Y2K and "The Management Problem"
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // firstname.lastname@example.org
... We have geared the
machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we
have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have
gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival,
From the strong earth, each person
in himself helpless,
Robinson Jeffers: The
Extinctions? Endocrine disruption? Pollution? Global warming?
Population growth? Resource depletion?
Not to worry, say the "cornucopians" - most prominently, the late
economist, Julian Simon.
Whatever environmental problems might appear in the future, human
ingenuity - "The Ultimate Resource" - will be equal to it.
Simon assures us that
The main fuel to speed the world's progress is the
stock of human knowledge. And the ultimate resource is skilled,
spirited, hopeful people, exerting their wills and imaginations to
provide themselves and their families...(2)
The ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited
raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge. And the source of
knowledge is the human mind. Ultimately, then, the key constraint
is human imagination and the exercise of educated
Philosopher Jan Narveson concurs:
Future generations will consist ... of rational
animals, resourceful people like our ancestors and (I hope!)
ourselves. They will be able to cope. The human species has made a
decent or better than decent life for itself in an variety of
"ecologies..." It is astonishing how contemporary humans can
overlook the resourcefulness of their fellows in all of this
recent cant about ecology... There is ... no resource problem of
consequence for the globe.(4)
Oh, really?! Can we "manage" any and all problems that
may appear as a result of our short-term cleverness? Consider "Y2K" -
the Year 2000 "millennium bug."
As virtually every educated and news-conscious citizen is now
aware, our cybernetic civilization is precisely timed to arrive at a
precipice on the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999 - seventeen
months from now. At that moment, millions of computers, software
programs, and microprocessors are due to go kaput -
fubar. The consequences are not precisely known, but range
from exorbitantly expensive at best to catastrophic at worst. (Best
to hold that New Year's Eve party within walking distance of your
And why? Because some thirty to forty years ago, when computers
and microprocessors first became commercially available and memory
space was at a premium, it was universally decided that years would
be designated with two digits - e.g., "98" for the current year.
Thus, until quite recently, few computers or their programs had the
silicon brain power to understand that "00" meant "2000." Some may
recognize "00" as "1900," while others will be totally incapable of
making any sense whatever of those deadly digits. Bank accounts may
freeze, checks bounce, stocks tumble, traffic systems crash, cars
stall - gawd only knows what else. But why go on, you've already
heard the bad news.
To head-off the coming crisis, retired computer programmers,
conversant with such archaic computer languages as COBOL and FORTRAN
find their services at a premium, as they are urged to read the old
programs. (The younger nerds, bewildered by the old codes, are
obliged to tell their supervisors that "we can't have archaic and
read it too!")
For our purposes, what is most significant about this
looming global foul-up is that it was totally foreseeable and
avoidable three and four decades ago, when it was first set in
motion. Given the known pace of computer development, "the
memory deficit problem" was clearly temporary. And presumably anyone
who could program a computer back then could also count up to and
beyond the year 2000 and see troubles ahead. It took no super-quota
of IQ points to ask, "This is all well and good right now, but what
happens New Years Day, January 1, 2000?" But if ever asked, that
question was likely answered, "Don't sweat it - we'll surely think of
something by then!" Well, we didn't think of something, with the dire
consequences that are now before us.
If, with just a modicum of collective patience and foresight, this
debacle could have been avoided with three or four digit year codes,
why are we now facing this problem?
First of all, given the economic dogma of "the discounted future,"
those forty years hence might just have well been forever. According
to the standard economic discount rates, universally adopted by
investors and economic planners, a 1960 dollar is calculated to be
worth mere pennies in the year 2000. But even more, the technological
optimism of such cornucopians as Simon and Narveson, noted above,
reigned supreme then as it does now: "don't worry, be happy - we'll
think of something when we get there."
Instead, those infernal double digits, embedded in the countless
mainframes and the zillions of lines of software codes that keep our
"information age" humming, proved too numerous, too cryptic, too
entangled, to permit a simple solution -- as any moderately
computer-literate 1960s individual could have foreseen.
