The year 2000 problem in computer software may turn out to be a mere blip on Jan. 1, 2000, or it may be a social and economic cataclysm--no one knows for sure. But we do know that even now, about 550 days before that date of reckoning, the "millennium bug" is having an impact on politics and may soon begin to shake up society in general.
Republicans in the House of Representatives, and some of the Republican candidates for president, have recently decided that someone should take the blame if the millennium bug turns out to be a catastrophe. And their choice for taking this blame is Vice President Al Gore, the assumed Democratic Party front-runner for president in 2000 and the widely acknowledged "technology guy" in the Clinton White House.
Thus the year 2000 problem will build in significance as we approach the new millennium, not only as a massive and expensive technological headache, but as a curious and potentially dangerous political struggle as well.
The "Y2K problem," as it is known among technologists and policymakers, affects hundreds of millions of computers and devices around the world through the software running on computers and in embedded computer chips.
It stems from software programmers' widespread practice of using only two digits for the number representing the current year, based on the commonly used assumption that the first two digits would always be "19." It's feared that when 2000 arrives, software may fail to function, producing system failures the effects of which may be impossible to predict completely.
Programmers who are experimenting today by entering post-2000 dates into duplicate test systems are discovering nerve-rattling results: One such experiment locked the programmers in their facility, rendering the computer-coded security system on the doors inoperable.
There are many "doomsday" scenarios floating around because of the Y2K bug, some of them warnings from respected and experienced programmers who are genuinely frightened by the scope of the problem. What no one understands sufficiently, and which may be the source of greatest anxiety, are the cascade effects that might be produced by the highly interdependent interactions between systems in our complex, computer-dependent, "just-in-time" economy. If there are simultaneous failures in the power grid, the telephone system, the stock market, banks, the retail sector, the air traffic control system and many other systems, there may be a widespread meltdown that will be more severe than the sum of each system failing independently.
Moreover, general social panic or protective behavior could greatly exacerbate the Y2K problem, either as a response to system failures or in anticipation of breakdowns. If 10% or 20% of the people pull their money out of banks or out of the stock market, for example, both systems could crash, bringing down the entire economy.
Not surprisingly, the fact that all this calamity could appear in 2000 is attached to all kinds of other opinions about the transition to a new millennium, particularly religious predictions about Judgment Day and the warnings in Revelations in the Bible.
Into this volatile brew of anxiety and unpredictability has stepped the Republican Party. Over the last couple of weeks, Republicans in the House and on the campaign trail have unleashed an attack on the White House, and on Gore in particular, accusing them of a lack of leadership on the Y2K problem. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a speech recently, "I can't imagine anything more destructive for Gore's political future than to talk about the information superhighway and then to have the largest wreck in history on the First of January, 2000."
House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas has launched a Web site aimed at flogging the White House over Y2K (http://www.freedom.gov/y2k/). Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes is planning radio ads attacking the White House on the issue. The conservative Center for Security Policy in Washington is issuing printed briefing papers with titles such as "Where's Al?" and "Al's Mess." The magazine for Washington insiders, the National Journal, published a special issue on the Y2K problem with the headline, "Sorry, Al, This Bug's for You."
Rep. Stephen Horn, a Republican from Long Beach, has been the lead investigator examining the federal government's fix for its Y2K problems. He has given the White House an F grade overall, noting only a handful of agencies that seem to be dealing with the bug effectively (such as the Social Security Administration). Horn is now the co-chairman of a new House task force on Y2K with Constance A. Morella, a Republican from Maryland.
Horn told me, "We can't be responsible for what candidates are saying in their speeches." But echoing more vocal critics, he said: "Where's Al Gore on all this? What's he been doing? I think he's making a big mistake by not being more prominent. He's the guy who's going to take it."
Republicans may have some grounds for believing that this is an effective way to tar the next Democratic Party candidate for the White House. A survey done by CIO magazine in May discovered that 55% of the 400 respondents agreed that Gore's "presidential aspirations will be jeopardized if the year 2000 problem is not resolved."
White House officials are baffled and angry about the unraveling of the bipartisan consensus in the House on solving the Y2K problem. (They say a consensus still exists in the Senate.) A senior administration official, requesting anonymity, told me that the new attack strategy may backfire because he believes federal computers will come out looking pretty good on Jan. 1, 2000, and Al Gore may then get the credit for doing a good job. "We'll be in pretty good shape, especially in comparison to other countries, where things could get very bad," he said. "And how can Al Gore be responsible for failures in computers in the private sector?"
The danger in this tiff between our two parties is that the Republicans may wind up scaring a lot of people, which might amplify the social panic that could make the Y2K bug a catastrophe no matter what the actual technological effects turn out to be. Members of Congress have urged the vice president to give a speech to the American people about Y2K, although the rumor now is that President Clinton will handle this chore within the next month. His aim clearly will be to attempt to calm fears and reassure the public that a fix is well in hand.
Even without the global, potentially explosive Y2K bug, the changeover to the 21st century will be a landmark in human history, with many unpredictable social impacts. The Y2K bug, however, may make this red-letter date one that tests our social and political stability like never before.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.