SCENARIOS FACING YEAR 2000
The Year 2000 will not arrive
in a vacuum. Nations will
continue to pursue their own interests. Companies will
compete. Decision-makers will act. Stockholders will sell
and buy. Human quotidian affairs will ebb and flow
according to the rhythm of biology, institution, and
Sailing, I could never tell
which waves would break over my
small vessel, no matter how intently I looked to windward.
A really big one might pass under the keel smoothly. Or a
little one might hit with a slap, just as the bow dipped,
to toss a bucket of cold brine at the cockpit. It was
impossible to predict. Nevertheless, when I saw a big one
coming I kept my eye on it.
The Year 2000 is a tsunami.
Now a barely detectable
displacement in the deep infrastructure of the developed
world, it is racing towards shore where it will . . . what?
Can we predict how the slope of each shore it meets will
amplify or damp its effect? Will the tide of human affairs
be out, so its energy is spent harmlessly over a mile of
fertile mudflat? Or will the tide be in, so it builds and
breaks with destructive force on humankind's central
Commentator Mitch Ratcliffe
recently went "out on a limb"
to say what might happen if the US Government prosecutes
its anti-trust case against Microsoft. He predicts that
the growth of the Information Technology sector of the
economy could suffer a "40 percent to 50 percent slowing"
and the Bull Market would collapse
(http://www.ratcliffe.com/html/DK). Mitch is an astute
observer, so let us assume that there is a non-zero chance
that such events could evolve. In late 1998 and early 1999
they would coincide with the first pulse of Year 2000
Commentator Doug Carmichael,
observes how Asian capital is
finding safe haven in United States stock markets these
days (http://www.tmn.com/~doug/y2kproblem.htm). He
observes that the rest of the world is even less prepared
than the United States for the Year 2000. And he
extrapolates a possibility that US markets will look good
in a Y2K induced technological meltdown, relative to the
rest of the world, and that this might amplify the safe
haven phenomenon. He speculates on the possibility of a
20,000 point Dow. Sounds good to me! But as US markets
advance zero-sum fashion, will the losers, the hurting
formerly prosperous nations, witness US success and suffer
Surprise! India has
The Bomb. Surprise! Jakarta totters.
That's just this week. What other surprises await?
In the absence of predictability,
still it is possible to
isolate robust dimensions of uncertainty, and construct
scenarios around them. For the Year 2000 Problem, there
seem to be two that are key: The degree of interlinking of
technology failures, and the degree of social coherence in
the face of the millennium.
Let us examine each of these
Along the interlinking dimension, technological failures
could manifest as relatively isolated events, or they could
be interlinked, with one event causing or amplifying
another. Along the social coherence dimension, we could
imagine that either society coheres and institutions
survive, or that institutions fail and "public order" is
replaced by less coherent social forms. Now, for the
purposes of this exercise, let us assume that these two
dimensions are orthogonal, and that they define the
SOCIAL ______________________________________ SOCIAL
COHERENCE | INCOHERENCE
And if we were to name the
four resulting quadrants, we
might name them as follows:
Business as Usual | Whiff of Smoke
SOCIAL ______________________________________ SOCIAL
COHERENCE | INCOHERENCE
Human Spirit | Apocalypse 2000
Constructing four scenarios,
one for each quadrant, we find
two very familiar sounding scenarios (Business as Usual,
and Apocalypse 2000), and two somewhat surprising ones
(Whiff of Smoke, and Human Spirit). Let's explore each of
#1 Business as Usual
Failures, Social Coherence:
This is the default scenario, the one that people think of
as they joke, "You won't catch me on an airplane on New
Years Eve!" It doesn't require that anybody do anything
new or suffer any consequences. In this future the effects
of technological failures will be spotty, where one failure
will not cause others. People will react with a "Ho-hum,
the air conditioner's on the blink again," attitude.
They'll say, "Oh well, the bank is unexpectedly shut for a
few days, I guess I will have to use my credit card."
People will devise work-arounds for the problems that do
occur, and there will be little urgency to the situation.
There may well be measurable lasting effects, but, for the
most part, day-to-day life will change little.
#2: Apocalypse 2000
Strongly Interlinked Technological
Breakdown: This scenario is the familiar, catastrophic,
total breakdown story. In this future, there are many
failing links in the meshwork of value chains that forms
the just-in-time economy. Groceries and gasoline become
scarce, transportation of goods and people becomes almost
impossible, financial systems stop working, markets crash.
