Constructing The Millennium Bug

Event Scenes

Constructing The Millennium Bug

Trust, Risk, And Technological Uncertainty

Introduction – Why Y2K? Why Now?

Within the past twelve months, the encroaching millennium has been constructed in multiple ways. One of the most vivid of these constructions is as a potentially infectious, destructive ‘bug,’ which will disrupt computer systems, bringing about potentially widespread technological failures and social breakdowns. This by now familiar ‘millennium bug’ or ‘Year 2000 problem’ is a cultural phenomenon that illuminates conflicting anxieties about our relationships with computer and informational technologies and about the changing landscapes of global organizational infrastructures. This paper draws from ongoing, qualitative research interviewing people who work in the airline and healthcare industries – industries that are considered ‘high-risk’ for Y2K failures – as well as media discourse analyses of the Y2K problem. Here we focus on the representations of Y2K both by those working in high-risk fields as well as by representations in media. Within these discourses, we have found that Y2K is about far more than preparing for the potential effects of a single line of computer code. Underlying the logistical and technical descriptions of potential Y2K failures are moral messages about communities, organizations, bodies, and technologies, conveyed through narrative themes of risk, uncertainty, and trust. Most media coverage of Y2K centers on the issue of preparedness – inciting its readers to prepare themselves, listing the worst and best-prepared organizations, industries, nations. Fundamentally what these preparedness discourses tell us is who we can and cannot trust – what is safe and what is risky.

As with most designations of trust versus risk, safety versus danger,1 these Y2K discourses send a persistently moral message. One element of the panic narrated through Y2K discourses of risk and danger reveal moralizing anxieties about the constructions and constellations of communities, organizations, and humanity in increasingly networked and virtual societies. Additionally, by discursively constructing which organizations, which industries, and which nations are most ‘at-risk’ for Y2K failures, U.S. media reproduce an ‘othering’ discourse that reifies familiar and problematic divisions between the ‘west’ and the ‘other.’

The Anxiety Of The Network Society, Or “No Nation is a Digital Island unto Itself”2

Y2K fears and anxieties are situated firmly within the idea that we live in a network society, where money, property, community, organization, and identity are increasingly as ‘virtual’ as they are ‘real’. According to Manuel Castells,3 the network society constitutes a new mode of material existence. Within network society ensuring material existence is increasingly managed through flows of interdependent information networks. While it is clear that organizations have always been “networked,” in that they have always been interdependent with one another, in today’s network society organizational interdependence is mediated by, and intertwined with, computer and information technologies. These interconnected organizational and technological systems are occurring across national boundaries and geographical divides and have encouraged a blurring of organizational and geographic boundaries, which have exponentially expanded our networking relationships with others. Now the network itself is understood as technological.

The discursive construction of Y2K panic at the end of the millennium in part revolves around these inevitably and irrevocably networked: technologies with organizations, and organizations with other organizations, whereby interdependence and interconnections abound and run deeply throughout. While trust and uncertainty are always components of the construction of failures and successes within organizations,4 the Y2K problem indicates the complexity of issues of trust and uncertainty within a networked society, where it is no longer enough simply to trust an organization, but one must also trust all of those organizations with which the first organization is connected. Ultimately, these links and networks are seen as so numerous, widespread, and virtual, with each opening a door to multiple others, that uncertainty is inevitable. A network society implies inherent uncertainty. The April 1, 1999 issue of The Futurist5 captures this anxiety in their description of organizational Y2K preparedness:

If you think your company will be okay because all your systems are Y2K compliant, guess again… Just because you’ve worked out your Y2K bugs doesn’t mean your suppliers have. If 5% of your suppliers go out on you, can your company survive?

Within a network society, not only is interdependence perceived to be pervasive, but exactly how and where we are connected is elusive. The networks that connect us are seen as largely invisible – we may know where we get our medical supplies, but how are they transported, where does the distributor get them, who supplies their power, which suppliers do they rely on, and so on. In fact, it is the technologies themselves that create this invisibility for the ‘users.’ Through user-friendly interfaces and technologies that communicate with each other, the inner workings of computers and technologies remain a mystery to most of us. This seems especially the case in discourses around embedded microchips that abound in our daily devices, yet we have no knowledge of them. The most alarmist portrayals of the Y2K problem take the reader through a detailed account of ‘a day in the life of,’ highlighting potential failures of all of the usually invisible technological devices that one interacts with regularly, yet rarely thinks about. This uncertainty fuels much of the fear about Y2K in the network society. The same article in the Futurist continues, saying that

Compounding the fragility of these systems is the fact that we can’t see the extent of our interconnectedness. The networks that make modern life possible are masked by the technology. We only see the interdependencies when the relationships are disrupted – when a problem develops elsewhere and we notice that we too are having problems.6

While media discourses render a panicky scene of potential failures in a networked society, the workers we interviewed were also acutely aware of their positionings within complex networks and negotiated trust and uncertainty accordingly. One flight attendant describes the trust she has for the airline organization she works for, but the inherent uncertainty she feels for the Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA:

There’s more concern on my part by the government, the FAA… We depend upon them heavily to create a safe environment for us to fly our airplanes. Because when we’re in our own ground space, we take control of that and a lot of that is very visual because they can generally see it from a tower. But, when we are working with the FAA they tend to have a visual of the airplane that’s all done on computers and its very, very complex and everybody needs to be talking and that’s where mistakes can be made.

