Public-Interest Polling

ATI #30 Highlights

"Millennium Bug:
New Y2K Survey Finds Americans Ready To Do Their Bit-
Because They Don't Trust Government or Business"

August 3-9, 1998; N=1014 Adults
Conducted by Market Strategies, Inc.
Southfield, Michigan
Frederick T. Steeper

Survey directors:  Alan F. Kay and Hazel Henderson

September 1998
1998, All Rights reserved

ATI #30 Full Report

A Look Back

In our first Y2K Survey ATI #30, August, 1998 we described its unprecedented nature:

"Clearly Y2K is much more than a technical problem. It is a systems and organizational problem. Indeed the global dimension of Y2K grows as we learned from the World Bank in March, 1998 that of the 128 borrowing countries they surveyed (all electronically interlinked with US computers via satellites, telephony, financial trading systems, airline routes) only 37 even knew about Y2K. The World Bank has created a Year 2000 Fund to which the US has provided $12 million to help such countries. We live in a global economy and society—as we have seen the Asian financial meltdown triggered currency and stock market devaluations worldwide—while $1.5 trillion of hot money moves around the planet every 24 hours. Today’s Information Age makes all countries, their businesses and citizens ever more interdependent. This fact may reduce risks of large-scale military conflict in the future—but it also transmits financial and technological contagions. As Gary Beach, publisher of CIO magazine, observed before the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technological Problems, chaired by Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) in July 1998, paradoxically the more Y2K ready the large global telecoms become—the more efficiently ‘the telecommunications infrastructure then becomes a powerful conduit for spreading Y2K problems.’1

"On the plus side, these new properties of information-based societies also allow a significant testing, not only of public opinion but also of a range of individual behavioral responses to system-wide challenges such as Y2K poses. If corporations and small business—and even some governments—fail to prepare for Y2K, then individual and community initiatives become crucial. Like preparedness drills and exercises for natural disasters, the more individuals and communities know and act with foresight, the less the effects of an impending disaster may be. For example, hurricanes in the early decades of this century entailed the losses of hundreds of thousands of lives. Today, the meteorological tracking of hurricanes, linked rapidly to emergency preparedness units, police, fire and civic protection, and Red Cross networks—together with widespread education efforts, have cut loss of life to a minimum.

"Our survey finds that actually millions of Americans, in some cases over a hundred million (see Q25-Q30) have begun such preparedness actions to brace for Y2K, in part because of their level of distrust of government, business, and experts. This is good news—and it is reflected in community initiatives, web sites, chat-rooms proliferating on the Internet. Again, the "tragedy of the commons" nature of Y2K is at last being perceived at all levels—as well as the advisability of cooperative, win-win approaches to this systemic problem.

"ATI survey #30, the first in a series, has established a base line to track this evolution of public awareness, knowledge and behavioral responses regarding Y2K. The millennium bug issue is unique in the annals of disaster-planning—the only impending disaster whose exact arrival time is known ahead. The inevitability of kinds of pervasive social disruptions leading up to January 1, 2000, and continuing far beyond this date—is no longer disputed by the public (see Q2-Q5) or most policy elites.

"Some institutions and companies are still fearful of liability losses,2 and shy away from cooperating and sharing information. For this reason Congress is considering the Administration’s Good Samaritan" bill, which would exempt such cooperation and information sharing on Y2K solutions from anti-trust laws.3 (This bill is now law.) Indeed many computer experts believe that only such broad cooperative action—akin to a new "Manhattan Project" –can hope to address the millenium bug in time to prevent widespread breakdowns. Extremely complex plans are needed and slowly being set in place. These include plans for overhauling mainframe computers, rooting out hundreds of millions of lines of faulty code; identifying which may malfunction out of the some 40 billion embedded chips which run vital transportation, communications and public utilities and the wholesale testing of upgraded systems thought to be Y2K compliant."

