Ed Meagher has written the finest brief statement of the y2k problem that I have read. He understands the division of labor and the threat to it that the Millennium Bug poses. This is the crucial issue that the media will not touch and the programmers do not understand. This is what threatens our survival.
The economists, who ought to understand it, are mute. They will be the last to know. "Real world? What's that? If you can't show me an equation, the problem isn't relevant."
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During the early part of the 1980's as a result of the adoption of "Reagan Economics" it was appreciated that the only part of the productivity equation of raw material, energy, and labor that could be readily controlled was labor. Rather than simply slash labor from the equation it became the goal to make labor more productive. Breaking the power of unions and adopting more efficient labor models were but two of the methods employed. By far the most successful approach was the coupling of the power of the rapidly evolving computer with limited amounts of more highly specialized labor. . . .
As computers got faster, cheaper, and more powerful, the bottleneck became the human element. The next phase in this evolution involved the use of networks to allow computers to communicate with each other, further reducing the need for human intervention. Inexorably this has led to computer systems being linked to multiple other computer systems, which require little or no human involvement. This process of "systems integration" occurred over the course of the last 15 years spawning the emergence and growth of an entire industry. Hundreds of billions of dollars and millions and millions of man-years have been spent integrating and reintegrating these multiple complex systems to form highly interdependent meta- systems.
Due to these complex "Meta-Systems", it is not enough to solve simply "most" of our Year 2000 Problems. The integration of these systems requires that we solve virtually all of them. This is because our enhanced integration of systems increases the risk of "collateral damage" to systems, that is, damage caused to systems not directly attacked but damaged due to their reliance on information from damaged systems.
Our ability as an economy and as a society to deal with disruptions and breakdowns in our critical systems is minuscule. Our worst case scenarios have never envisioned multiple, parallel systemic failures. Just in time inventory has led to just in time provisioning. Costs have been squeezed out of all of our critical infrastructure systems repeatedly over time based on the ubiquity and reliability of these integrated systems. The human factor, found costly, slow, and less reliable has been purged over time from our systems.
With Y2K, the dilemma is not the two characters that represent the century in dates stored in computers. The problem is that we as an economy and a society have become totally dependent on millions of unseen computer systems. Our standard of living and in some cases our very well being have become dependent on complex computer systems operating, within limited margins for error, reliably and accurately, without human intervention and with very limited human oversight. We have allowed our digital slaves to become essential to our well being. We have been lulled into believing that they will always be there doing our bidding. We are in for a very painful surprise in less than eight hundred days.