Y2000: More Than A 15-Second Sound Bite

By Jeff Gainer

(Author’s note: This essay appeared in the 9 June 1999 issue of the Cutter IT Journal E-Mail Advisor.) 


As public awareness of the Y2000 problem increases, concern about its possible effects declines. 21% of the US population expects major problems to result from Y2000, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in March 1999. 38% expressed similar concerns three months before, in December 1998. Curiously, the same two polls show a trend in a greater awareness of the problem: in December, 39% reported that they had seen, read, or heard "a great deal" about Y2000, 56% reported the same level of exposure in March 1999. And although a fifth of those surveyed expect "major problems," only 9% of the survey respondents expect major problems will affect them personally. A complacent 32% percent anticipate no personal effect at all.

What could account for a greater degree of comfort with Y2000 in light of apparently increased public awareness?

Most likely, there are two reasons: First, the progress on Y2000 is growing more encouraging, and second, the public willingly accepts the simplistic scenarios portrayed by the government and the media. Either there will be a catastrophe, or simple, short-term inconvenience. Anything in between is entirely too difficult to explain in a 15-second sound bite. A year ago, media reports were more likely to portray massive power outages and airplanes falling from the sky. Now the analogy of the three-day winter snowstorm has become ubiquitous. It is an easily digestible, cozy, homely sort of metaphor. One envisions a holiday with family and friends gathered round the fireplace, watching the chestnuts pop. Just like a picture print from Currier and Ives, as it were. The two polls noted an increase in those who plan to stockpile food and water, 39% in March, up from 26% in December, presumably in preparation for the forthcoming long weekend.

Lulled into a state of national passivity by relative wealth, the American public seems little moved by scandal in the White House, war in Europe and Asia, or economic crises elsewhere. Apparently, as people now are less likely to believe that the sky will fall, and presuming that it doesn't, will there be a widespread reaction that Y2000 was just a false alarm, that "nothing happened"? And if, in the ensuing months, industrial output mysteriously begins to decline, businesses fail, interest rates rise, and the economy slows--well, never mind--it's just a little too complicated to explain.

The press release about the poll is available from the National Science Foundation at: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1999/prsp992/prsp992.txt

Detailed results of the polls are available at: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/events/fow/Y2000/Y2000update_topline.htm

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(c)1999 Cutter Information Corp. All rights reserved. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Cutter Information Corp., provider ohf information resources for IT professionals worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the Cutter IT E-Mail Advisor, June 9, 1999, a supplement to Cutter IT Journal.

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