Social Impact of Y2k

Tim Wellhausen


University of British Columbia

March 5, 1999

1 Introduction

The computer problems that will arise at the beginning of the year 2000 are already well covered in the media. An increasing number of articles in newspapers and magazines are published and many web sites are dedicated to the glitch known as the Y2k bug.

As the date approaches, the focus of the reporting shifts from fixing the bug to the possible social consequences. Many people believe that we are not able to repair the broken computer systems and that the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it is near. Apart from this extreme view, there are many people who have different opinions about what might happen and what the consequences might be.

The one thing all have in common is fear of the unknown. The complete failure of all important computer systems on New Years Day 2000 is a low-probability, high-consequence event. It may have no consequences at all, but it also has the potential to create suffering, hardship, and death.

One of the first articles about this problem was published in the magazine ComputerWorld back in October, 1993. Peter de Jager wrote about the possible computer failures related to the inability to cope with the turn of the century. It took several years until the public was aware of this issue. Now, about ten months before the "deadline", it seems that many people who are working on the bugs are becoming more optimistic, whereas the fears of the public are increasing, strengthened by self-appointed prophets talking about apocalypse. Probably the most-cited person out of this set is Gary North, who predicts that it is already too late to fix anything.

In this paper I want to focus on the views of those people who believe that the year 2000 will be harmful to them. In section two, I present the current situation. Section three outlines the different groups of affected people. Section four gives reasons for their behavior, and in section five I conclude with possible consequences and predictions.

2 The Situation

Currently, many people are uncertain about the real situation. Contradictory reports and articles have made many people afraid of the possible consequences. In this chapter, I explain those fears and describe the arguments used in discussions about Y2k.


According to a recent poll in British Columbia [1], about half of the population is very aware of the problem, and about one sixth of all citizens are very or extremely worried about the consequences. It is a common fear that computer systems will crash with unforeseeable consequences. Power plants might fail, leaving whole states without power, the communication systems might not work anymore, and the transportation system may collapse, resulting in food shortages. Even worse, some people believe there will be riots when those who haven't prepared for the worst case scenario resort to violence to obtain food.

Another area many people worry about is the economy. There are still many companies that haven't even begun addressing the problems. If their computer systems fail, it might have fatal consequences for the economy, leading to a recession and a high unemployment rate.

But why do people have such fears? Most of them know little about computers. Both the source of the problem and the possible resolution are in the hands of others. Whatever happens, the average citizen does not have the ability to influence the Y2k bug or its management. Furthermore, most people don't know the exact reasons that cause these problems and are not able to form their own opinions on this matter.


There are a lot of discussions about how serious the problem is and how, or whether, it can be solved.

Those people who predict a worst-case scenario argue that it is naïve to think that forty years of programming can be corrected in a couple of years. Many systems are very old and often the original programmers don't work any more. Changing such an old code is not easy, especially for inexperienced programmers. Even if it should be possible to change all code, the chances are high that there are bugs left.

Although most of the Fortune-500 companies have started working on the problem and made progress, many smaller companies still haven't even begun to find to out how they could be affected. Even if most companies are ready, the interdependencies in the infrastructure are high, and a few systems that are not ready might initiate a domino effect and have a negative impact on those companies that are prepared.

Furthermore, computers are connected world-wide. Even if one country is able to fix its systems, it is likely that many others weren't able and cause the same domino effect. This is especially true for countries like Russia, Brazil, or China.

On the other hand, many experts believe that the situation won't be that bad on January 1, 2000. Certainly, there will be several problems, and some of them will be annoying or even serious. But most organizations are well-prepared. Banks, for example, already began their preparations years ago because they knew of the importance of Y2k for their business. The introduction of the EURO, the new European currency, for example, was a problem of similar magnitude and caused almost no flaws at all.

Organizations do not only work on their systems, they are often used to problems caused by malfunctioning software or broken equipment. Electric utilities, for example, have equipment failures and outages all the time. They know what to do in an emergency situation. Even if there would be no power for a few days in some areas, this would be nothing new - blizzards or snow storms have already caused worse problems.

