How the Year 2000 Problem Worked

What will happen on 1/1/2000?

On January 1, 2000, software that has not been fixed will stop working or will produce output that is incorrect. The big question is, "How big an effect will that have on the world as we know it?"

Some people are predicting that the world will end. For example, worldwide power failures, a total breakdown of the transportation infrastructure (meaning food cannot get to stores, etc.), planes falling out of the sky, and so on are the scenarios these people foresee. The prediction is that the fabric of society will collapse, people everywhere will riot and the world will burn to the ground. Of course, the people making these predictions all tend to be: A) militia members, B) survivalists and C) religious zealots. It is important to recognize the source of these predictions.

In reality, nothing will happen. There may be a week or two of inconvenience as unforeseen problems present themselves and are worked around. Otherwise there will be no effect. That is an easy prediction to make because:

  1. Most companies and government agencies will have their software fixed, or will have work-arounds in place, by the end of 1999. If they don't they will go out of business, and that's a strong incentive to get the job done.
  2. No matter how dependent we think we are on computers, most everything is run by people, not silicon. Take food for example. The tomatoes and lettuce will keep growing, and the people that pick it will keep picking, and the cannery will still can it, the truck drivers will still drive their trucks and the grocery stores will still sell it. In other words, the world will not stop even if a few computers do.
  3. Some companies will not have their acts together and will have problems. They will go out of business. That is normal capitalism at work. There will be a little disruption as the winners and losers sort it out, but what else is new?

Another thing to keep in mind is that we experience inconvenience all the time and it has little or no effect on us. For example, when UPS (United Parcel Service) went on strike in 1997, it shut down something like 80% of the package delivery infrastructure in the U.S. The world did not end - everyone used the Post Office and Fedex instead. On 1/3/1999 Chicago and Detroit experienced their worst snowstorms in 30 years. It shut down air travel nationwide, delayed the opening of the Detroit auto show, stranded tens of thousands of people, etc. Somehow we all managed to survive with the inconvenience. On 1/1/2000 there will be a some companies that have problems. But there will be lots of other companies that don't. It may create inconvenience, but that is all that it will create and two weeks later we will have sorted it out. It's no different from a big snowstorm or a big strike - we figure out ways around the problems and life goes on.

There are many scare tactics and exagerations used around the Year 2000 problem. In all of them there is a fairly broad assumption that people cannot do their jobs anymore. The important thing to recognize is that, even if many of the computers in the world were to suddenly shut down on 1/1/2000, the total effect would be minimal because people know what they are doing. Let me show you why:

  • Let's say that every ATM in the U.S stopped working. There are still tellers and you can still talk to a teller at the bank during normal business hours to make deposits and withdrawals.
  • Let's say that every computer at UPS were to shut down. UPS is a bunch of people driving around their brown trucks, and they can all read address labels. The packages will still get delivered.
  • Let's say that every barcode scanner in the stores stopped working. Cashiers can still type in the prices.
  • Let's say that every computer at the FAA were to shut down, and all the automatic pilot computers in airplanes stopped working. Air traffic controllers are people, and pilots can still fly airplanes. We might not be able to land 2 planes every minute at busy airports, but planes will still fly.
  • One of the biggest scare tactics used around the Y2K problem is "failure of the power grid". Let's say that there was something that went wrong somewhere. There are thousands of competent people who manage and repair the power grid - these are the same people who put the grid back together after every major hurricane, ice storm, etc. Also important to note is that the power grid is not something magical. Please read How the Power Grid Works and educate yourself. The grid is made up of passive wires and transformers. Electrons will still flow through wires on 1/1/2000.

There is an assumption among doomsdayers that somehow, on 1/1/2000, every computer will fail (which is silly), AND that every human being will somehow "fail" as well. If you think about it, you can see how untrue that is. We all know how to do our jobs, and we all want to live our lives. On 1/1/2000 we will all be the same. We will get in our cars and we will want to go buy something. The people selling the something will still want to sell it so they can make money. That is never going to change.