No one truly knows what will happen when the year 2000 computer glitch strikes, but 1999 will probably be rife with rumors and speculation about the possible effects of this problem. It's also safe to say that hysteria will grow as the set-in-stone deadline approaches.
Some think that the peril is wildly overblown and that the new millennium will arrive without serious incident. But others are using the Internet to voice apocalyptic concerns, like the forecast by some militia and far-right organisations of a race war. At times, the middle ground seems lost
Of course, there's an acronym for the worst-case scenarios: TEOTWAWKI. It means "the end of the world as we know it." Read the World Wide Web sites and spend a bit of time talking to people in government, academia and industry and it's difficult after a while to suppress the sweeping tide of hysteria.
On its face, the problem is fairly simple. The year 2000 glitch is the result of programmers writing most older software with a two-digit date field expected to read the "00" in 2000 as 1900 and therefore fail to make correct calculations. Some problems already have begun to occur and government and industry are scrambling to either "fix" the bug or come up with contingency plans, or both.
That a computer bug is feeding apocalyptic fervor is both ironic and fitting. Many of the groups now springing up on the Internet have long interpreted certain Bible verses as prophecies that the Antichrist will use technology to wrest control of Earth before the final battle of Armageddon ushers in a new age.
"I think there is irony in the fact that the computer is both their chief venue of communication and propaganda and also the mother of all their fears," said Mark Potok, who edits the Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit organisation that tracks hate groups and hate crimes.
It's impossible to assess how many people are making plans at this point. But in a movement that is apparently almost exclusively occurring in the US, some are preparing for what they believe is the inevitable downfall of society, stockpiling food, water, cash, weapons and ammunition. They plan to ride out the chaos in remote locations, away from the expected urban mayhem. Developments are being built catering to the fearful.
The Internet site for Heritage West 2000, planned for Concho, Arizona, 180 miles northeast of Phoenix, promises that "500 families of the New Millennium" will live with "total self sufficiency and independence from outside energy sources," relying on solar and wind power in an atmosphere allowing them to "raise healthy, self-reliant, confident and capable children in a rural setting, which fosters a return to the values that made America great. The new Golden Age can begin right here."
Heritage West 2000 founder Russ Voorhees "is the one man ideally suited to be at the helm of this visionary project," the Web site contends in but one example of the sort of glorious self-promotion that has infected what might be called the Year 2000 Movement.
But before dismissing these so-called survivalists -- as one oft-quoted authority on the subject notes, most all of us are probably planning to survive and are therefore technically also survivalists -- consider that recent news reports from media outlets across the US have included interviews with software programmers and engineers who have been dealing with year 2000 problems and also plan to head for the hills or the woods.
Consider also that the US government itself is advising that residents take the same sorts of precautions as for an impending blizzard or other natural disasters.
"We don't have a set of formal recommendations," said Don Meyer, spokesman for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem, which is headed by Utah Republican Bob Bennett. "What Senator Bennett has been saying publicly is that it wouldn't hurt to have a few days of food on hand, a little bit of cash."
The committee is supposed to act as "a repository of truthful and accurate information," dispelling rumors of mass shortages of basic necessities and allaying fears about widespread disruptions in utilities, telecommunications and banking, for instance.
But the committee is limited in its scope and capacity. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- the same entity that reacts to natural disasters -- is charged with developing a national contingency plan just in case there is civil unrest. FEMA is, Meyer said, "a bit behind" in planning, so in the meantime the committee is spreading what is intended to be a calming message.
"A lot of things, I think would have to go wrong in order for this widespread civil unrest to become a reality," Meyer said, adding that barring a "prolonged" power outage in a major metropolitan area, such mayhem isn't expected.
The committee has conducted a series of hearings to examine how various industry segments are reacting and is confident that there won't be widespread power grid outages or banking failures.
"That doesn't mollify our fears that a plan should be in place," he said.
The government's decision to create such a plan is seen by some as evidence that chaos is expected and will occur. Others caution that gloom-and-doom prophecies will be self fulfilling. To some degree, that's happening already, as seen in specialty retail markets.
U.S. sales of pricey models of Swiss Katadyne water filters have doubled in the last few months and all filters made by the company are on backorder at distributor Suunto USA, said Vana Huynh customer service manager.
Many of those who order say they are buying the filters because of worries about how the year 2000 bug will affect water purification, Huynh said.
Given "the volume of our sales, they are unable to keep up with production," Huynh said. "We're just getting orders in every day and it's tremendous."
Katadyne's most popular filter in the past was a lightweight pocket model for backpackers, but demand has surged for all of the company's products, including the US$1,143 Expedition Filter, designed for heavy-duty use. Such as in refugee camps.
The same is happening at Recreational Equipment Inc., in Reading, Massachusetts, which has seen a surge in purchases of water filters, iodine tablets, lanterns, stoves, fuel and dehydrated food.
"Every other day I'll run into someone who's talking about it," Bruce Hamilton, a sales associate at the store says of year 2000 chatter. "They seem to be a little offbeat, to put it politely."
Dehydrated food is flying off the shelves, with customers paying $5.50 for shiny pouches of spaghetti marinara with mushrooms or $4.30 for turkey tetrazzini. "It's hard for us to keep it on the shelf," Hamilton said. "One customer wanted to buy $500 worth of dehydrated food."
More of the same can be anticipated through 1999. That will fuel panic, say some observers. Neighbors and family members will mention that they've begun to stockpile food and are planning to pull money from their banks and soon enough the concerns will spread more into the mainstream.
