Running out of time

January 27, 1999

It's January 1, 2000. Saturday morning is quiet-too quiet, in fact. In the darkness, I see the blue numbers on my clock radio pulsing 12:00 a.m., but I know it's later than that. There's a chill in the air, and as I pull on my bathrobe I notice that I can't feel the familiar rumble of the oil burner through the floor, can't smell freshly-brewed java, can't detect the bland hum of the refrigerator. There's no traffic outside. Only the tick-tick-tick of the battery-operated clock on the kitchen wall sounds normal. I pick up the phone to call my parents on their 55th wedding anniversary. No dial tone-just dead air. The cell phone doesn't work either. Neither do the lights next door in the church...

Sunday morning's going to be really interesting around here. Two zero zero zero: party over, out of time? My future Saturday morning dilemma arises from something known variously as the "millennium bug," the "Year 2000 problem," or simply "Y2K"-with the Y standing for the year, 2 for the new millennium, and K for "kilo" or thousand. When "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" first sang his pop-apocalypse hit "1999," the date was less than 20 years in the future. Computers are quintessential Baby Boomers: the first electronic vacuum-tube computer, ENIAC, was born in 1946, and the machines learned to talk with the invention of programming languages such as FORTRAN (1957), ALGOL (1958), COBOL (1959), and BASIC (1964).

Unlike human Boomers, when computers grew up, they got smaller. The first "mainframe" was 80 feet long and weighed 30 tons. Transistors, integrated circuits, and silicon chips made possible the "mini," "micro" and PC or "personal computers," introduced by IBM in 1981. Just three years later, the more user-friendly Apple Macintosh, with its point-and-click "graphical user interface" design, instead of complex verbal commands, emerged to change the face of personal computing. But computer memory then cost about 10,000 times more than it does today. Programmers, desperate to save space and reasoning that the code they'd written and the clunky mainframes it ran on would be replaced in a few years, used only two digits to identify the year. Even embedded chips-the ubiquitous microprocessors that control important functions in everything from supertankers to traffic lights-had the two-digit year "burned in" to their circuits. 

Garbage in, garbage out
Problem is, computers can't think for themselves-a truth known among programmers as "garbage in, garbage out." When January 1, 2000, arrives, some computers and microchips will check their internal calendars and read "00" not as "2000" but as "1900." That sounds comical, until your credit card with its "00" expiration date is rejected, or you're charged 100 years of unpaid interest! There's a simple fix, of course: change the "source code" in all the programs, and switch out the old microchips. But source code-and the programming language itself-may have disappeared. Many of the original programmers are long since retired or have died. There aren't enough programmers in the world, let alone the United States, to rewrite billions of lines of code or replace existing "legacy" programs in time to beat the deadline, now less than a year away. The scale of the problem has been compared to trying to produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant at the same time. Microchips present an even more daunting dilemma. Some were made by manufacturers long gone to their corporate graves. Newer chips may not work in older equipment; the only way to find out is to replace them and try again. And some of the chips are buried in undersea telecommunications cables, spinning in satellites overhead, quietly regulating a heartbeat in someone's pacemaker. 

Breaking the "iron triangle"
What troubles a growing number of experts is the fear that the modern world's "iron triangle"-electricity, banking and telecommunications services-would be disrupted if a small percent of their controlling software and microprocessors fail the Year 2000 test. Major corporations have already tested some of their Y2K "fixes" and report unanticipated glitches, such as the Chrysler assembly plant whose security system locked everyone inside when its clocks were rolled forward. Failures in one sector can ripple into others, and people who've never switched on a PC in their lives could be affected as much as the most dedicated Internet surfer. Driving a late-model car? Date-sensitive onboard computer chips control fuel injection, smart braking, service indicators, and much more. Microprocessors control pumps at the gas station and the flow of crude oil into the refinery. Going to buy groceries? Computers read price codes, control inventory, call forth "just-in-time" deliveries of fresh food by ships, planes, trains and trucks. Just staying home today? Heating, cooling, cooking, refrigeration, lights, water, sanitation-all depend on utilities which depend on computers. 

Y2K problems may show up as early as April 1999, as some fiscal year-start dates overlap with the year 2000. On August 22, computers on the satellite-based Global Positioning System, which guides planes, ships and missiles, and which major banks use to record the time of day, roll over to zero. September 9, 1999-"9/9/99"-may be read as an end-of-file signal or a command to abort-shutting down for repairs. Welfare, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits are at risk. A recent U.S. General Accounting Office report says that only about a third of the 421 state-run benefits computer systems are ready for 2000. Senator Bob Bennett (Republican, Utah), who heads the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, has said, "We must be Paul Revere. We must tell everyone that Y2K is coming. But we must not be Chicken Little and tell them that the sky is falling... Don't panic, but don't spend a lot of time sleeping either." 

Dr. Edward Yardeni, chief economist for Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in New York, is calling for a "Manhattan Project"-style assault on the Y2K problem. Investment gurus such as Andrew Tobias are reluctantly recommending that their readers prepare for the equivalent of "a very big hurricane"-one in which "you couldn't necessarily expect help to come flooding in from the neighboring county, because the neighboring county could well be in the same boat." Most fear that panic-driven stockpiling of supplies or bank withdrawals could cause dire prophecies of post-Y2K economic collapse to become self-fulfilling.

But for others, Y2K represents TEOTWAWKI-"the end of the world as we know it"-and they're not sure that's so bad. Dr. Gary North, once on the far fringes of the Religious Right, has found new respectability in the burgeoning Y2K pundit industry. The Jeremiah Project website hints darkly, if confusingly, at the coming of the Antichrist and a one-world government resulting from the failure of the very technology that's also said to enable the same Antichrist to come to power.
Survivalist books and websites offer "prophetic" advice ranging from fleeing for a well-stocked rural hideout to stockpiling ammunition and hunkering down in the city, prepared for food and water wars. 

Repent-or just reboot?
Mainstream Christians, such as Episcopalians, are unlikely to embrace anything with even a whiff of the apocalyptic attached to it. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America last fall issued a pastoral letter warning that "there is no biblical basis for equating a year with Jesus" returning, the coming of the kingdom of God, or the end of the world,-but nothing was mentioned about the computer glitch. The Assemblies of God has cautioned its churches against panic reactions-hoarding food, withdrawing money from banks, or expecting the collapse of Western civilization-in response to the Y2K issue.

But the subject hasn't been raised in discussions of the national Episcopal Church's communications strategy. Many diocesan leaders, clergy and laity, seem never to have heard of Y2K. In one diocese (Rhode Island), an unscientific survey of clergy and parishes who regularly use email turned up disappointing results: only five of 42 responded. Of these, three assumed that Y2K would affect only those with computers. "Our old 486s at the office with Win95 just need to be manually set to the 2000 date," wrote one. "My fancier machine at home, and just over a year old, will do it all by itself." "I use Apples, and so it won't be a problem for me," wrote another. (Most Macintosh operating systems won't have problems until the year 29,940, but software is another matter.) A third demurred: "Not really my field," and promised to forward the survey to parishioners.

A fourth wasn't about to take Y2K too seriously: "Repent, the end of the world is at hand!... The will of God is clear as he brings his hand of judgment crashing down upon our hard drives. Get ye up from your screens, go forth into the world, and bring about some quality face time with your neighbors." Only the fifth had already preached about the issue. "Common sense emergency preparation," this rector recommended, with an attitude of "pray for the best, prepare for the worst." "Our accounting staff has been reviewing this," reports Guillermo Johnson, Director of Communications for La Iglesia Episcopal de Panama. "We have been trying to upgrade as many computers and software as possible. We have also issued guidelines in purchasing equipment to the churches, but as you can imagine, they just go for whatever they feel like. As far as I have seen, Panama is a PC country, with Macs running far, far behind. So any problem would have a common solution."

Tracking the compliance of suppliers is another matter. "Some vendors I know are okay, others still use Apple II series computers. Others don't even know what PC means," Johnson said, adding that "our main bank runs with 8088 computers still.
As far as local government, it is more of a concern that the supply for typewriter ribbons doesn't run out. Contingency plans unfortunately DO NOT exist. If power goes out, we shut down. If it is for an extended period, I imagine that we would revert to manual operations." And if the worst-case scenario really happens? "As a Just Cause Survivor, the best I can offer is to preach about how social order (among other things) can decay if Fear, and not Christ, rules in our hearts and minds," admonishes Johnson. "We had power, water, telephones working, but everyone just thought of themselves. And as you can imagine, opportunists went out, and started looting."

What should churches do?
Once you've sifted through the chaff about Y2K, some things do become clear. A survivalist, everyone-for-herself approach just doesn't make sense. As Y2K authority Peter de Jager puts it: "You can't head for the hills because everybody else is going to be in the hills." What will work are community-based solutions, in which churches can play an important part. "The best security you have is a prepared neighbor," advises Paloma O'Riley, of the Cassandra Project. Churches can start with a plan similar to the one recommended for businesses. The first stage is awareness: learning the facts about Y2K and educating each other responsibly. Obsessing about Y2K won't help. Neither will ignore it. Think of this as contingency planning for an unusually stormy winter-say, ten blizzards in a row.

The second step is inventory and assessment. How's your church computer system? Many churches limp along with outdated IBM 286 and 386 systems and old software donated by parishioners. Do what you can to upgrade-prices on new Y2K-tested systems are lower than ever. How else is your church vulnerable? Is your bank, oil company, electric utility or phone company ready-and are their suppliers ready, too? How would you conduct worship if your sanctuary had no water, no heat, and no lights? How would you contact people if phones were down? How would your congregation get to church if their cars wouldn't start, or couldn't be fueled? How would your budget be affected if attendance dropped off sharply as a result?

Analyze your church's ministries and outreach programs. Decide which are "mission critical." Define which functions target your members (such as worship services, Sunday school and adult Christian education, outreach to shut-ins and the elderly) and which serve the community (such as food pantries, soup kitchens, or 12-step groups). Churches have strong responsibilities to both; neither can be discounted. The decisions you make will reflect how your congregation sees itself. The third phase is remediation. Decide how to respond to possible emergencies. Buy a gasoline-powered generator, a back-up solar power system, and a couple of propane-powered ministoves.

Decide who will run the food pantry and soup kitchen (which may be more in demand than ever). Partner higher-risk households (the elderly, shut-in, or handicapped) with those at lower risk. Partner with a "sister congregation" that may be more (or less) fortunate than your own. Prepare to welcome people who may not be able to attend their own congregations. Start a Y2K "discretionary fund" for unexpected outreach expenses. Help members copy essential papers-bank statements, mortgages, wills-and store them in a safe place. Maintain a "tickle file" so that members using special medications can order an extra month's supply before it's needed. Know the skills and talents in your congregation-who is a doctor, nurse or dentist, who is trained in CPR, which experienced wilderness camper can make a gourmet meal on a camp stove.

The fourth step is testing. Check and double check plans. Make sure you have back-up systems before they're needed. Finally, there's implementation: the proof of all your planning, which comes at "ground zero." 

The spiritual heart of the Y2K challenge
There is a spiritual issue at the heart of the Y2K problem. Some even refer to it as a "breakthrough," a challenge to choose "social chaos or social transformation." Most thoughtful analysts agree that organizing people to face the threat of Y2K-even if little happens-may reverse some of the isolating and fragmenting effects that technology has had on community. "Most Americans these days live in networks, not communities," wrote Eric Utne, founder and editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, in the newly-published Y2K Citizen's Action Guide. "We rarely associate with people who are not similar to us in terms of education, income, age, race, physical characteristics, and world view... Y2K is an opportunity to change all this."

The role of churches, many of which already offer contact with people who are different from us, hasn't been ignored. "Our churches can provide both physical and emotional centers for the work of reconnecting neighbors," write organizational consultants Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. "The sweet irony of Y2K is that if we use it now as an opportunity to re-create our communities and culture, whatever technological failures materialize won't have the same negative impact."
For Christians, there is the deeper issue of our public witness to our faith. "If nothing strange happens, God will still be in charge and we can praise Him for that," writes Y2K authority Rich Miller in "Y2K and the Church: An "Awareness Sermon" on the Year 2000 Problem. "If the world winds up in darkness, we are here to be a lighthouse for God. In the midst of uncertainty and confusion, we must never forget that we are a people with a message: Fear not!

"When you have peace in the midst of chaos and confusion, people notice. We need to communicate that our confidence is not because we believe in ourselves or in technology, but because we believe in God, who is our power source."
Southern Virginia is in the process of "redoing" the Diocesan computer system (such as it is). Part of the reason is Y2K and part of the reason is our system-like many I have been associated with in Church and other organizations (including business)-just sort of happened over the years and is not very efficient. This lets us "kill two birds with one stone."

--This article was originally published in RISEN, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, USA. © Jan Nunley 1999. Nunley, rector of St. Peter and St. Andrew Church in Providence, is director of communications for the diocese.

SIDEBAR: A field guide to Y2K resources

Pundit websites
Peter de Jager created and facilitates the Year 2000 Information Center website as well as the Year 2000 discussion list on the Internet. 

Center for Cybereconomics - Dr. Ed Yardeni, who runs this site, is chief economist and a managing director of Deutsche Bank Securities (North America).  

Site owner Edward Yourdon, chairman of Cutter Consortium, began his career in the computer industry at Digital Equipment Company more than 30 years ago. With his daughter Jennifer, he is the author of Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You 

John Westergaard is publisher/editor of the Westergaard Year 2000 website. 

Christian websites
Y2K: A Christian Perspective provides evangelical Christians with "balanced information from a variety of sources and perspectives." 

The Joseph Project 2000 is a Christian-led nonprofit site which "desires to prevent and respond to the potential impacts of the Year 2000 computer problem in a professional and balanced manner." 

Y2K for Women is a site "designed to explain the Year 2000 Problem to women who have no, or very limited, computer knowledge." Men like it, too. 

Enter with care. Chief "doomsday prophet" of Y2K, Dr. Gary North is a co-founder of the extreme right-wing Christian Reconstruction movement. Balanced, he's not. 

Community & government websites
The Cassandra Project is a grassroots nonprofit organization formed to raise public awareness, promote community preparation activities and contingency planning, and establish a clearinghouse for community preparedness activities. 

Website for the US Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. Good links to other government sites. 

News updates
Y2K News Magazine is a bi-weekly publication providing total global coverage on Y2K problems. 

Y2K Today provides daily updates on Year 2000 issues. 

Books and periodicals
Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You by Edward & Jennifer Yourdon. A father-daughter team, the Yourdons explain how the Y2K problem will affect the lives of average people and everyday systems by presenting a collection of scenarios ranging from the best to worst cases, and examine each extreme. A New York Times best-seller, this book is a good read for those looking for a starting place in learning about Y2K. 

The Millenium Bug: a Layman's Guide to the Year 2000 Computer Crisis by Michael S. Hyatt. An accessible, well-researched guide to Y2K issues across a range of industries, with a section on personal preparedness. A bit "preachy" towards the end. 

Y2K: Millennium Bug: A Balanced Christian Response by Shaunti Christine Feldhahn of the Joseph Project 2000, presents the advice of Christian leaders as she offers three possible scenarios that could result from the Y2K problem. Chapter 10 is good on congregational preparation. (Warning: Pat Robertson alert.) 

Finding and Fixing Your Year 2000 Problem: A Guide for Small Businesses by Jesse Feiler. A hands-on approach is offered to addressing and solving the year 2000 problem in the small enterprise (small businesses, schools, medical offices, home offices, etc.). 

Countdown Y2K Newsletter A monthly ministry publication compiled and edited by Shaunti Feldhahn of the Joseph Project 2000. One-year subscription, $59.00. Contact 1-800-500-0867, or write Multnomah Publishers, PO Box 1720, Sisters, OR 97759. 

--This article was originally published in RISEN, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, USA. © Jan Nunley 1999. Nunley, rector of St. Peter and St. Andrew Church in Providence, is director of communications for the diocese.

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