In this interview, the flight attendant describes an unproblematic trust of her own company, but recognizes the inherent uncertainty in that her company depends on others through intricate computer networks. Further, she describes the trust in her own organization as, in part, due to their ability to rely on a direct embodied sense
– sight, whereas the FAA relies upon a mediated sense through computers, and thus is inherently more risky and prone to failure.

Within Y2K narratives the uncertainty of a network society is foregrounded in ways that reveal profound cultural anxieties about the tenuousness of identity, organization, and community in post-industrial, global society. Descriptions of the failures that might result as the date rolls from 1999 to 2000, include a sense that society itself will unravel and humanity will disintegrate if the integrity of the global network society is ruptured. Stories abound that have us so dependent and tightly woven into this network society, that civilization would be impossible without it. The boundaries between technologies and communities blur in these depictions; the failure of one would precipitate the failure of the other. It is imagined that society cannot continue without the complex networks that we rely on, and that panic and chaos are all potential outcomes.

Re-inscribing Boundaries

Beyond the issues of uncertainty and distrust between organizations within networks, Y2K anxieties seem most profound in discursive constructions of interdependence with organizations and communities from what are considered and commonly called ‘less-developed’ countries. This not only encapsulates our anxieties about technology-human interdependence, but also our anxieties about postindustrial capitalism and economic globalization. The construction of risk of Y2K, therefore, arises out of the phenomenon of needing to trust the global infrastructure of post-industrialism and more precisely communities and organizations other than ones in the U.S.

In his theory of network society, Manuel Castells argues that place-based spaces are giving way to the emergence of space of flows. In this vision, old boundaries marked in geographical locations are blurring and shifting, at times disappearing. The cultural anxieties invoked by such blurring boundaries is evident within these Y2K discourses of organizational panic and risky networks wherein there is an attempt to discursively reinscribe these boundaries. The discursive construction of transnational networks in U.S. media coverage of Y2K constructs certain political and geographical spaces as inherently more risky and problematic through an ‘othering’ of ‘non-western’, less technologically dependent countries within Y2K preparedness discourses.

The dominant discourse in the U.S. of the transnational character of the Y2K problem focuses on other countries’ inability to adequately prepare for Y2K’s arrival. Whether it is understood as the result of insufficient financial resources to devote to the Y2K problem, or as the result of insufficient technological knowledge, the ‘problem’ of Y2K in the ‘less-developed’ parts of the world is seen as not only real and with potentially dire consequences, but these consequences are thought to have reverberations across real and virtual communities that will travel globally and affect the “West.” This discursive construction is an interesting one in that it transfers our anxieties to identifiable sources: our anxieties around technological dependence are transferred onto Y2K; and our anxieties about globalization and the new world economy become bound up with Y2K and place its blame on what are perceived to be less technologically advanced communities. The cultural narrative is that it is no longer our own organizations and institutions that we cannot trust, but rather those untrustworthy, uncertain ones far away from here that do not have the benefit of our technological know-how or expendable resources. In many ways, this constitutes a (re)construction of the ‘Other’ that reifies the racist, colonialist binary of the ‘West’ versus the ‘Other’ that we have enacted time and again to legitimate our exploitation of other cultures.

Not unlike other constructions of risk and blame,7 this construction of risk places blame on those different from ourselves in the U.S. thereby assuring ourselves of the blamelessness, security, and trustworthiness of U.S. organizations. Yet, from an organizational standpoint this construction of the ‘Other’ within the organizational network becomes all the more anxiety-ridden, uncertain, and risky because of the ‘tight-couplings’8 between U.S. organizations and organizations based elsewhere. Therefore, despite media and commercial portrayals of the ‘global village’ as intrinsically democratic, multi-cultural, and equalizing differences, the re-inscription of the ‘Other’ as non-Western, less progressive, and less developed is a reenactment of old divisions and boundaries. This may yet indicate another type of panic at the fin de millennium. This is incorporated into policy as the Financial Times March 16th edition 9 describes,

Federal officials have said that if they are not satisfied with other countries’ plans for air traffic control, the Department of Transportation could ban flights between specified airports and the US or prevent US airlines and code sharers from flying over certain countries.

