Finally, I have caught the millennium bug. This is not, as you might imagine, a feverish desire to be in some exotic place on the Friday night we turn 2000. I do not intend to be circling the arctic in a jet sipping champagne. In fact, due to the bug, I expect to be home under the covers.
The bug that is going around is also known as the Year 2000 Problem, or just "Y2K." It's a technological glitch that has millions of souls worrying about a computer apocalypse.When the digital clock strikes midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, at the very least, assorted hard drives will celebrate by crashing. At the very worst, the international economy will collapse.
It appears that our technological visionaries had a visual problem. They couldn't see as far as their millennial noses.
In a desire to save a couple of bytes, they used the last two digits of the year instead of all four. May 22, 1968, was coded as 5/22/68. So when we hit the turn of the century, our older software won't know if it's 2000 or 1900.
Many computers, we are told, will go into catatonic shock. Telephones and lights may go dead. Robots may quit work altogether. And at least one executive for Barclay's Bank is talking about "buying candles, tinned food and bottled water." I don't even want to think about the programs governing our ballistic missiles.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he was hiring an extra 20,000 computer programmers as "bug busters." And in the United States, officials figure it will cost $2.3 billion just to fix the federal government's computer systems.
All this could give anyone a bad, bad flu. But what has given me the vapors is this: Our greatest technological minds, the very nerds in whom we trust our hard disks and our future, the people who are assigned to be leaders in the 21st century, didn't apparently notice something rather, well, obvious.
I mean, the millennium is not a wholly surprising event. The Year 2000 won't sneak up on us, or jump out from behind some Gregorian calendar. We had awhile to prepare. Nevertheless, with a mere 19 months to go, we are just now coping with the fact that the number 1999 is followed by 2000.
I have long been skeptical about putting my faith in technology and its experts. In every family, there is a computer whiz kid who can perform magical moves with his mouse, feats that stun his cyber-senile elder. That same whiz kid will then get up from the keyboard and go out to play in the snow without boots.
My sense is that the millennial bug is in fact part of the great American planning disease. This is a country in which a long-range economic plan on Wall Street is a quarterly report. Planning is positively un-American.
It's not just that we are nearsighted. It's that we prefer to improvise. The much vaunted American optimism, the can-do spirit, also leads us to believe that we we are beginning to reckon the cost of cleaning up the mistakes of our relatively recent forebears. Deep in the electronic legacy there's a bug. It's all enough to make anyone nostalgic for the good old days.
But not to worry. On that Jan. 1, we may get a chance to start this century all over again.