Y2K bug infects the public’s psyche

In a new twist on Y2K readiness, the Arlington Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, called on the media Monday to help fix the problem. But they weren’t talking about the computer problem; rather, the problem with those who’ve gone Y2Krazy.
“A negative public perception of Y2K could make what otherwise could be just minor problems (into) massive public panic,” said John Peterson, the institute’s president.
The Y2K problem is caused by the manner in which dates are coded into older computer programs. It seems many programmers of old had faulty wiring, causing them to miscalculate their programs’ longevity.
Most experts now say people should prepare for Y2K by storing enough food to last several days, at the most — a far cry from the early predictions of catastrophe.
Peter de Jager, a Canadian Y2K consultant, sounded the alarm in a 1993 article entitled “Doomsday 2000,” which warned of the multibillion dollar problem. But a recent article on his Web site (www.year2000.com), is titled “Doomsday Avoided.”
“We’ve finally broken the back of the Y2K problem,” he wrote. “Overcoming denial was always a larger, more complicated, difficult and frustrating task than actually fixing broken (software) code.” Does it bother him that some see his position as changing from fear-monger to prophet?
“If someone wants to fault me for raising fears, go ahead; I don’t care anymore,” he told The Tennessean last month.
But the early, and arguably necessary, fear that prompted action on the problem also ignited paranoia among the ignorant masses that will fade less rapidly than it does among those who are more informed.
Thus the reason for the Arlington Institute’s plea to help keep the public calm. The Tennessean also printed two helpful lists. One had Red Cross tips for surviving Y2K, and the other had 10 tips from therapists on calming Y2K fears. This valuable self-help toolbox includes these powerful gems:
“Distinguish normal concerns from pathological fears that can severely interfere with day-to-day functioning,” and, “Remind yourself that you have previously coped with change.”
One advertising executive said part of the excitement from the new millennium stems from the computer bug.
“It’s a top-of-mind thing. The new millennium. Computers will crash. It’s an exciting time,” Rich Terry babbled to the Austin American-Statesman earlier this month.
Perhaps he’s right. After all, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office reports more than 1,500 millennium-related patent registrations await approval, with more on the way.
In Austin, Texas, officials have tried for years to sell water-conserving toilets to residents. Recently they tried a new twist on their advertising — “These toilets are Y2K compliant. And they save water and money. They’ll serve you well, far into the next millennium.” Several people called and asked for the wonder-flush.
Mars’ M&M candy is “The official candy of the new millennium,” and the wrapper now includes the line “MM means 2000,” for those of us — including me — who didn’t pick up on the connection earlier.
Volkswagen’s Beetle advertisement plays off the computer problem, “Y2K Bug. Drivers wanted.”
“I think a lot of ado has been made about this and maybe a lot of ado about not too much,” said Gail Vaz-Oxlade, a Canadian financial adviser. “And if I’m wrong, you know what? We’ll be in such deep poop, nobody will ever remember I said this!”
I have very little fear about the new year, when I will relax in my Y2K-compliant chair and eat Y2K-compliant holiday foods.
For those who are truly Y2Krazed, I offer a poetic expression of your fears:
My Momma’s Got a Y2K Problem
Oh no, oh no, Y2K!
It’ll be here in 256 days.
What if we have no food to eat?
We’ll be off the superhighway
And onto the streets!
When we go to the kitchen sink,
There’ll be no water to drink
I’m too scared to stop and think.
Maybe the millennium bug
Will stop the water from filling my jug.
And the water will start flowing up
To the towers, from my cup!
There’s lots of things I can’t predict
And the hype has got me worried sick.
I’m turning off my telephone
So Y2K won’t know I’m home.
When the Times Square ball does drop,
I’ll be shivering, crying, “Make it stop!”
And hoping that my brain don’t pop.
When it’s over I’ll stop and say,
“Was that all there was to Y2K?”

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He’s right. Y2K won’t destroy civilization, but Y2Krazies could.

Brian Close’s column normally appears on Thursdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]