Will Computers Crash?


by Clarence White –
Information Technology Secretary

It’s 1999, the last year of the ’90s, the penultimate year of the 20th century and the beginning of the end of the 2nd Millennium, and it is causing all kinds of anxiety! It seems that everyone is talking about the impending collapse of global computer networks and the impact that it will have on society as we know it. All of this as a result of the “millennial bug” better known as the “Y2K Issue.”

This whole problem started in the 1960s and ’70s when computer storage and processing space was expensive. The “computer geeks” of the day (I count myself among the membership of computer geek-dom and use the term respectfully) decided they would only use two digits to denote the year whenever they stored a date. It worked out well–until now when two digits representing the year becomes ambiguous: does “00” mean 1900 or 2000? Consequently, we have the Y2K bug. By the way, if you haven’t yet had it explained to you, Y2K is an acronym for year two-thousand; with the letter K actually an abbreviation for “kilo” which in the metric system of measurement means 1000 (except among computer geeks to whom K means 1024!). I cannot help but chuckle every time I hear the “Y2K” acronym used. After all, it is that kind of abbreviated thinking that got us in this mess in the first place!

So what does all this mean to you? If you follow much of Christian mainstream media, you will have now heard the apocalyptic predictions that the Y2K bug is the precursor to the end times. You may have also heard from some doomsayers that you should withdraw all your money from the bank, stock up on food and bottled water, arm yourself, and turn your residence into a fortress. These are generally descendants of the folks who built nuclear fallout shelters during the Cold War!

Well, they may just be right! Nobody knows for sure. I have determined not to take such elaborate measures in my household. I will probably have a modest amount of canned goods, bottled water and cash on hand, but that is simply normal earthquake preparedness for a resident of Southern California! That said, I do expect disruptions as a result of the Y2K bug, but not ones of cataclysmic proportions.

I am not an economist, but I fully expect a global economic slowdown, perhaps even a depression, brought on in mid-1999 by paranoia surrounding the Y2K issue. The markets work largely on speculation, and with so many questions concerning exactly how the world will function come January 1, 2000, there is bound to be an impact on investors’ willingness to put their money into anything but the most secure investments. Couple that with large numbers of doomsayers who will no doubt convert their holdings to cash, and a short-lived but deep recession is a very real possibility.

It is also possible, but much less likely, that there will be a total shutdown of electrical grids. Experts project that most of these systems will not fail, but there is a very real possibility for isolated power outages. In colder climates in the month of January, this will be a serious situation and could pose a real threat to life. These exceptions noted, the most likely problem you can expect from your power company is incorrect billing. Potentially, that will be an issue with any large company with complex computerized invoicing processes. Scrutinize your phone, electric, gas, and other utility bills in early 2000. Also look carefully at your bank, mortgage, personal loan and credit card statements. Expect irregularities!

But what about all the microprocessors imbedded into automobiles, fax machines, photocopiers, and even your toaster? The claims such that nearly all items that use electricity will cease to function on January 1, 2000, are largely exaggerated. Inconvenience is possible, but a total shutdown of everything electronic is unlikely.

However, if you use a computer, the millennium bug may impact you personally. Even new versions of software have rather sketchy claims about their “Year 2000” compliance. Products such as the recently released Microsoft Windows 98, have been discovered to have Y2K weaknesses. In the case of Windows 98 Microsoft has released a fix which resolves the problem. The evidence is overwhelming that if you use a computer, and dates are important (like they are in accounting, statistics or human resource management, for example), you will have some difficulties in the year 2000.

Testing every possible computer application on every computer in a large organization like The Salvation Army may not be feasible given the extent of the job and the length of time left before the end of the year. What needs to be tested are the computers and software applications which are deemed to be mission critical. Computers that function as word processing or office automation devices will more than likely limp along regardless of what date the computer thinks it is.

What needs to be balanced is the level of effort required to test and prove 100 percent of all systems compared with the acceptable level of inconvenience if some non-critical systems experience glitches in early 2000. Needless to say, if you are using Alpha Micro Computers or old AST computers, you can expect to have difficulties.

We need to be concerned about this issue, and do what is required to ensure the appropriate levels of preparation occur, but don’t panic. I am encouraged by the words of Paul to the Thessalonians: “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:1-2). The implication in Paul’s admonition is to be ready for all things, at all times! Good advice to us today as we prepare to face the new millennium.

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