Please indulge me. It's unseemly, I know, for a writer to quote himself. But having watched all the Y2K Cassandras, doomsters and charlatans go down in flames on Jan. 1, I can't resist.
On Jan. 5, 1999, this is what I wrote: "As for the Y2K problem, most of us assume someone else will solve it. Many of us suspect it's an invention of computer analysts who know we'll spend a lot of money to fix a problem, especially if we don't really understand it. It's hard to believe those smart guys didn't plan for the date odometer clicking over to 000. So maybe this is the high-tech version of planned obsolescence--a cyber scam. This will be the big scandal of Y1.999K."
It will be fun in the coming months to watch those who made profits from doom try to justify what they said and did. Already, we're hearing three arguments from the Y2K self-justifiers.
First, we avoided catastrophe because we took the steps they told us to take and spent those billions.
Second, they never really said the problem would be all that bad. "Y2K has always been a question mark," Peter de Jager, a Y2K consultant, wrote on this page on Monday. "Of course some projections were inaccurate, falling on both the low and high sides of reality."
Third, even if we did too much, there will be technological "spin-offs," because we learned so much about how our computer systems work. This argument is irrefutable but irrelevant--you always learn something when you spend a lot of money.
The first argument may be valid, but it needs to be proved. It's either true or it's not true that we had to do what we did. The government and the private companies that spent so much cash should figure out whether the spending was worth it. One couldn't help noticing that technologically advanced countries that spent far less than we did on Y2K--Italy comes to mind--also did fine on Jan. 1.
You had to love the headline in the Italian daily La Repubblica: "The Bug Was a Dud; the Great Fear Is Over; But Some Accuse: It Was a Bluff to Make Money."
As for the claim that no one really said Y2K would be all that terrible, it's simply not true. Yes, there were computer analysts who made modest and reasoned arguments that Y2K was a practical problem that could be solved. But catastrophe-mongering was too often the order of the day, especially, it seems, among those who made the most money on speeches, consulting fees, books and the like.
The writer Gary North predicted "a disaster greater than anything the world has experienced since the bubonic plague of the mid-14th century." North, who fled to a mountain hideaway to escape the catastrophe, conceded that perhaps he had made a mistake in urging others to do likewise and asked for "mercy."
Back in October 1998, Kathy Mulady, a writer for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, reported on a talk by Y2K guru Jim Lord. "Around next summer, there could be complete disaster and the effects could last a long time," he said.
Mulady then summarized Lord's specific predictions: "Expect blackouts and energy rationing, food shortages, bank and airport closures, unusable medical equipment, disruptions in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid payments and the demise of the Internal Revenue Service."
Well, never mind.
To her credit, Mulady noted in her story that Lord "has turned the millennium bug into a tidy business venture." Indeed.
The trouble is that even sensible and intelligent public officials such as Commerce Secretary William Daley--who at least said the problem could be fixed--let the doom crowd affect their public talk. In October 1998, Daley spoke of Y2K as a "disaster waiting to happen" and said Y2K could cost more than California's Northridge earthquake. (When it came to the cost of the fix, it turned out he was right.)
Okay, nobody begrudges Y2K caution where nuclear weapons, hospitals and water systems are concerned. But might we learn some lessons here?
Few of us fully understand the inner workings of the technology we're so proud of, and some are prepared to exploit that fact by trying to scare us. The same human reason that went into creating these ingenious machines might usefully be applied to the task of tempering our fears. A high-tech society that claims to be so rational may be peculiarly vulnerable to wild fits of irrationality. We're not as far from the Middle Ages as we like to think.