We pointed out:

"Even though expert warnings about Y2K began reaching the media in 1995, it seemed likely to most that Y2K would be readily solved and the cost would not be large.4 Many believed it could be postponed for later—closer to the need. Scheduling it for a future year, even as late as 1999, then seemed adequate. Today $50 billion is the estimated cost to fix government systems by the Federal Reserve. Business Week estimates $119 billion loss of output between now and 2001. Worldwide the Gartner Group has estimated costs of $600 billion.5

"Let’s look at businesses. The analysis of government behavior is a little difference but the conclusions are the same. Classic market behavior is competitive (win-lose) but in a commons situation, such as Y2K, win-win strategies of cooperation and information sharing are needed—or the outcome is lose-lose.

"Companies when they are asked about it, whether or not they are truly on track for Y2K compliance, either avoid answering or, during phase one at least, feel reasonably comfortable saying they are "OK", "on schedule", "Y2K compliant", or other meaningless generalities.

"Companies beyond phase one tend to offer some evidence of their own Y2K readiness—otherwise, customers would begin to pull business away. Buyers, especially in business-to business transactions, seek suppliers that they are confident will be able to give them the right quality, a good price and good service, and they prefer a reliable relationship. Decision-makers will do everything they can to avoid losing customers, so they tend to be tight-lipped about Y2K compliance. In addition, if businesses mislead their customers they are subject to lawsuits. Many companies were initially advised by their lawyers to say as little as possible so as not to incur liability.2 This further leads to shutting down (narrow legalistic, non-informative) communications between competitors and between business and customers. All of these factors only increase doubt about whether one’s competitors in an industry are shading the truth or really are on track in resolving their Y2K problems.

"The problem is compounded in another way. Leaders of many businesses which have entered phase two and have gotten a close look at their Y2K problems become overwhelmed, even frightened. In large businesses, whether at the heart of limited function logical control devices or inside computers, tens or hundreds of thousands of microchips as well as older computers using earlier technology are at work in hundreds of functions/systems. The situation that has emerged for management is a series of triage options for each function or system at no less than five conceptual levels: (1) Is the computer-function date sensitive, insensitive, or sensitivity not yet known? (2) If sensitive, how Y2K compliant is it?6 (3) If not fully compliant, how serious is its function: "mission critical" to the core business; not critical but still serious; or trivial, i.e., can be harmlessly overlooked? (4) If date sensitive and unable to be harmlessly overlooked, is the problem best solved by replacing the hardware with new equipment and/or all new software, 7or just use software remedies and fixes akin to debugging? (5) Are fixes to be short term8 that can get the business through some period beyond 01/01/00 or are they to be complete for all time?9 For large businesses that have thousands, even millions of embedded chips, logical devices, and computers, this is a huge task. For many small companies the task is less but so are the resources.

"Which companies are really on track, doing this right, and which are not? Who is to know? The earlier questionable frankness of competitors is aggravated by real concerns over the difficulty of facing up to full Y2K remediation and further lowers the willingness to cooperate among competitors. Meanwhile there are between 100,000 and 300,000 jobs unfilled as companies compete—bidding up skilled programmers to unheard of salaries. Many companies may now fail because there are no available to fix their 2K programs at any price.

"Corporate leaders have heard the kind of full discussion of Y2K that have been available for some months now from consultants, lectures, televised panel discussions, and conferences. Most large companies realize that unless they attend to Y2K properly they could be out of business in less than two years. Yet thousands of smaller businesses in a recent survey1 say they will do nothing to prepare for Y2K. Such businesses will likely face severe problems or fail."

We concluded:

"The Y2K problem is a problem for all of us working together, cooperatively. We live in a capitalist society with many free-wheeling corporations, money-driven executives with a stunted sense of social responsibility; and an often ineffective government with anti-trust laws that inhibit and sometimes prevent cooperation. Like the tragedy of the commons, because Y2K is everybody’s problem, it has been nobody’s problem.

