Monday, January 4

Folly, greed and denial

I disagree with Denis Dutton when he cites terrorism as one of the "real problems...needing intelligent attention" that apocalyptic scenarios divert our attention from in It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It. As a matter of fact, when politicians focus their attention on the other problems he mentions (poverty & "broken financial systems") they can cause a lot of harm, too. But I can only agree with an example of earlier hysteria:
The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century’s end: headlines proclaimed a “computer time bomb” or “a date with disaster.” Vanity Fair’s January 1999 article “The Y2K Nightmare” caught the sensationalist tone, claiming that “folly, greed and denial” had “muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts.”
The subhead to the Vanity Fair article includes Dutton's quoted phrases:
Will the millennium arrive in darkness and chaos as billions of lines of computer code containing two-digit year dates shut down hospitals, banks, police and fire departments, airlines, utilities, the Pentagon, and the White House? These nightmare scenarios are only too possible, Robert Sam Anson discovers as he traces the birth of the Y2K "bug," the folly, greed and denial that have muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts, and the ominous results of Y2K tests that lay bare the dimensions of a ticking global time bomb.
In the article itself, Anson writes,
No one will know the extent of its consequences until after they occur. The one sure thing is that the wondrous machines that govern and ease our lives won't know what to do. Some will freeze, electronically paralyzed; others will become imbecilic, giving idiot. answers and issuing lunatic commands; still others, overwhelmed, will simply die -as will the blind faith the world has placed in them... The product of this folly is a looming disaster with an immovable deadline that will touch the entire world.
As to greed:
Holding on to old format was rationalized as a cost-cutter, particularly in computer memory-at the time the cost was $761 to store the equivalent of the information contained in a Danielle Steel novel. Considering that the same amount of memory now costs less than a thousandth of that, it was pound-foolish writ gigantic... Had the mischief been contained, the impact would have been negligible. But in the name of "downsizing" and "productivity," computers were increasingly running everything. And how they ran never stopped changing, as business kept demanding better, faster, cheaper thises and thats.
More hysteria:
Things will be infinitely worse overseas, where Y2K's impact on the delivery of food, seed, and fertilizer could result in between 10 million and 300 million deaths.

The Middle East, where half the oil companies expect at least one critical breakdown, is in particularly bad shape-as are Japan, which has the world's largest banks, and China, where much of the software was pirated, not to mention Indonesia. "Asia," said Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Edward Yardeni, "is toast. In the year 2000, Asia will be burnt toast." But the biggest jitters are over Russia, which possesses not only 11 Chernobyl-type power plants, 22,500 nuclear warheads, and the funds to fix none of them, but also an attack-warning system so vulnerable to Y2K that the Pentagon has proposed stationing officers in each other's command centers New Year's Eve 1999.
...and what actually happened?

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