In some areas, tests have been already performed. Alberta's electrical system, for example, has already passed the computer clock test, and oil and gas industries have tested, found failure rates of about three per cent and have announced no significant problems [2].

In particular, there is much confusion about how many lines of code and how many embedded chips are affected. Nobody can really know the true numbers and that makes is easy for some people to use arbitrary numbers to strengthen their arguments. An article [3] cites Jim Duggan, research director for the Year 2000 program at the Gartner group. According to him, fewer than 5% of the chips embedded into things like elevators and medical devices are at risk for Y2K foul-ups.

3 People

Various groups of people are affected differently by the millennium bug. These groups include those people who were responsible for the bugs, groups which use the fears about the bug to strengthen their own agenda, and normal citizens. It turns out that it is only a small fraction of the population that has a huge influence on the public opinion.


Interestingly, programmers are faced with little animosity, although they are the people who are actually responsible for the current problems. If they had not always tried to save memory by shortening dates, Y2k wouldn't be an issue at all. But nobody seems to believe that programmers make no mistakes. In public opinion, it's the computers that crash and not the programmers that have caused them to crash.

They might be responsible for the problems but most of them don't feel responsible. The habit of using only two digits for dates was introduced decades ago and everybody just did it, sometimes because it was easier, other times because of compatibility reasons. I do not want to discuss it in this paper, but it would be interesting to research whether it is possible to sue programmers in case of serious problems caused by Y2k related failures. What would occur if an architect were to announce that a bridge will collapse on January 1, 2000?!

Instead, programmers worldwide are trying to fix the bugs. Normally, they do this without interacting with the public. They are needed only sometimes for interviews about the status of their work.

Profit Makers

Whenever people suffer from fears, there are people trying to earn money. This is not different in the case of the millennium fears. There are hundreds of survivalist web sites that have one sound in common: the ringing of cash registers. Some of the people behind the sites believe in what they are doing, but many seem to be eager to cash in on the public's fear of a digital apocalypse. The web site "Y2k Food Source" [4] is a prime example.

These sites often offer both detailed information about the disastrous consequences of Y2k and everything you need to buy to be able to survive. It is clear that these sites emphasize worst-case scenarios. Sometimes they also include detailed check lists, for example how to assemble a Disaster Supplies Kit [5]. The offerings include but are not restricted to non-perishable food, generators, weapons, etc. Offers advertise small ranches without utilities starting at about $20,000 US. For $199,700 US you may even purchase a 117-acre ranch property near Kooskia, Idaho (cash or precious metals sale only) [6].

Religious People

In the USA, some Christian groups utilize the millennium fears to support their beliefs. Most moderate churches didn't give any statements for the year 2000 problem besides warnings that it has to be addressed. But there are small communities that see Y2k as a sign from God and as evidence that our society is too dependent on computers. They believe that this is a message that they have to be prepared for the time after the year 2000 when the current society won't exist any more. Y2k is seen both as a punishment for mankind and as a possibility for a new beginning.

This belief is especially strong in a part of the Christian right, called Christian Reconstructionism. I am not experienced enough in this area to decide whether this group can already be considered to be a sect, but they believe in the Christian God and in the bible. This group argues that "[...] it is the moral obligation of Christians to recapture every institution for Jesus Christ" [7]. Gary North, whom I mentioned earlier, is a well-known representative for these people. He is eager for a collapse of the existing order and its replacement with a Christian theocratic regime. The following quotes are from [7] and [8]:

"This will decentralize the social order. This is what I have wanted all of my adult life. In my view, y2k is our deliverance." -- Gary North

For decades Gary North has made a living predicting modern society will end in panic and ruin.

But even if the messages are not as strong as from these people, churches are able to attract more people. In [9] the author states that "at least one church, the Victory Family Worship center, sees more people turning to faith in the face of Y2K-inspired turmoil". Again, the Y2k bug is considered as further evidence that people cannot escape into technology and turn away from God.

