September 1999

The Y2K question is looming. The level of anxiety, fear, worry, and just plain jibberish is growing daily. Everybody seems to have a different idea of what Y2K is all about. Millennialists forecast doomsday, survivalists forecast hard times, and computer dealers forecast a healthy upsurge in sales.

Yes, it seems that the only people who are looking forward to the year 2000 with joyful anticipation are the very people responsible for this ugly mess we are in. Government Computing News, State and Local Edition of August 1999 reports that "every single one of Microsoft's shipping operating systems is non-compliant for Y2K." (page 23) And since Microsoft products require these non-compliant operating systems, this implies that nearly every one of Microsoft's Windows applications is non-compliant as well.

And if you ask the typical consumer out there -- and I've spoken to dozens of them over the past two months -- they all quote the same worthless nonsense like trained parrots: "I'm not worried, I have a new computer." Or maybe, "I'm not worried, I have Windows98." Or even, "I'm not worried, I'm sure Microsoft will fix it." An even greater number of PC users, however, just respond like this: "I'm not going to worry about it."

This society is composed of the biggest bunch of head-burying, reckless, fatalistic ostriches in world history. And the computer dealers are only too happy to play upon the irrational and ignorant mindset of their customers.

Time and time again, I've had computer store clerks and owners nervously try to hush me up as I calmly inform the customers about the FACTS. Fact Number One, for example, is that we just don't know how bad -- or harmless -- it will be. Millions of computer users will probably be unaffected and unharmed by Y2K, particularly if they use their PCs solely for word processing and/or computer games. Using CD-ROM encyclopedias and other single-user, home-based reference guides will probably be totally safe. However, millions of other PC users, particularly those employing spreadsheets, accounting programs, and e-mail applications, will likely have problems ranging from minor to severe. But the reality is, nobody can be absolutely certain, one way or the other.

Computer sellers don't like admitting that they don't know something. It ruins the false impression that they are all-knowing gurus who have all the answers. It ruins the pleasant, mindless atmosphere of casual acceptance of everything "new" as automatically "better" by a brainwashed populace. You know, the people who believe evolution is fact because it's "obvious" or because "everybody else believes it." You know, the people who think that technology can only get better, never worse. You know, the people who equate clever marketing with technological excellence. If you calmly and rationally explain that this attitude is self-deception and that the people in the computer industry are not really as sharp and all-knowing as they appear, you will likely be branded as a "dangerous person" who must be harassed and shut-up.

These same store managers absolutely hate it when you point out to their customers Fact Number Two: Microsoft is not the solution; Microsoft is part of the problem. Now the store clerks must sooth the poor, wounded customers whose sleepy acceptance of Microsoft products has been challenged. They now must explain why the store has kept hidden the fact that other, superior products exist and are used by millions of well-informed, satisfied users who also are more well-prepared for Y2K. If you manage to convince a visitor to even investigate an alternative product such as OS/2, Linux, or Lotus Smartsuite, the store manager will often fuss and fume and declare such open-mindedness as off-limits. "Get back in your box, Igor" seems to be the warning given to the suddenly inquisitive customer.

As the Y2K compliance technician for a small Nashville computer company, I can honestly say that Y2K is a very, very complicated issue when it comes to Microsoft products. There are Y2K issues with C++ libraries, Visual Basic tools, applications, operating systems, browsers, and add-ons such as "Microsoft Plus". Some Microsoft products will work next year, but have suddenly developed end-of-life scenarios focused on years such as 2035 and 2038. In other words, the long-term date compliance of several Microsoft products suffered *REGRESSION* over the past few years. That makes any firm statement of compliance nearly impossible for honest, well-informed professionals.

The final indignity upon a computer dealer occurs when you manage to get the point across that Y2K is not a singularity. Fact Number Three provides an entirely new perspective: January 1, 2000, is only the beginning, not the end of the Y2K issue. Customers who absorb this little piece of wisdom may begin to realize that they can never again be so mindlessly self-assured about the reliability of their computers, or more specifically about the veracity of their data. Suddenly, store managers can no longer hoodwink their trusting customers about the long-term effects of Y2K by simply moving the system clock forward a few months for a one-time rollover check. The real issues of overlapping patches, multiple versions of applications, and the possibilities of future Y2K regressions (fixed products being broken by future upgrades) are far too complicated for the typical box-vendor to explain to the average customer. Now you have turned a simple "buy a new PC" answer into a "nobody knows what will happen next" quagmire.

For all the good you have done on behalf of the customers, however, their reaction will typically be quite negative. They may even cover their ears and insist that you not tell them these things. If these are your own clients, you quite possibly will lose them to more slick, soothing rivals who will say just what people want to hear. There is a severe price to be paid for admitting that the consumer PC industry is run by a seat-of-the-pants, we'll-fix-it-eventually mentality. People want to be told that there are no monsters under their beds, that there are no bogeymen hiding in their closets, and that newness of hardware and software automatically banishes defects and problems into the trash can, once and for all. People want to hear these things instead of being told the truth, because with the truth comes the awful responsibility of having to actually make a decision, to become informed, and even to stand for something instead of just following along with the crowd.

When put into that perspective, the average computer dealer, the average computer buyer, and Microsoft were meant for each other. They are the perfect match of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. They reinforce each other's comfortably numb sense of willful ignorance, thinking "what we don't know can't hurt us." It is this condition of stubborn denial and self-imposed ignorance that also permeates government, academia, and business -- not just when it comes to Y2K, but on almost every technological issue. Honesty and integrity are too great a burden for most people to bear today, because they have been taught from early childhood that the safe course is always to go along with the majority. Well, I have news for these people: reality is not decided by democratic vote, nor is it the result of popular groupthink. Reality is what happens no matter how hard we wish otherwise; physical reality is independent of public opinion. The thousands of Japanese owners of GPS satellite-based navigation systems that failed learned that fact the hard way, and so will millions of PC users.

We may not see computer chaos specifically on January 1, 2000. Far more likely is the scenario of creeping errors, unnoticed data corruption, and unexplained inconsistencies. Far better will things be for those few people who wisely took the extra precautions in advance, and who investigated the facts for themselves instead of blindly following wealthy monopolists and their computer-industry lackeys. Mere financial success does not prove the long-term worth of a product or its supporters.

Most recent revision: August 25, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.