Warning ignored

A potential for woe

The Arizona Republic
Dec. 30, 1999

They said it would be bigger and better than anything that came before. Nothing would stop the Computer Age.

In the 1950s, when a computer geek named Robert Bemer suggested they add lifeboats to the deck, the captains of industry and the military shook their heads. This was 20th-century technology! It was unsinkable.

Who's afraid of the year 2000? they asked. Nobody was. Who needs to program for four-digit dates when two digits would do for decades? Nobody did.

Later, Bemer, the man who wrote the computer language that allowed the captains to choose between two or four digits, took his warnings to the president of the United States. Richard Nixon shook his head.

And so Y2K loomed in the distance like an iceberg whose real size nobody knew. As it got closer and closer, its potential danger became the topic of so much discussion that the public got bored. Modern homes aren't built for stockpiling canned goods. Besides, who has money for survival supplies the week after Christmas?

The big shots said not to worry. This week the Wall Street Journal said American business believes it has conquered the Y2K bug. Business spent gazillions - more than $300 billion, according to Gannett News Service - to fix a mistake Bemer urged them not to make.

"American business is increasingly confident that the year 2000 bug will prove no more than a nuisance," according to the Journal.

But the chance that computers with two-digit dates will mistake "00" for 1900 and bring the world to a screeching halt continues to tarnish hopes for the brand new year. Will the lights go out? Will the phone work? Will all the complex, computer-dependent systems that make the modern world modern cease to function?

Bemer is buying candles.

And, like the CEOs of the past who ignored his pleas not to adopt "this horrible two-digit field," today's brash, young decision-makers are betting Bemer is wrong.

Waking up on the buoyant side of the American Dream, a Journal story even pointed out that "under cover of Y2K improvements, many big companies performed technological housecleaning they'd neglected for years."

In a couple of days, we'll know whether they were spiffing up for the new century or rearranging the deck chairs.