Y2K? Why Not?

I'll admit it, I don't know the first thing about computers.
Well, actually, I do know the first thing (or maybe it's the second, after turning the power on): I can set the damn date, OK? Which is saying a lot, since I still haven't figured out how to do that with the VCR that keeps blinking "-- -- : -- --" at me.

So you can imagine my chagrin one morning a few years ago, just after I'd finally gotten with the program and opened an e-mail account, when I turned on my primitive Tandy 102 portable and found that the date read "Jan. 1, 1984."

What the hell is up? I asked myself.
Then it hit me: 1984--the very year of George Orwell's classic tale of "Big Brother" totalitarianism.

Ooo-eeeee-ooo! I thought, recalling that year's Super Bowl commercial for Apple Computer, where that beautiful, athletic chick defiantly heaves a big hammer through the building-size screen that's transmitting some Orwellian dictator's mug to the subjugated masses. They've gotten to my machine!

Embarrassing as this is for me to admit, I actually believed that somebody was electronically sabotaging the thing by sending some "virus" or something down the line to change my settings. Only after consulting with a computer-savvy friend was I able to figure out that a momentary power outage must've erased the memory, and 1984 was merely the date my Tandy's internal word-processing program had been copyrighted!

Well, duh.
Knowing how things work has never been what you'd call my strong suit.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I don't have a clue what to make of this "Y2K" computer problem (or "Millennium Bug") everybody's talking about these days.

The theory, near as I can tell, is that come next Jan. 1, these wondrous machines that we now depend on to keep the world going are very likely to "think" it's 1900--instead of 2000--because they were originally programmed, back in the days when memory capacity was at a premium, to identify the year by its last two digits only. And when that happens, they'll crash.

"Some will freeze, electronically paralyzed," suggests Robert Sam Anson in the current issue of Vanity Fair. "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 result may well be a virtual meltdown of systems that run power and telecommunication grids, water supplies, factories, hospitals, schools, banks, pharmacies, police and fire departments, airplanes--you name it.

And after that, civil unrest (read: rioting in the streets).
Rampant crime.
Global chaos.

In short, TEOTWAWKI--The End Of The World As We Know It, explains Anson in his aptly titled ("12.31.99: The Y2K Nightmare") article.

"When nothing works, anything goes" reads the tagline for the videocassette of The Trigger Effect, a 1996 movie starring Kyle MacLachlan, Elisabeth Shue, and Dermot Mulroney, in which a mysterious power failure leads to the social breakdown of a major city. And the picture this film paints of what such a scenario might be like is chilling indeed:

Since there's no electricity, the ATMs are all down--and nobody's taking Visa. You can't get a prescription filled for your crying kid because the doctor can't call it in. The lines to buy guns (for property protection only, you understand), which are going for triple the normal price, are out the door--plus there's that pesky fifteen-day waiting period.

Not to mention the fact that Cokes are warm and coffee's cold!
I don't know about you, but I don't think I could live in such a world.
My son called from California the other night to suggest that I check out this lame flick, a box-office disaster whose sole redeeming moment comes early in what would have been the first reel, when the lovely Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) teases her impassive hubby--the square-jawed and stone-faced MacLachlan (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks)--by playing with one of her nipples. Hubba, hubba.

And I must say I was duly disturbed, so much so that I went out and bought myself a flashlight--one of those heavy-duty, aircraft-aluminum models the cops carry, which can double as a billy club if the need arises. I'm still debating about the 12-gauge, short-barreled, pump-action shotgun the guy in the movie recommends.

"Sales of survival gear are at record levels," reports Anson, noting that 10 percent of technology executives responding to a recent survey said they "planned to stockpile canned goods, 11 percent were preparing to buy generators and woodstoves, and 13 percent were going to purchase 'alarm systems, fencing, and firearms.'" And while U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett, whom Anson calls "the most knowledgeable Y2K expert in Congress," claims he's "not ready to dig a shelter in the back yard," this Utah Republican nevertheless allows as to how "it might not be a bad idea to have a little extra food and water."

Not to mention candles, matches, batteries, toilet paper, toothpaste, soap--and, of course, deodorant! (Hey, we're all liable to get a little gamy if The End Of The World As We Know It lasts more than a day or two.)

Those are just a few of the supplies listed in the "Personal Preparedness" section of the Y2K Citizen's Action Guide, a potentially life-saving little booklet I got in the mail last week, courtesy of the friendly folks at Utne Reader. (There's also an online Year 2000 Action Pack put out by some other helpful people, which is accessible at www.russkelly.com/actionpack. You're welcome.)

Now I don't mean to be shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater here, you understand. But the simple fact is that the countdown to 2000 has begun, and we've got less than twelve months to get ready.

"There were warnings," writes Newsweek economist Robert J. Samuelson in a recent column headlined "Self-Inflicted Cyber Wound?" And "unlike many techno-controversies (say, global warming), the legitimacy of the Y2K problem was never in doubt."

Except, of course, with naysayers like Rush Limbaugh, who dismisses every such threat as the work of "tree-huggers" and "feminazis."

The most common response, warns my Guide, is denial--the belief that the problem "can't be that serious," or that somebody like Bill Gates "will come up with a magic bullet to fix it just in time."

Well, you can bet on Bill if you want to.
Me? I'm putting my money under the mattress.

David Sowd's e-mail address: [email protected]