The Lesson of Y2K the 'Millennium Bug'

The Lesson of Y2K the 'Millennium Bug'

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Y2K is an abbreviation for the "millennium bug." It literally means "Year 2000."

In brief, the Y2K computer problem is simply that, in the '60s and '70s, and even into the '90s, when computer memory was costly, most programmers used only two digits to designate a year when writing software, so they wrote 1968, for example, as simply "68." But soon some computer systems will read 00 as 1900 instead of 2000; others will simply treat 00 as a mistake—an invalid date—and produce erratic results or just shut down.

How Y2K Will Affect Us

Since the day-to-day business, economy and military infrastructure of much of the world is conducted through computer technology, the potential for massive technological breakdowns is enormous.

Perhaps the biggest intrinsic difficulty is that the problem appears so trivial that it has been hard for politicians and businessmen to take the millennium bug seriously. The process of attitude conversion has been slow.

Yet, on a more practical level, "many time-sensitive businesses have already begun to hit millennium problems; more will do so after the start of 1999, and of the financial year spanning 1999, and 2000. Systems will crash, components will fail. Generally this will cause irritation, not catastrophe" (The Economist, Sept. 19).

Of course, many Western governments and businesses around the world are earmarking enormous amounts of money with the hope of fixing the problem before Jan. 1, 2000. But the necessary alterations are so minutely detailed and the repair processes so arduous that many observers are skeptical that technicians can meet the deadline—especially since some governments and many companies are only now beginning to address the problem.

Interdependence is a major factor. As Newsweek (Atlantic edition, May 18) put it: "While some businesses are responding aggressively to the problem, our computers work in an incredibly complex web of interdependence, and even if a given bank or auto manufacturer manages to stamp out all its bugs, failures by partners and suppliers can still grind things to a halt."

Some Fundamentals

What is it about people that landed us in this problem in the first place? Clearly the blame must be laid on the fallibility of human beings. What important lesson should we learn from the folly of Y2K?

The book New World New Mind summarizes our enigma in this way: "Human inventiveness has created problems because human judgment and humanity's ability to deal with the consequences of its creations lag behind its ability to create" (1989, p. 9). In other words, our awesome technology is fast outrunning our wisdom and ability to control technology. We are simply unable to deal with its consequences.

Shortsightedness is a major factor in human problems. We live for the moment. The images on our television screens vie for our too-short attention spans. We undervalue the lessons of history. We take little thought of tomorrow and fail to understand long-term cause and effect. As the late Carl Sagan expressed it: "We are very devoted to the short-term and hardly ever think about the long-term" (Billions & Billions, 1997, p. 67).

Even when we grasp, in a limited way, long-term effects of our actions and decisions, we don't appropriately follow through. Lung cancer may terrify us, but many continue to smoke.

Our record of human folly shows that we lack both perspective and foresight. Those who made the original decisions to conserve memory space by using only two digits for system dating did so for reasons that were rational and sensible at the time.

Explained The Economist: "Even those who foresaw the year 2000 problem in the computer's early days chose to ignore it, for two good reasons. First abbreviating dates made overwhelming economic sense at the time. This is hard to imagine now that [computer] memory seems almost limitless ... The second reason for not worrying about abbreviated dates was that nobody expected software to last so long" (emphasis added).

The Perils of Taking Shortcuts

The wisest of the ancients, King Solomon of Israel, understood man's shortsightedness: "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11). If bad decisions and unwise actions don't yield immediate consequences, we discount their long-term effects. In developing and implementing modern technology, we fail to face the long-term consequences of taking easy shortcuts.

Environmental problems are another textbook example. Our shortsighted ecological actions have filled the earth with various types of pollution. Yet the easy way of the moment can seem so attractive to human beings. Solomon concluded: "Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him" (verse 12).

Jesus Christ expressed the consequences of the principle of cause and effect in this way: "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it" (Matthew 7:13). Sooner or later, following the easy way—the path of least resistance—catches up with us.

A Source Book with Foresight

Computer hardware and software come with handbooks to help us understand and operate them. They are vital aids to comprehending the workings of our modern machines and offer insight into dealing with problems.

But, of much more importance, the Bible is a handbook that helps us to understand ourselves. Crucial parts of Scripture focus on human weaknesses and show us how to overcome them.

The Bible focuses on long-term consequences. Its pages peer far into the future and look back to man's earliest beginnings. God's Word enlarges our vision of life and helps us to grasp cause and effect.

Two key chapters in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) highlight the cause-and-effect principle. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 spell out the kinds of behavior that bring rewards of peace and prosperity and the opposite actions that result in a multitude of curses. Both chapters are worthy of careful study.

The 200-plus-year history of the 10-tribed House of Israel shows us the long-term consequences of stubbornly persisting in a wrong way of life. King after king, ruler after ruler, failed to obey the living God. Each made the same mistakes as his predecessor. None learned from the blunders of Jeroboam, the northern kingdom's first ruler.

The people as a nation courted catastrophe by rejecting the laws of God. Finally the Israelites' way of life ended in their enslavement to a foreign power. In concern for their welfare, God sent several prophets who advised the nation to change course before disaster struck.

Elijah was one such prophet. Even though he was one of the most righteous and powerful of God's servants, the House of Israel virtually ignored his warnings and stayed on the foolish path to destruction.

Most people rarely face the predictable negative consequences of their choices.

It is far easier to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself.

What Action is Required?

Individually, we are unlikely to prompt a national course correction among our own people. But we can take steps to put our personal lives in order and take reasonable precautions.

We can face the future. We can get in harmony with God's way of life and begin reaping the righteous fruits that emerge from living according to His laws. Gradually our lives will begin to reflect the remarkable benefits of our new perspective and foresight.