"We hope this first Y2K survey may help provide better policy focus and assist in local preparedness, urban, suburban and rural, since Y2K will likely affect people, companies and geographic areas in different ways.

"These Y2K surveys are ATI’s contributions to helping widen the public debate—hopefully focusing on the more effective solutions.

"To further the range of options, ATI has also submitted a proposal, "Millenium Holiday" to the President’s "New National Campaign for Year 2000 Solutions". In a nut shell an author of this report proposes that the President and Congress enact a special one-week "Millenium Holiday", starting Friday night, December 31, 1999, and continuing until Monday, January 10, 2000. This will allow widespread testing of Y2K systems readiness in national infrastructure and systems unstressed by normal usage burdens. The Holiday could encourage family and home-centered spiritual and religious observances of this once in 40 generations event—while promoting local community celebrations, neighborhood block parties, to strengthen local bonds and cooperation.

"Y2K readiness requires in the next 16 months an unprecedented degree of cooperation—between all levels of government (including internationally), between the public, private and civic sectors, between industries, as well as between citizens, their families, neighborhoods and local communities. The USA prides itself on its culture fostering freedom, human rights, individualism, competitive enterprise, risk-taking and innovation. As Y2K approaches, Americans may also need to call on their other traditional virtues noted in 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville in his famous Democracy in America.

"He marveled at American’s community spirit, volunteerism, "barn-raising", sharing good and hard times and cooperation. All these vital, survival values from our frontier settlements and societies will be needed to address the challenges of Y2K."

The Highlights of our new survey, ATI #31,
shed much new light on all these profound challenges for our society


1. Gary J. Beach, publisher CIO (Chief Information Officer) magazine, Testimony, US Senate Special Committee on Year 2000 Technology Problems, Washington, DC, July 31, 1998. In addition, Business Week, Sept 14, 1998 reported on a National Federation of Independent Business study finding 82% of small business’s have potential exposure to Y2K. Out of 500 small outfits surveyed, just half said they had already taken action or had plans to do so. Y2K woes could shut down as many as 330,000 small companies.

2. "Possible Damages from the Year 2000 Problem", Software Productivity Research, Inc., Casper Jones, Chairman, Dec. 15, 1997. Congressional hearings in 1998 considered reversing the game: i.e., if you lie, you are liable.

3. "Good Samaritan" bill proposed by President Clinton in a public address to the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, July 14, 1998.

4. Gallup Poll, May’98, found that only 6% of small business owners consider the millennium problem very serious.

5. John L. Peterson, Margaret Wheatley, Myron Kellner-Rogers, "The Year 2000: Special Chaos or Social Transformation". E-mail: See also, The Cassandra Project website:

6. Y2K compliance includes not only that computers recognize and properly deal with all date inputs accurately, including at least four digit Gregorian year, but also that computers calculate elapsed time between all nine combinations of past, present, and future dates. Accurate and unambiguous modules of date calculations that answer questions related to combinations of years, months, weeks, days, and hours, required for many insurance policies, business contracts, schedules, etc., are now needed that can handle post-year 2000 dates before Y2K compliance is assured. The Gregorian calendar eliminates all leap-year days in years divisible by 400 in order to correct for the fact that the year is not 365.25 days, but more accurately 365.2422 days.

7. Business computing is upgrading all the time and new upgrades can be Y2K compliant as well as improve productivity. Thus this route is attractive in part because it offers the possibility of getting out of the bind, noted earlier, that Y2K remediation is only a non-productive maintenance item. The dark side of this approach is the typical longer-than-expected period for full confidence in new systems/upgrades.

8. One technique is "windowing" that reinterprets dates. This moves the problem to another date, e.g., Macs are said to be immune to Y2K problems up until year 2024.

9. For example, consider the "year 10,000" problem. This problem is already non-trivial for analyzing realistic nuclear-waste disposal program schedule proposals which may have to project schedules out past 100,000 years to cover the physical reality of long-lived radioactive isotopes.

ATI #30 Full Report