Banking on Sanity to Prevail

By Barry S. Fagin


The Denver Post, 12-31-1999



It’s no fun being the bearer of good news.  People like gloom and doom, and they’ll pay big bucks for it.  Apocalyptic novels get read, disaster movies get seen, and stories about the latest crisis get run on the 10 o’clock news. 


In my line of work,  the Y2K computer problem gets all the attention.  Consultants can get hefty fees, and academics can get plenty of press, if they talk about date rollover issues on January 1st and emphasize the potential problems.


Well, since I’m a professor, I’m supposed to profess that I know something about this.  So I’m going to make a prediction of my own. In fact, I’m going to make a prediction about my prediction.  I predict that my prediction will earn me absolutely nothing.  I predict that it will not make me famous.  I predict that it will not get me on TV.  I predict that it will be forgotten in a week.  And I predict that it will be absolutely correct.


But before I get there, let’s talk about Y2K.  Long before Washington showed any interest in the problem, companies realized that they had some serious work to do.  No business in the modern world could function with computers living 100 years in the past.  Private businesses had tremendous incentives to look at what their risks were, and then lay out a plan of action.


Similarly, bright computer-savvy whiz kids, many of them just out of college, saw an opportunity to meet a need by teaching themselves languages like COBOL and Fortran.  Programs written in these languages from the early days of computing were most likely to have date rollover problems, but they’re not taught in college today because professors don’t find them interesting. 


Recent graduates and other computing professionals who were enterprising enough to teach themselves and go where market demanded became Y2K consultants and made a ton of money.  No one had to order them to become Y2K-literate for the common good.  No one proposed a National Y2K Corps to solve a serious national crisis. Instead, by responding to the incentives of the marketplace, they were able to bring the right knowledge to bear on a rather nasty and time-consuming technical problem, much more efficiently than any scheme driven by a central authority.


Sadly, over the past few years the nation has been obsessed with Y2K hysteria.  Many people believe in events that are, to say the least, highly unlikely, and have embarrassed themselves by preparing for a state of apocalypse and/or national emergency that will never come.  While all this was going on, the real work of solving real problems was being carried out by rational people in the marketplace:  people who asked themselves “What problems need solving?”  “What are the technical issues involved?”  “What does science say about the problem?” “Am I missing something I should be thinking about?”  These are exactly the questions that pragmatic, problem-solving people should be asking if they want to make the world a better place to live.


So what’s my prediction?  That when Jan 1st, 2000 comes around, it will be no big deal.  The power grid will still function.  The Rapture will not come.  The world will not come to an end. The stock market will behave.  Microsoft Windows will work.  The internet will route packets just like it always has.  All the emergency provisions people bought will be a waste of money.  All the shelters people dug will be a waste of time.  In general, life will go on pretty much as it did before.


And you know what?  That’s a great thing.  It’s a tribute to America and the primacy of reason.  It should offer us all hope for the future in the resilience of American society, and the value that critical thinking and reason can provide in an uncertain world. 


Even if it never runs on the 10 o’clock news.


Barry S. Fagin is a professor of computer science at the US Air Force Academy, a member of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics, and Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute in Golden, CO.