"Y2K advocates were like newly hatched mosquitoes..."
"They only have a short amount of time to suck blood before they die."
From "Why?" To MacKay
by Paul Kedrosky
August 31st, 1998
A couple of months ago, a good friend suggested that I find a new topic or find a new friend if I was going to keep harping on the Year 2000 problem. So I did what any red-blooded, untenured academic would do. I wrote an OpEd for the Wall Street Journal. The article, a free-spirited riff that included an extended discussion of Pinky & the Brain, ran in early July of this year.
I was happy. My friend was happy. My senior faculty may even have been happy (but I'm not sure they read the Journal). And then all hell broke loose.
Before explaining exactly what happened, let me briefly explain what I wrote. My beef with the Year 2000 Problem (Y2K from here on in) was mostly with its "supporters". I felt (and feel) that many of them cross the line fairly egregiously from relaying information about the problem to being self-interested advocates -- Y2K carpetbaggers, if that's not too strong a way to put it.
To make the point fairly explicit, in the article I pointed out (in what I thought I was a neat, 2am turn of phrase) that Y2K advocates were like newly hatched mosquitoes: They only have a short amount of time to suck blood before they die. That's not a new criticism, and the usual response from Y2K-ists is that no one criticizes oncologists for talking about cancer risk. (To which the equally fair response is, But the cause for cancer isn't going to go away at midnight on December 31, 1999.) Nevertheless, while that seemed self-evident to me, it also bore repeating given that many people in the media and elsewhere parrot the pronouncements of Y2K-ists in near-fawning fashion.
Now don't get me wrong. I believe in the Y2K problem. I've even made money explaining to executives just how serious it is. And there will unquestionably be some serious consequences. But I also think that many people overdo it (Edward Yourdon et al., included) with their talk of a global depression, electrical grid shutdown, or even (as in Yourdon's case) suggesting that we should abandon urban areas. In overdoing it like this, they lose credibility and deserve the sort of lampooning I directed their way in my column.
The morning after my OpEd appeared in the Journal dawned disappointingly misty and damp on the southern California coast. It was the sort of seaside morning where it isn't easy to tell whether I'm in Vancouver (where I normally live and work) or in sunny San Diego (where I also live). Well, a quick check of my Vancouver phone and email messages told me where I was. If I had been in my office in Vancouver, I would have been serenaded non-stop by the ringing of my phone. By 8am I already had twenty-five messages on my answering machine. And I had at least that many in my email inbox. Within a week, the combined total of Y2K messages between those two places would reach almost two hundred.
I wish I could tell you that most of those messages were from people saying, "Way to go, Paul." Or from some of my less paranoid academic colleagues congratulating me on scoring a WSJ OpEd. (A fellow academic recently said to me, "Is there really a Y2K problem? I never really read the articles." We care more about tenure than electricity 'round these parts.) But most of the messages were frothing, foaming, wild-man missives, the sort of thing that I might have expected had I posted "Gavin sucks!" in alt.music.bush. The level of emotion that people attach to Y2K is incredible, bordering on the religious in their near-hatred of perceived non-believers.
Particularly interesting in my barrage of replies was the arrival, en masse, of one group of callers (and they were all telephone messages): conservative AM radio talk show hosts. I lost count, but I had in excess of a dozen US-based radio shows call me and ask me to come on their shows.
Now, it could have been that talk radio was simply doing its duty and talking about an important issue, but I wondered. Without naming names, I accepted one show's invitation, and appeared (via voice) on it shortly thereafter. It was an eye-opening experience. While there was the usual crowd of technologists and technophobes, the former evincing a sort of somber glee at the idea of Y2K-induced mass destruction, the latter announcing to all that they had long said that "computers were no good."
But I expected both of the preceding types of calls. What I didn't expect were the calls that saw deeper and darker (and mostly political) things in Y2K. One caller suggested that the Democrats had created the Y2K hype so that the market would decline and people would sell their stocks. How would the government benefit, you might ask? The government cleans up by collecting capital gains taxes. The caller told me that Rush (Limbaugh) had said this was true.
