I wrote this article for Newsbytes over 15 years ago. In rereading it, I suggest that what was written still applies today.
For the past three and a half years, I’ve done a lot of consulting on the Year 2000 issue with both vendors and users of information technologies. I find this issue more intriguing than most that I usually deal with because of the societal impact and implications, not because of the technological challenges or breakthroughs. This issue sparked a need in me to go back and look at both the history of the computer industry and of society in general. The more research I’ve done, the more it has caused me to stop and reflect. It appears that Santyana was right: Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
The following lines were written in anticipation of the coming of the Millennium — the transition from year 999 to 1000:
“as love waxed cold and iniquity abounded among mankind, perilous times were at hand for men’s souls. For by many assertions of the ancient fathers we are warned that, as covetousness stalks abroad, the religious Rules or Orders of the past have caught decay and corruption from that which should have raised them to growth and progress…. From this (covetousness) also proceed the constant tumult of quarrels at law, and frequent scandals arise, and the even tenor of the different Orders is rent by their transgressions. What then can we think but that the whole human race, root and branch, is sliding willingly down again into the gulf of primeval chaos?” (Excerpted from Ralph Glaber, Miracles de Saint-Benoit.)
One thousand years later, many of us approach the Second Millennium with the same dread and confusion. We’re terrified that our cars won’t start, traffic lights won’t signal, bank machines won’t dispense money, the power will be off and our homes will be cold, the phones, fax, pagers, and cell phones will go haywire, and computers will miscalculate the data accumulated about our lives.
The only real difference between 999 and 1999 is the source of our fear.
It didn’t have to be this way. In all the research on computer hardware vendors I’ve done, the two vendors who have had no reports on Year 2000 problems are two dinosaurs, Digital Equipment Corp. [DEC] and Apple Computer. Whatever the faults of the founders and subsequent professional managers of these companies have been, both companies were built upon the same
concept: Computers can change the world for the better.
But have they really?
While productivity gains from computers are demonstrated in numerous business cases, I often wonder just how conclusive these studies really are. Do they include the time corporate flunkies spend generating non-productive CYA memos? Do they include the now easily created presentations, corporate newsletters, and spreadsheets generated with no content or useful purpose other than to keep their creators busy?
PCs have made it easier to enter business and compete. But have they also helped lower the quality threshold? A venture capitalist friend of mine told me that the worst thing to happen to his industry was the invention of the PC and the corresponding word processing and spreadsheet software applications. He said that it was now too easy for would-be entrepreneurs to write business plans. He believed that only the really committed entrepreneur would write a business plan without the availability of those authoring tools.
Ken Olsen, the legendary founder of DEC, once asked why anyone would want a computer in their home. Sure, I’m using a PC to write this article now, but if I had to, I could use a typewriter. There are those who say it would be better for me to use a typewriter because it would keep me from typing up my various rants so quickly. But what do we really use computers for that we couldn’t easily do manually or with other devices? Keep our calendars? Send letters to others? Create a catalog of recipes? Balance our checkbooks? (Well, maybe balance our checkbooks!)
The real crisis of the Year 2000 issues is that it has distracted our attention from asking the questions about why we’ve let technology pervade our lives.
Technology has given us incredible access to information. But is having more information available making us more knowledgeable or sophisticated about the real world around us? Is getting that information faster overwhelming the editorial standards needed to verify the accuracy of that information? Or is slander and malice more acceptable because it’s being disseminated more quickly and frequently?
Is the threat to our privacy and personal freedoms an equitable trade-off to our ability to transmit our views and personal information faster and to sources we don’t know?
What about our kids? Are we using computers as a soporific to entertain our children instead of to educate them?
And do we really need to be “connected” 24 X 7 X 365?
Or are we just adding more stress to our lives?
And if computers are supposed to be bringing the world together, then why do we feel a loss of community and connectedness to others? Is having more tools to communicate with others causing the content and impact of what we communicate to be lost? Or are we just kidding ourselves that we really are having two-way communications at all? Aren’t we really just talking at one another while hiding behind our computer monitors?
Is easier and faster really superior? Is more efficient more effective? Is all this technology really serving our betterment or are we creating an infrastructure that supports the technology just to maintain its functioning? Has the physical damage caused by manual labor been replaced by other physical and psychological ills caused by sitting in front of electronic devices all day?
In all honesty, I don’t know the answers anymore. When I first entered the industry, I thought I did.
I’m not turning into the Unibomber, nor am I advocating getting rid of all technology. But there is no sadder commentary on my life than the fact that I’m able to reach my neighbor across the street more easily by using e-mail than by going over to his house. We’re both “so busy” that we don’t have the time to meet in person without checking our calendars first. What’s so important and urgent in both of our lives that we can’t find time for one another?
I’m concerned that the tools we’ve created to bring us together are driving us further apart since we no longer are required to meet in person to communicate. I’m concerned that the world community created by telecommunications has caused us to lose a sense of community in the world closest by us. I’m concerned that an industry legacy based on the quality, integrity and compassion imparted by Ken Olsen, Dr. An Wang, and other industry founders has been replaced by a fool’s gold rush to get rich quick through IPOs (initial public offerings). And I’m concerned that the visionaries who dreamed that computers would improve our lives have been replaced by sociopaths who are using the technology as a means to gain more and more control over our lives.
What does this have to do with Year 2000? This: Billions of dollars are being spent to solve an industry-created, easily avoidable crisis that could have been prevented, if the current leaders in this industry had half the integrity of the industry’s founders. Billions of dollars are being spent that could be better used to eradicate the hunger and the disease that plagued mankind in the First Millennium, and still exist today, despite all the technological improvements we claim to have made.
This year I’ve worked in the computer industry for one-half of my life. I’m proud that some of the work I’ve done has helped my clients make products that improved the quality of health care or helped them to make safer or better products. But I would be less than honest if I said I thought the industry has greatly improved the quality of our lives. IMNSHO,* I don’t think those
who have the money and influence to shape the future of computers and telecommunications even care. If they do, it is secondary to their personal needs for power and fortune. That makes me as frightened as our ancestors were at the end of the First Millennium.
As we enter the Third Millennium, it seems we haven’t learned a damned thing in the past 1000 years. We’re still worshipping false gods that will only betray us in the end. We just have more technologically sophisticated ways of doing so.
NOTE: Thanks to Paul Halsall of Fordham University.
This material was taken from his World Wide Web site at
Also thanks to The Center for Millennial Studies for
additional background material on this subject.
* IMNSHO = In My Not So Humble Opinion [return to text]