers demanded greater compensation for their services.
The arts took on a gloomy cast as poets and painters turned their skills to the depiction of death and the prospects of a life beyond the grave. Likewise, the Catholic Church found its ranks diminished as many of its followers turned to mystics for their spiritual needs.
What about the bug?
Senator Robert Bennett: “The size and scope of the Y2K crisis is still unknown. What is known is that it has the potential to be a major national disaster. We can hope for the best, but we must not rule out the worst.”
Unfortunately, plagues are still with us in the 20th century.
In the late 1970s, doctors first became aware of a mysterious condition that was sabotaging the immune systems of homosexual men. In 1981, when the condition was identified as a retrovirus and named “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS),” it was still a topic of only passing interest to mainstream society. A decade ago it was estimated that 5 to 10 million people worldwide were infected with the AIDS virus, and a cure remains elusive to the present day.
And there appears to be no cure for Y2K either.
Bob Cohen, vice president of Information Technology Association of America: “It’s an extremely serious and extremely dangerous situation.”
September 2, 1666: The city of London. A fire begins in the house of the king’s baker. Over a period of four days, the flames spread, laying waste to 13,000 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.21
What kind of destruction can we expect from the bug?
Peter deJager at a Y2K conference in July 1998: “If today were December 31, 1999 and our systems were in the current state they are in today, tomorrow our economy worldwide would stop. It wouldn’t grind to a halt. It would snap to a halt.”
April 18, 1906: A sudden movement of land along the San Andreas Fault rocks the city of San Francisco, killing some 700 people and causing an estimated $400 million in damages.23
“Never in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed,” wrote Jack London.
And the bug?
How much damage can it cause?
Peter deJager: “I have never underestimated the size or the severity of the problem. The code is broken. If today (August 5, 1998) were the first day of 2000, then civilization as we know it would stop and people would die. Having food, guns and money would be a good idea.”
November 30, 1998: USA Today reports that this date marks the official end of the “deadliest hurricane season in more than two centuries,” a season in which more than 12,000 people lost their lives.
What will the bug bring?
The bug we have come to call Y2K could be just as cataclysmic as any of the above, perhaps worse. After all, this is a computer bug that represents the first wide-scale technological disaster of our computerized age. It could very well have ramifications that could lead to every disaster imaginable. It could bring on an economic depression, revolution, and war.
IRS Commissioner Charles Rossetti: “The whole system of the United States will come to a halt. It’s very serious. It not only could happen, it will happen if we don’t fix it right.”
And it will affect everyone.
As author Stephen Crane once wrote, “Mistakes and virtues will be trampled deep, a church and a thief shall fall together.”
The battle to beat the Y2K bug is being called the biggest project in the history of the world. As such, it requires someone to lead the troops into battle.
Who will that be?
Professor Sturling, the Y2K source for the Weekly World News’ sensational headlines, warns that unless some computer whiz like Bill Gates comes through with a solution, disaster will strike and “there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop it.”
And his sentiments of doom and gloom do not place him in a minority.
Bruce Webster, chair, Washington D.C. Year 2000 Group: “What we’ve noticed is that the longer someone works on the year 2000 problem and the more involved they get and the more research they do, the more concerned they become.”
Bill Gates is giving no indication that the wizardry with which he built Microsoft can be used as a force to battle the bug, so who we gonna call?
It sounds like a job for Superman.
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