The government can't collect taxes, deliver the mail, or
defend the coasts. The health care system collapses. Cities
fall into ruin, suburbs become battlegrounds. Organizations
that do not now rely upon sophisticated interconnected
systems - gangs, third world countries, etc. - will be at a
competitive advantage. Everyday life becomes a nightmare.
#3: Whiff of Smoke
Failures, Failure of Social
Systems: This scenario takes its name from, "Yelling
'fire' in a crowded theater." A "whiff of smoke," (i.e., an
occasional technological failure) could fuel a millenial
social climate, one that might already be stressed by other
bad news, to trigger institutional collapse or mob
behavior. For example, a one-day shutdown of a single bank
might cause many people to withdraw money from many banks
at once. Or a temporary gas shortage will trigger gas
lines and resulting shortages. Such systems failures are
not directly date-glitch related. Nevertheless, systems
problems with social/behavioral causes could trigger even
more "irrational" behavior. Everyday life would be
disrupted, institutions may totter, but most of the major
systems, like food delivery and healthcare, are likely
to shake, but survive.
#4: Human Spirit:
Interlinked Technological Failures, Social Coherence: In
this scenario, despite major cascading technological failures,
surprisingly, humanity will find common purpose. In
England, some remember this as "going on a war footing."
People will gain an understanding that win-win behavior is
required, that they need to cooperate, that daily life must
change -- for the common good. These changes might take the
form of community cooperative action, of rationing, or stay
at home days, or one-day-a-week banking. Perhaps
volunteers (school children, the retired, the unemployed)
will form "pencil and paper brigades" to take over critical
functions while computer problems are fixed. And it will be
amazing to see how fast diverse, unlikely groups can learn
COBOL. Everyday life will change, but in many ways it
could change for the better as people rediscover
neighborhoods, the power of working together, and their
ability to make a difference.
The Possibility of Learning
Everyday life changes dramatically
in all but one of the
above scenarios. Lesson #1 is, "Be Prepared for Change."
History forgets tragedy, and
embraces emblematic icons.
The Civil War ended the institution of US Slavery, World War
Two defeated Hitler. Even the Holocaust, horrible as it
was, is today an emblem of a people's will to survive. Few
Western people realize that the British killed tens of
millions of Chinese people in a fight for their "right" to sell
Opium, fewer still know of the flu epidemic of 1918, which
also killed tens of millions - these events did not have a
readily packaged lesson.
No matter how bad the effects
of the Year 2000 Problem are,
the world will not long remember - unless the changes
that we almost certainly must face embody a powerful,
positive lesson. The only one of the scenarios above that
does this is Human Spirit.
Human Spirit gains value for
an additional reason.
If the technological failures that will surely
come are strongly interlinked, if the falling dominos bring
down others, if the effects of infrastructure failures
cause failures in higher-order systems, or vice versa, it
defines a way to break out of the cycle - to drive, rather
than to be driven. It is a positive plan for what
otherwise could become a grave situation.
The Human Spirit scenario,
as drawn above, clearly is not
the only constructive response to the situations we could
be facing. But the time for denial is past, and the time
for planning, for engaging discussion of the alternatives
and their consequences, has arrived.
When the tsunami siren sounds,
we need not act. But for
those of us who are neither deaf nor defiant,
it is prudent to heed its call and seek high ground,
even if there is a chance that tomorrow will be business
SMART Remark: "If
you want to get the signature of techno-
utopians and Luddites on the same sheet of paper, just
write across the top, "Technology can have unintended
consequences". They'll rush to sign. . . . We may, then
-- in our current state of awareness -- be unable to
predict the consequences of a particular technology. But
that does not mean we bear no responsibility for the
consequences, or even that, at some level, we do not intend
them." Stephen L. Talbott in NetFuture #71, May 14, 1998.
David S. Isenberg firstname.lastname@example.org
d/b/a isen.com http://www.isen.com/
18 South Wickom Drive 888-isen-com (anytime)
Westfield NJ 07090 USA 908-875-0772 (direct line)
-- Technology Analysis and Strategy --
Rethinking the value of networks
in an era of abundant infrastructure.
Date last modified: 27 May 1998