Doom-and-gloom guys

This category does not necessarily consist of different people than the last two categories. People like Gary North do not only believe in the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI), they also want to convert others to this belief. Sometimes, like in the case of North, there is a religious background, but this need not always be the case. The feature that most of them have in common is that they are not Y2k experts. However, they are convinced that these problems cannot be solved.

Their message is clear: get out of the cities now or die! Y2k will inevitably destroy the civilized world. They no longer question whether the bug could be fixed, but instead focus on what the consequences of the complete failure of all computer systems will be for the society. They urge everybody to be prepared: in their view, it is better to be prepared for the worst case even if this case might not happen. They predict that in the year 2000, the current social order will vanish after the meltdown of all important systems.

They try to create public panic to further their hopes for chaos, destruction and deliverance. In order to achieve this, they don't give an accurate assessment of the problem. For example, arbitrary numbers of affected lines of code or processors are often given, including computations that conclude that it is simply not possible, given the available resources, to fix them. Additionally, these fanatics tell people to head for the hills, especially the programmers, because the doom-and-gloom guys don't actually want them to fix anything.

If you believe their statements, it is easy to see that the world-as-we-know-it will collapse. Everybody who agrees with these people is strongly encouraged to spread the word, so that more people can be saved.


This abbreviation, as used in the last section, is often used to refer to the end of our civilization. It means that Western civilization is doomed. The meltdown of our civilization will cause an economic and political collapse and social desintegration. Most conveniences of modern life will be gone. The world will continue to exist, but only those that prepare themselves will be able to survive.

These might be able to build up a new structure of society. Whereas North wants to have a society based on Christian belief, others who are opposed to the current economy or political situation want to see these vanished. They state that "maybe when we rebuild our culture we'll do a better job next time; we didn't do such a good job this time" [10].

The rest of the population

As I mentioned earlier, most of the people have already heard about the potential problems caused by the Y2k bug. Although the majority of the population is not very worried, most of the people either have already begun to prepare or plan to do some preparations. According to the survey in [1], almost 80 per cent of B.C. residents have said they will prepare somehow.

Most concerns are about the bank systems. Many people will make sure that they have up-to-date paper records of their financial affairs on hand. Furthermore, many people are concerned about systems like traffic lights. Generally, people are afraid that the Y2k bug might have impacts on their daily lives.

There are efforts by governments and companies to inform the public about their progress in dealing with the situation. These reports normally tell that the shape of the computer systems are getting better. Nevertheless, people believe that either these reports are not true, or that not all systems are ready yet.

4 Reasons

There seem to be many reasons why, especially in the USA, disproportionately many people believe in disastrous consequences. One reason might be that the USA is a country whose population strongly believes in the benefits of technology. Now that technology seems to be doomed, this belief turns to fear.


An important factor influencing public opinion is the media. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to inform oneself without the help of watching news or reading newspapers. Thus, we are highly dependent on the view and coverage of the media.

News coverage normally only concentrates on worst-case scenarios. It is easier to sell vivid, gripping stories than boring facts, which are harder to explain and less thrilling. The old saying that only bad news is good news still proves to be correct. Therefore, headline like "10% of US executives are stocking food" [11] increase fear and uncertainty.

The more widespread rumors are, the harder it is to distinguish between facts and rumors. Because many stories rely on interviews with doom-and-gloom guys, these stories are hardly accurate. As long as nobody knows the real facts, it is hard to find out which stories are more trustworthy. Even journalists often just use reports written by others, without double-checking whether the information they use is accurate.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy is something that happens because everybody behaves as if would happen, and as a result, it is actually caused. If many people, for example, believe that the banks won't be able to maintain services and withdraw money, then this might cause cash shortages because of which banks might have to close. This is not very unlikely to happen and causes concerns for those people who are more or less convinced that the real bugs will be managed in time.

If there are massive panics and hoarding late in 1999, including banks running out of cash, then it might be the case that this happens because of these self-fulfilling prophecies.

