The Common Good
September-October 1999

Will the Lights Go Out?

by Carter Echols | September-October 1999

A Y2K reference for "just in case."

"Our government is not going to get all of its critical systems fixed in time for the century change," writes Sen. Robert Bennett in Just In Case: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Y2K Crisis. Bennett is chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

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Y2K experts have predicted problems ranging from wrong dates on photographs to international power outages if computers misinterpret January 1, 2000, to be January 1, 1900. Amidst the extreme positions often expressed in Y2K conversations—from nothing to worry about to Armageddon—the Just In Case anthology offers a middle range of opinions through its 18 essays: Y2K will not produce TEOLAWKI (The End Of Life As We Know It), but it may create societal disruptions that deserve our attention. The prediction of essayist Ed Yourdan, a leading authority on computer programming, of a year of disruptions and a decade of depression will seem extreme to many readers. However, people who suspect that Y2K is simply a media creation should turn first to the book’s appendix and read "Investigating the Impact of the Year 2000 Problem: Executive Summary of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem."

People all over the world working on Y2K can only agree that no one can predict what will happen on January 1 or in successive months. Meanwhile, information that might be helpful is not available because liability and public panic concerns prevent corporations and governments from sharing readiness information or making predictions about worst-case scenarios. The lack of more accessible data forces interested individuals to evaluate wide-ranging media reports, Internet information, and proclamations from self-appointed "experts." Just In Case essays on electricity, U.S. government agencies, and banking introduce readers to key dimensions of the possible risks in these areas and offer frameworks to understand other reports as they become available.

UNFORTUNATELY, the book hides some of its best offerings in the second half. Reading Karen Anderson’s very accessible "10 Steps to Making Your Home Safe for Y2K" feels like receiving a letter filled with helpful advice from a caring friend. Also, readers who enjoy thinking about community and human interdependence will thoroughly enjoy the thoughtful combination of organizational expert Meg Wheatley’s systems experience with her growing knowledge about Y2K challenges. Wheatley sees Y2K as a teacher that forces us "to confront the consequences of how we choose to belong to the planetary community."

Community activists and leaders in churches and social service organizations who have not thought about Y2K should read Shaunti Feldhan’s "Helping the Helpers: Preparing Community Organizations for Y2K." Feldhan offers practical suggestions for organizational Y2K readiness. Unfortunately, she fails to ask those organizations to consider implications for the people that they serve, since it appears that whatever happens, those who will be most affected are people who are elderly, homeless, or most dependent on physical or mental health care.

The President’s Council on Y2K has declared that health care and overseas activities are the two areas of greatest concern for all Americans. Byron Belitsos’ essay introduces readers to the global aspects of Y2K, and Caroline Nellis includes a helpful list of simple, practical health-related tips in her essay on the vulnerability of the health care system. The President’s Council believes most other Y2K-related problems will be regional. One can only speculate about the national implications of simultaneous disruptions in multiple communities.

In his preface, editor Michael Brownlee says that Just In Case was produced in "a matter of weeks." Sadly, this resulted in repetition among articles and a number of places where the writing could be much tighter. However, the need for the consolidated information found in this book far outweighs those difficulties. Particularly helpful is the extensive appendix, which lists names and numbers of numerous organizations addressing Y2K.

A recent Gallup survey shows that most Americans expect Y2K disruptions. However, a majority of us have done little to learn how turn-of-the-century computer problems might affect our society or to develop appropriate responses.

As the clock moves ever closer to the turn of the century, each of us must decide how or whether we will prepare for Y2K disruptions. We must also consider who might need our help in making decisions and preparations on their behalf. Just In Case gives us a place to begin our thinking.

CARTER ECHOLS, Canon Missioner at Washington National Cathedral, hosted a national conference last March on Y2K and the church. For conference proceedings and other links, see "Y2K Briefing" at www.cathedral.org/cathedral.

Just In Case: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Y2K Crisis. Edited by Michael Brownlee, Barbara Stahura, and Robert Yehling. Origin Press, 1999.

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