"I do believe there will be some runs on banks," said Michael Harden, president and chief executive officer of Century Technology Services Inc. in McLean, Virginia. The company makes software and offers services to help inventory and track year 2000 compliance.
The rush to remove cash from some banks could start as soon as late next summer and "whether that bank is compliant enough probably won't matter," Harden said.
"I believe it's too early to understand the full scope of what's going to happen," he said. "I personally think it's going to be bad. I think it depends on where you live. Some places may be without power. Others may be fine ... If the breakdowns that occur in the infrastructure of the country are significant, it will open up a lot of opportunities for all kinds of fringe elements to do some rather drastic things."
On the other end of the opinion spectrum is Dave Wessel, designer and developer of year 2000 software from Tominy Inc., a Cincinnati, Ohio-based firm. While he said "it's much, much, much too early to tell" what will happen, Wessel also believes that there's enough hard work going on to fix the year 2000 problem that major disaster will be averted.
"I don't believe we're going to have a catastrophe," he said. "I think we're going to have some inconveniences. I think we're going to have some problems and they might last for six months."
Companies seem to be swinging into gear to work on the problem. They also are increasingly concerned about what's happening among suppliers. Perhaps a little too concerned in some cases. Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, has even sent hostile letters demanding proof of year 2000 compliance to a supplier whose only work for the company has been written material for the marketing department, according to this contractor, who requested to remain anonymous.
Corporate heavy-handedness aside, some feel that individuals have to continue preparations, just in case. A Y2K PrayerShield has started with Christians providing intercession, including praying for the work of the Joseph Project 2000, a Christian non-profit group that serves as a resource center. The PrayerShield's mission, stated on its Web site is to "lift a shield of prayer for the accomplishing of God's purposes through Y2K and the new Millennium."
However, it might not be such good news if the year 2000 bug winds up being a dud.
"The passage of time historically creates a period of great difficulty for apocalyptic groups whose outlandish hopes have been dashed -- a condition that the social psychologist Leon Festinger called 'cognitive dissonance,' " according to a question-and-answer section of the Web site for the Center for Millennial Studies, a Boston University based non-profit research center.
"In the long run, the most creative groups 'mutate' into more enduring organizations which not only survive, but often provide society with some of its most creative and technologically 'adaptive' models. The more bitterly frustrated and humiliated a group feels, the more likely it is to turn to forms of 'coercive purity' and violence," the Web site said.
But the U.S. government isn't waiting to see if Jan. 1, 2000, passes without consequence, according to the latest issue of Intelligence Report, the SPLC's publication, which includes an interview with a Federal Bureau of Investigation anti-terrorism expert who says that the agency is deeply concerned that the threat of domestic terrorism will escalate as the unyielding deadline approaches.
"It is important to stress, however, that the Y2K problem is not a technical issue alone. World publics must be adequately informed not only about the scale and importance of the problem, but also about its nature so that the inevitable disruptions that will occur sometime, somewhere in the first days of the year 2000 do not trigger worldwide trepidation, or even panic," wrote Jonathan Spalter, chairman of U.S. President Bill Clinton's Council on the Year 2000 conversion working group on international public diplomacy.
Awareness among government leaders of the siege mentality taking hold among the public was apparent at last weeks United Nations meeting on the year 2000 bug with national experts from more than 130 countries sharing information and discussing emergency response plans.
One potential pitfall discussed was what central banks should do about the anticipated rush on cash that could cause a liquid capital shortage. The solution emerging from a U.S. Federal Reserve Board presentation? Print more money.
The U.N. meeting also focused on concerns that defense systems will go haywire. [See,"UPDATE: United Nations Tackle Y2K" Dec. 10]
"Let me put to rest the rumor that missiles are going to be flying everywhere by accident," said John Koskinen, president Clinton's year 2000 czar.
Missiles launch only through human intervention and if anything goes wrong, defense systems are always turned off by default, said Koskinen.
The U.S. government is said to be far ahead of other nations in correcting the year 2000 bug in its systems, although a quarterly report card consistently finds some agencies and bureaus seriously lagging. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whose antiquated computer systems often do little to inspire confidence in the first place has been particularly targeted as needing serious work to handle the glitch.
Although a Canadian official with that nation's year 2000 task force said a few months ago that he didn't intend to be anywhere near an airport at the end of next year or the start of 2000, Koskinen has pledged to be on an airplane as the millennium rolls in. Bob Bennett, chairman of the U.S. Senate committee charged with disseminating accurate information, isn't quite so confident.
"He won't be heading for the hills," said Don Meyer, committee spokesman. "But on the other hand he won't be doing what John Koskinen said he's going to do ... He won't be in the seat next to him."
In the event that Jan. 1, 2000 rolls in without major turmoil, two things might be worth keeping in mind.
So far as the millennium goes, it technically starts at Jan. 1, 2001, and the Center for Millennial Studies expects some of the fringe and religious groups to refocus on that date if the beginning of the end doesn't occur a year from now.
And, even if Jan. 1, 2000 is a bust, disaster-wise, four months later on May 5 something dubbed "The Grand Alignment" is supposedly going to occur with the six planets closest to the Sun lined up, more or less. Forget about runs on banks and food supplies. The gloomy scenario from some regarding this alignment will be massive earthquakes and movements of the polar ice caps that will case catastrophic global tidal waves.
(Rebecca Sykes in Boston and Marc Ferranti in New York contributed to this report.)