There are several crucially important and sobering lessons here
for anyone willing to pause a moment and reflect. First, the
fundamental assumptions that guide economic thought and commercial
decisions (notably "the discounted future") are systematically myopic
- i.e., leading to policies and practices that eagerly adopt
short-term advantages while they ignore long-term costs. Second,
because pleasant myths are always more attractive than unpleasant
realities, entrepreneurs and investors find it easy to embrace the
technological optimism of such cornucopians as Simon and Narveson.
Third, and conversely, such individuals are equally disinclined to
take seriously the implications of "the tyranny of unintended
consequences." Fourth, a responsible assessment of technology is best
performed by impartial agencies, representing the public interest -
which presumably means government. Due to the relentless,
and largely successful, public relations campaign against "big
government interference," this has become politically unfeasible. (In
1994, the highly reputed congressional Office of Technology
Assessment was abolished by the 104th Congress). Finally,
due to mega-corporate control of the news/entertainment media
("info-tainment") the above "official line" - systemic myopia,
technological optimism, disregard of unintended consequences,
and hostility toward governmental oversight - has
obtained widespread public support. Thus it happens that even a
clearly foreseeable and soluble future technological crisis such as
Y2K can be routinely ignored, until it is too late. Ironically, the
very commercial interests that brought about that crisis, now
ruefully wish that they did not. "Today is the tomorrow that we
failed to prepare for yesterday".
Economics, once described as "the dismal science," has thus, it
seems, become "the cheerful science," with ecology now emerging as
the new "dismal science" (which explains the politicians' preference
for economic "expertise" over the warnings of the ecologists). From
that latter perspective, we offer, as warning,
THE GADFLY'S DISMAL RULES
Every current environmental problem is the result of a
prior technical solution. Overpopulation is the result of
improvements in public health. Both ground and surface water
pollution are the result of improved crop yields through the
importation of fertilizers. Global warming is the result of the
availability of cheap and abundant energy through fossil fuels.
And so on.
Every solution to our current environmental problems will
cause further problems. This clearly follows from
The only exception to Rules One and Two is undisturbed
nature - but only from the point of view of nature as a
whole. From the point of view of both the hungry predator and
the endangered prey, "mother nature is a bitch."
And why do these dismal rules obtain? In a word, due to
entropy. According to the fundamental thermodynamic laws
upon which the concept of entropy is based, order
and complexity (i.e., "negentropy" such as is found in
organisms, ecosystems, societies and physical artifacts) can only be
obtained at the cost of disorder and simplicity ("entropy")
elsewhere. Natural systems sustain and increase their complexity by
drawing upon the energy (and thus the entropy) of the safely
distanced sun. With artificial systems to the contrary the "entropy
costs" of our technical "progress" (which increases order and
complexity) are exacted closer to home - as pollution, waste, social
disorder, and "unintended consequences." (For more about "entropy
costs," see Section Four of "Holes in the Cornucopia," this
We are not advocating a return by homo sapiens to the
caves or to a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer existence. Even if
desirable (which it is not), such a "return" is now impossible. Our
species uniquely produces, in addition to disorder in natural
systems, poetry, symphonies, literature, science and philosophy. All
these are appropriately cherished by our civilization. But we are
also unique as the only species which produces (entropic)
garbage. In contrast, the wastes of all the other species
serve as resources for yet other species in the system.
Thus if our species is to enjoy a safe and enduring existence on
this planet, we must replace our "struggle with nature" with an
imitation of nature, by recycling our wastes and drawing our energy
from the constant sun. And throughout we must apply our acquired
scientific intelligence and technical capacities to the task of
monitoring and minimizing our impacts upon the natural estate which
produced us, which sustains us, which is us.
Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge
1. In Werhane and Westra (eds),
Business of Consumption, Rowman and Littlefield.
2. Julian Simon, in Norman Myers and Julian
Simon, Scarcity of Abundance, New York: Norton,
1994, p. 33.
3. Simon, "Resources, Population, Environment:
An Oversupply of False Bad News," Science, v. 208, June,
1980, pp 1435-6.
4. Narveson, "Humanism for Humans,"
Inquiry, Spring, 1993, p. 24.