The Common Good
May-June 1999

Surviving Together

by Carter Echols | May-June 1999

Y2K as a call to community.

‘All organizations should be developing back-up, or contingency, plans to address internal and external Y2K-related failures," says John Koskinen, chair of the government’s council on Y2K. Important community issues underlie potential turn-of-the-century computer difficulties. We can respond to these moral and technical challenges actively or passively and individually or corporately. Everyone who cares about community must wake up to Y2K as a justice issue.

Two aspects of the Y2K challenges should especially concern us: what might actually happen as the result of computer glitches, and what could happen if individualist and survivalist voices prevail and we do not prepare together.

Community activists know that societal disruptions disproportionately affect those who are most at risk. However, rather than reflect seriously about Y2K, many of us have ignored it as millennial hype or assumed that someone else would solve it. Meanwhile most voices calling for preparation have focused on individual planning and personal readiness. It is past time for those who call for community to be involved.

The source of the Y2K challenge, or millennium bug, is straightforward. Two-digit fields representing years on computer chips (e.g. 85 means 1985) could cause chaos if computers interpret 00 as 1900 rather than 2000. No one really knows what impact this programming error will have on billions of poorly coded chips around the globe and in satellites in space on January 1, 2000.

Predictions of potential problems range from minor glitches in home appliances containing date chips to major power outages and breakdowns of governmental systems around the world. However, companies fearing lawsuits that would hold them liable resist offering specific assurances of readiness. Government agencies and others concerned about possible panic are also careful with their information.

Experts disagree over the likelihood of severe problems with Medicaid; U.N. representatives warn that the lack of preparedness in Arab countries could result in oil supply disruptions. But everyone agrees that microprocessors with date chips are embedded in everything from VCRs and microwaves to worldwide telecommunication and utility systems. They cannot all be repaired in time.

Even non-technocrats can imagine possible consequences. Senior citizens dependent on pension benefits, children who count on Food Stamps for sustenance, and families that live from paycheck to paycheck will suffer most if governments and employers have trouble issuing checks. Small towns and poor communities may encounter food and cash shortages unless the lone bank or grocery store is prepared. And people with physical or mental health problems face special risks, since hospitals depend on equipment with time and date functions to monitor bodily functions.

ALL OF US will be at risk if those who have the ability to hoard do so. Individual survivalists taking all their money out of the bank and excessively stockpiling prescriptions, fuel, and food can create a crisis larger than any produced by computer crashes or glitches.

Our shared dependence on computer technology reveals our interdependence; preparations should be done with all of us in mind. Those who work with and on behalf of people who are disenfranchised must advocate preparedness or contingency planning with governments, businesses, and health care professionals. We care that city-run hospitals, departments of human services, and grocery stores in poor neighborhoods get ready.

We should think systematically about our congregations, neighborhoods, and wider communities, considering those who face the greatest risk. In addition to readying our computers, we can develop ways to be in touch with people who are elderly and live alone in case of power or heating problems. Churches can help members with prescription and health care challenges to make contingency plans, and they can address the emotional needs of parishioners prone to panic. We can help our city’s poorest neighborhoods by offering safety nets like rides for workers if public transportation systems fail. Above all, we must proclaim and demonstrate that we are in this together.

Exodus 16 promises that God’s people in the desert had sufficient food each day of their journey. As we move to the year 2000, we must boldly claim that God will provide sufficiently for all of us to survive any possible Y2K computer problems—if we prepare as a community.

CARTER ECHOLS, Canon Missioner at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., coordinated a briefing in March on "Meeting Our Y2K Challenges Together."

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