And that was only the beginning. I heard it all, from the idea that this was a Clinton power grab to introduce software code into various government departments that would increase their ability to pry into U.S. citizens' lives, to the suspicion that matters were actually much worse than the Clinton administration was letting on, that it was likely that there would be food shortages, massive power outages and fighting in the streets. It was, in short, fascinating.
I had booked two other talk shows, not knowing this was the sort of thing I was in for. I thought I was simply doing my duty, helping people decode some of the more overheated rhetoric, helping people understand the problem, and maybe helping them make better decisions about their future. Case in point: One afternoon I heard a woman call into the popular Dr. Laura radio show. She was upset because her husband was acting strangely. He wanted to sell their house and property and move to Montana (of course). Why? Because that was going to be the only safe place to be come January 1st, 2000. But instead of helping out, I was going to get a non-stop barrage of knee-jerk jabber.
Other non-radio media outlets have called since. There's an incestuous circle of trickle-down expertise whereby appearing in one media outlet makes you an expert at another -- as long as the pecking order isn't violated. I've done a few more short interviews. Many of them just liked the conflict. "Finally! Someone we can quote to create an 'other side' in this story!". Nature abhors a vacuum, and the media abhor an absence of conflict. But a few wanted to know what it was that making people act... well, so strangely.
It's an interesting question. The short answer is that people are getting nutty as we approach the millennium. But that's fast and unsophisticated. The longer answer is that, yes, millennialism is a congenital disorder in our species, something we are unlikely to shake without going to base-16 arithmetic; but there are other factors at work.
For example, there is a newfound fascination with widely available technology, a feeling that technology has finally completed its trickle-down from the elites ("this isn't rocket science"), to being built into products ("a cleanser based on space-age technology!"), to being something that we can buy at the store and sometimes comes free with magazine subscriptions.
But with this ubiquitous technology has also come (at least subliminally) a sense in many people that there is class of haves and have-nots. Why can't I be Bill Gates? What does he have that I don't have? There is a feeling among many people that they've "missed it," that much like a stock that runs ahead of an earnings release, they've missed out on a epochal shift and now must make do as they can with the dregs. But that sort of abandonment breeds resentment, and from resentment springs conspiracy theorists.
At the same time, we have a generation without a bogeyman. In past decades, we knew who the enemy was -- the Russians. And a society without enemies is a society lost. Because we define ourselves not just by what we are, but by what we aren't. So instead of turning to Cold War experts who can tell us what the Russians might (or might not) do based on what we might (or might not) do, we can get the same gloomy predictions (with a timetable, no less) from Y2K experts.
Because for once, we technologists, the kids who weren't picked first for Grade 8 basketball team, are star attractions. Dare I say it? Shunned and ignored, for the most part, many technologists revel in being in the Y2K-fuelled media spotlight. After all, who would be listening to us otherwise? We can't attract much interest in encryption, and viruses pop in and out with the seasons, but the Y2K problem is guaranteed catnip for the media. Just wave it and wait. So this is our issue, our area of expertise, and we (with somber glee, requisite reluctance, and cute media clumsiness) are making out like bandits. (And yes, I'm guilty as charged.)
So what will some future author say about this fascinating period, perhaps in some future edition of a book like Charles MacKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds? Something, I'm sure, about the confluence of a number of factors: increasing political uncertainty, the disappearance of religion, millennialism, fast-moving and pervasive technologies, a media-fuelled culture that thrives on gossip and fear -- and an affluent society looking for reasons to be worried.
Because as MacKay points out in his book, we are all haruspex, experts at uncovering good or evil in any human activity. "[Those who find evil] are in the greatest number," he points out, "so much more ingenious are we in tormenting ourselves than in discovering reasons for enjoyment in the things that surround us."
Which is something Pinky & The Brain understand, if no-one else does. Shortly after my Y2K article appeared I received a phone message that had me laughing out loud. It came from "The Brain" -- or at least the Los Angeles-based voice-actor who plays him: "Good afternoon Professor Kedrosky. It seems you have foiled my latest plan to take over the world by splashing it all over the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Never mind, I have other plans and neither you nor Pinky can trip me up."
So, we have that to look forward to. Can things be so bad?
Paul Kedrosky is a professor of information technology and strategy at the University of British Columbia.