Thought contagion

Thought contagion refers to the spread of beliefs or "memes". This idea is discussed in [12]. According to the author: "Memes are beliefs that program for their own copying in humans much as computer viruses do in computers. Their self-spreading effect explains the techno-apocalypse ideas swirling around the Y2K bug, including secular hell-doomsday ideas, logic-resistant strains of myth, and embedded thought contagion." A good example for these memes are hoax mails about email-viruses, which are sent all over the internet. The point is that the virus consists of the warning messages themselves, which are believed and further sent by many recipients.

This has several consequences: in the context of Y2k, there are many rumors and stories which are not very accurate. Somebody who believes in a rumor about disasters will try to spread his or her belief further. In the case of Y2k, not believing in the rumor might have fatal consequences. Thus, a believer has to try to convince the people he or she cares for about the fears and concerns. Because only if they also believe in the rumor they will also prepare themselves. Once this is done, these people will do just the same and spread the belief further.

Once that somebody is "infected" by a meme it is almost impossible to stop him or her from spreading the belief. In the case of TEOTWAWKI, those who think "the end" will come from a power blackout feel more compelled to spread their ideas than those who know that society can weather much worse adversities. Even belief in conspiracy theories might be involved. In this case, it is hard to argue against it, because pure denial normally strengthens the belief.

5 Consequences

Nobody is able to foretell what exactly will happen on January 1, 2000 and later. Most probably there will be problems, some will be annoying, some more serious. But there is evidence that the problems caused by people might be even worse than problems actually caused by the year 2000 glitch.

Probably, IT people will have sleepless nights to ensure that everything keeps running. The question is, how serious the problems will be and how many will be left. According to current reports, especially smaller companies have to be afraid whereas for example bank systems are obviously already in good shape and likely to be ready for the new century.

Most people will probably not be affected, but it might me possible that there are failures in some local areas. Panics might occur as well as bank runs and hoarding of food. But only a small percentage of the population is afraid of the worst case, so that this shouldn't cause the consequences as predicted by the doom-and-gloom guys.

We should, however, expect some extreme cults and sects to have serious problems with a world that refuses to end. We should also expect a few groups to believe not only that the "end of the world" is upon us, but that they have an important role in causing it. This could result in events like the Heaven's Gate tragedy and the Tokyo subway attack by the doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo.

On the other hand, as reported by Canadian officials, the main task is beginning to shift from debugging to convince the public that the situation is under control [2]. If these reports appear more often in the news, public fears might decline. Furthermore, there are, for example, web pages about how to manage the fears caused by the new millenium [13].

But still, it is recommended to prepare for the next New Year. Gartner group [14] suggests to have money, food, water, and medical supplies for five days.

As I was told a short while ago by somebody I met: he didn't believe in all the news about Y2k and the possible disasters; but, just in case, he will have a food supply for some weeks. You never know!

6 References

  1. Extra cash and food part of B.C. residents' Y2K preparation: Poll, Vancouver Sun, Feb 27, 1999, page 1

  2. Prairie provinces gear for millennium, Vancouver Sun, Feb 6, 1999, page B4

  3. Chris O'Malley: Apocalypse Not, Time Magazine, June 15, 1998, URL:

  4. Web site Y2k Food Source, URL:

  5. Webpage Your Family Disaster Supplies Kit, URL:

  6. Web site Survivalist Paradise, URL:

  7. Webpage On Doom and Gloom, URL:

  8. Declan McCullagh: There's something about Gary, Wired, January 7, 1998

  9. Michael Logan: Y2K - Preparing For The End Of The World As We Know It, Post-Gazette, January 3, 1999, URL:

  10. Webpage Y2K: Coming, Ready Or Not!, URL:

  11. 10% of US executives are stocking food, New York Times. October 16, 1998

  12. Aaron Lynch: The Millennium Contagion - Is Your Mental Software Year 2000 Compliant?, URL:

  13. Webpage: Y2K : Just ANY Year 2000 specialist psychologist psychiatrist or therapist won't do!, URL:

  14. Web site: URL: