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National - Ottawa Citizen Online


Sunday 28 December 1997

Millennial prophets of high-tech doom

Mike Shahin

A few brave souls have taken on the thankless task of warning the world about the disastrous effects of the millenniun computer bug. Mike Shahin reports.

Peter de Jager's voice is growing weary over the phone line from Florida. He has just arrived from giving a speech in Bahrain, his luggage is lost, and he is bruised by the public cynicism chipping away at his mission.

Over the past five years, Mr. de Jager, a Toronto-area resident, has fashioned himself into the voice on the year 2000 computer problem. In many ways, he has been the alarm that woke much of the world to the dangers of the approaching millennium bug.

Ten years ago, doomsday scenarios about the bug were laughed off as the rantings of crackpots and lunatics. People refused to believe that a problem so simple could bring such a complex system of technology to its knees.

Now, people pay Mr. de Jager, and computer consultants like him, $5,000 U.S. and more to be lectured on how their businesses could fail in two years. Governments and businesses are spending hundreds of billions to fix the problem. Economists are warning of global recession if the world's computers are not ready for the year 2000.

The millennium bug has completed its transformation from fringe ranting to serious world crisis.

This tranformation -- the selling of the doom -- is a fascinating illustration of marketing and psychology at work; from denial to grudging acceptance, on a world scale.

In the early years, Mr. de Jager, an unknown Canadian computer nerd working from the basement of his Brampton home, played a key role in selling the millenium bug to public consciousness. But now, he reads articles in major magazines accusing him of being in the racket of the decade (Forbes) and of adding to the hype and greed fuelling year 2000 hysteria (The Economist).

He is criticized for being shrill and alarmist, and for not doing enough to solve the problem.

"I'm so tired of this," Mr. de Jager says. "Two years ago, my brother died of cancer. While he was dying, I was on the road. I wasn't on the road because I wanted to make money. I was on th e road because this (the millennium bug) needed to be spoken to. Right now, my father is dying of cancer. I'm on the road."

Mr. de Jager, who has two teenaged sons, gave 175 paid speeches on the computer problem around the world this year alone, and often does a dozen media interviews a week.

It is efforts like Mr. de Jager's that helped pull the issue from trade-magazine obscurity to the world stage of the Internet and mainstream media. But most observers agree that there was not a single person or event responsible for the shift. It was more of a "slow groundswell" that is still in progress.

American computer pioneer Bob Bemer, 77, uses a historical analogy to help explain the problem as he sees it: the public's attitude toward the millennium bug was no different than toward the Second World War.

"This thing is a Hitler, and we don't realize its potential to harm our way of life," Mr. Bemer said in an interview from Dallas, where he is selling a year-2000 solution package.

"It's part of the human condition. People ignored the threats, and they didn't do anything to fix it." Mr. Bemer blames it on public denial. "We're like alcoholics. We just don't want to admit we have a problem."

Mr. de Jager first publicly admitted their was a problem in a 1993 Computerworld magazine article entitled "Doomsday 2000." A few others, including some American academics, talked and wrote about the millennium bug, but it never left the cloistered world of computer devotees.

"I'm not a public person," Mr. de Jager said. "I'd rather stay out of the limelight. But to get the story out, there had to be a central focus. And I decided, rightly or wrongly, to become that focus. Someone had to take responsibility and act."

But Mr. de Jager couldn't get the public's attention. The Internet was all the rage in the mainstream press. It was easier to understand, and it wasn't nearly as depressing. So, instead of "beating our heads against a wall," Mr. de Jager started a Year 2000 website -- and the press wrote about it as an Internet story. "Being on the Net gave me worldwide exposure."

Companies began to look into the scope of the problem. Initially, technical staff gave bad advice to their bosses, said Queen's University professor James Cordy. Because the computer bug is so technically easy to fix, they shrugged it off. As the magnitude of fixing endless lines and deep layers of computer code began to sink in, the techies began to worry.

But it's not easy to own up to a mistake so costly, Mr. Cordy said. It took a while before executives learned the true extent of the "disaster" in their computer departments. And it took even longer to convince CEOs to budget the money to fix it.

When the millennium bug began to be discussed in boardrooms, rather than in computer rooms, it started to evolve into a media darling.

In 1996, there were two seminal events in the transformation of the bug. One of the top technology consulting firms in the U.S., Connecticut-based Gartner Group, published a study estimating the global cost of fixing the year 2000 problem at $300 billion to $600 billion. Although the numbers are no more than wild estimates, the public and the media finally had something to hold onto. The Gartner study is now quoted in nearly every discussion on the millennium bug.

That same year, a U.S. congressional committee began hearings into the year 2000 challenge. Mr. de Jager spoke at the hearings in March. But it was the bespectacled chief economist of one of the world's top investment banks, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, who grabbed the spotlight more than a year later.

Edward Yardeni told the politicians last month that if the world is not ready for the millennium bug, it will likely plummet into a recession not seen in decades. This was no fringe lunatic. Governments and corporations, if not already convinced, had heard enough.

By then, a United Kingdom task force was established to look into the problem. Industry Minister John Manley launched a Canadian task force, looking at the private sector, in September. The Canadian government admitted that it would have to spend as much as $2 billion to fix its own computers.

People stopped asking what this crazy doomsday theory was about. Instead, they began to ask why more has not been done to deal with it before now.

As frustrated as Peter de Jager is, he understands the public's reluctance to embrace such an ugly proposition as the complete failure of our computer-run economy.

When he started work at IBM after graduating from the University of Toronto in 1979, he recognized the date problem as soon as he booted up his computer. Mr. de Jager went to his manager and told him that something was bound to go wrong in 2000.

As Mr. de Jager tells it, the manager laughed and assured him that the computer systems and codes would change over time. "Why are you worried about it now?" the manager said. "It's not gonna happen for 21 years. So relax."

Mr. de Jager did relax. Until this decade, when -- "like a mental kick in the head" -- he realized that if he didn't take on the responsibility of working to fix the problem, no one would.

Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen