While government agencies and corporations scramble to make their computer systems and software capable of handling the date change to January 1, 2000, ordinary citizens are assessing how the software glitch may reach into their homes and personal lives.
Every major aspect of our modern infrastructure relies on technology to administer basic services such as health care, telecommunications, transportation, education, manufacturing, and finance, just to name a few. Regardless of its implications, some say the Year 2000 problem is guaranteed to prove society is too dependent on computers.
As citizens become more educated about the
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"We get up in the morning, we go to work, and we use so much technology. But it's been there long enough to become second nature," Y2K specialist Joe Boivin says. "It's only when you take it away that people begin to recognize they're in trouble," he says.
Last year Boivin sold his house and retired from his job as the director of the Year 2000 program at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto. He's using the money to fund the Global Millenium Foundation, where, as director, he consults and teaches companies how they can take the problem and turn it into something they can understand and manage. The Belgium government has already translated Boivin's Five Step Process into Flemish.
"This is a global crisis coming," Boivin says. "When you layer that on top of the current crisis we have in the financial systems worldwide, then it's going to be a big deal and people should not dismiss it lightly."
Boivin says most citizens don't realize they come in contact with about 70 microprocessors before noon every day. The slightest glitch can disrupt services which are usually taken for granted such as traffic lights, elevators, medical equipment, and water, electric, and gas systems.
A small, but growing number of citizens aren't willing to wait around for software engineers to fix the problem, so they're taking the bug into their own hands.
Some are purchasing their first gun and trading in financial assets for cash and gold, while others are setting up Y2K shelters and stockpiling food and water.
Patent attorney Russ Vorhees just purchased 512 lots on 675 acres in Arizona. Vorhees hopes to retrofit the land, called Heritage Farms 2000, into a "beautiful city for people who want to live in a safe environment." Vorhees says thousands of potential buyers have expressed interest in securing a half acre lot, which sells for $10,000 for five years. Long-term buyers can purchase lots for an additional $24,750.
"A lot of people are really looking for a place of permanent living in a rural area where they've got Internet hookups and some continuity of both power and communications," Vorhees says.
Vorhees plans to set up a basic necessities Internet general store, equipped with online catalogs of convenience products, generators, food, and clothing, and predicts about 1,000 people will start moving in as early as next March.
While Y2K specialists say citizens should begin to prepare, they shouldn't run for the hills. "How comfortable are you going to be hiding if people who are very close to you are exposed to a fair amount of danger?" Boivin asks. "A wiser approach would be to look at how you can prepare yourselves in whatever community you live in and weather the storm."
Paloma O'Riley of the Cassandra Project agrees with Boivin and advocates that people work with neighbors and communities to develop contingency plans. She says running away is a bad idea for a number of reasons.
"The obvious one is there's 260 million people in this country. They all can't run for the hills," she says. "The Y2K problem, no matter what happens, will eventually pass and if we have abandoned cities, it's going to be much more difficult to go through the recovery period."
But that doesn't mean O'Riley isn't taking the problem seriously. Sixteen months ago, O'Riley began the Cassandra Project, which is an online clearinghouse that facilitates communication within communities and distributes Y2K information.
Two years ago when O'Riley was the Y2K project manager for the Rover Group in England, she realized it wasn't only a business issue, it was a societal one. So she came back to the states and started the project to address Y2K public health and safety issues. Both her husband and donations support the project, which was named after the prophetess of Greek mythology who spoke the truth, but was never believed.
O'Riley receives about 300 emails and fields 30 phone calls a day from concerned people who are seeking advice or looking to relocate to join a Y2K community. She usually refers them to her preparation outline, which is based on worst case scenarios with the intention of "preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."
The "Individual Preparation for Y2K" information packet includes categories such as Financial, Food and Other Basic Supplies, Health, Power, Safety, Transportation, and Water.
But O'Riley recommends people stay put and work with neighbors to develop contingency plans. She's aware of about 100 community preparedness groups across the United States and Canada. Two or three are formed every day.
Statistics show for every one person willing to leave, eight would rather stick around and remedy the problem.
"That's a very selfish viewpoint. That's like saying 'we can't help the cities so let's just abandon them.' Yes, the issue of cities is a big one, but we have no choice but to come up with some kind of recommendations or solutions to help the people who are left here," she said.
Vorhees says Heritage Farms 2000 is not a survival community and its residents aren't walking away from the problem. "A lot of the people coming here are looking very much at the strong possibility that they'll be part of the solution to the computer problem by being involved in a highly visible community that will have telecommuters who are working on software problems."
O'Riley argues there isn't anything to panic over per se, but citizens do need to take precautions.
Boivin agrees, saying to treat the Y2K problem like any natural disaster and most importantly, prepare to alter your lifestyle, for at least a few weeks.
"Take time to do the personal research and don't dismiss it as something that's silly or not likely to happen," he said. "If you ignore it, then you're going to be exposed to unnecessary danger."
Boivin says regardless of what happens, people are going to realize they haven't calculated the base requirements needed to maintain society. "Perhaps the Year 2000 problem is an opportunity to step back, look at what we've done, and realize we could have done it a whole lot better."
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