This discursive construction of Y2K is clearly represented in a special article in the January 1999 issue of Business 2.0 magazine, entitled ‘A Global Guide to Y2K’.10 This article discursively highlights the problematic relationship between the rise of the global economy and the erasure of geographic borders through the threat of Y2K, which in turn threatens the fragile technological infrastructure itself. In what it calls ‘the domino effect,’ the article describes the way in which all sectors of the global economy depend upon reliable networks of technologically-mediated information. In an eye-catching depiction of the impending global impacts of Y2K, the article portrays in red those countries ‘lagging’ farthest behind in Y2K preparations, wherein an estimated sixty-six percent of companies in that country will suffer at least one mission-critical failure. The article focuses on a few countries in depth, which are not those that are necessarily the least prepared or the ones considered least-technologically sophisticated, but the ones whose connections with the rest of the industrialized world run deepest: Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, and Germany. In the article, Russia and Indonesia are thought to have lagged behind in their Y2K preparedness because of larger economic crises that have diverted attention away from Y2K and onto issues of ‘daily survival.’ Other explanations for the perceived lack of preparedness are less generous, describing the problem not as a result of more pressing problems, but rather invoking language of irresponsibility, irrationality, and ignorance. For example, the Business 2.0 article describes the lag in Japan around Y2K as attributable to a ‘cultural problem’ wherein organizations think they are immune to Y2K because they do not use the Gregorian calendar.

On the other hand, at the same time that there is anxiety over other countries’ organizational lack of preparedness, and the potential effects that this ‘technological backwardness’ will have on the rest of the world, there is a competing discourse that depicts these others as actually better off because of their lack of dependence on technologies. In the Business 2.0 article, the authors look at China as a “laggard country that lacks even basic infrastructure in place throughout” (p. 59). Therefore, China’s lack of technological dependence and infrastructure, the true mark of a ‘laggard’ country, may in fact enable it to end up better off as a result, come Y2K. Similarly, the Chicago Tribune on March 21st of this year described Brazil benefiting from their technological ‘lag’ in terms of air travel, saying “In Brazil, air-traffic control, run on an old four-digit French computer system, should have no millennium problems at all”.11

This competing discourse of the potential impacts of Y2K problematizes the very definitions of ‘development’ and ‘progress.’ Although the dominant discourse reflects the point of view that the ‘less-developed’ countries will bring about widespread trouble because of their incapacity to deal with Y2K, the flip side of this same construction of ‘less-developed’ necessarily means that these organizations depend on computer systems less, and thereby escape the failures due to Y2K. This illustrates the ultimate technophobic fear – the faith we place in technologies which are inherently uncertain will lead to a betrayal by these same technologies, wherein we were better off not trusting or relying on them in the first place. This also indicates the irony of the Y2K problem such that it is our faith and reliance on technologies themselves that creates the environment for the potential Y2K failure.

This works in the inverse as well. One of the interesting things about the Y2K problem is that it is not a particularly advanced problem to fix. The technology it takes to fix the computer code that imprints the date on a computer is in fact some of the earliest computer technology still in use here. As a result, those computer programmers from the ‘laggard’ countries still use this early language, Cobol, while those in the U.S. have abandoned learning it long ago. An article in the New York Times on December 27, 1998 explores this interesting twist, reporting on Russian immigrant women’s employment by US firms to identify and fix their Y2K computer coding problems.12 This begs the question of what is progress if we are so progressed that we cannot return back to fix what we did not know at the time. Progress, in fact, becomes a double-edged sword. It is our progress and technological advancement itself that threatens to undo us now as Y2K approaches.

Conclusion

In light of the speed of technological innovations and the rise of virtual organizations and organizational linkages, Y2K emerges as a beacon signaling some of our greatest fears and anxieties. Encoding our fears about technological failure leading to organizational and societal failure, Y2K discourses have promoted a rhetoric of risk and blame. This rhetoric shifts the focus from our feelings about technologies and our feelings about globalization to a reification of old divisions and binaries that support an ideologically-comfortable place for us to make sense of it all. A sociological examination of the discourses of the Y2K problem reveals that some of our anxieties at the end of the millennium stem from larger concerns about social integration in a rapidly changing world.

Notes

1. See for example: Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970; Douglas, Mary. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1992; Freudenburg, William R. “Risk and Recreancy: Weber, the Division of Labor, and the Rationality of Risk Perceptions.” Social Forces 71, 1993, pp.909-932; Lupton, Deborah. “Risk as Moral Danger: The Social and Political Functions of Risk Discourse in Public Health.” International Journal of Health Services 23, 1993, pp.425-435.

2. Jonathan Spalter, from the U.S. Information Agency, on how each country’s Y2K problems will affect others in the global economy, as quoted in: Minerd, Jeff. “Y2K Scenarios & Strategies.” The Futurist, April 1, 1999, pp.34.

3. Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

4. See for example: Short Jr., James F. and Lee Clarke (eds.). Organizations, Uncertainties, and Risk. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

5. Minerd, Jeff. “Y2K Scenarios & Strategies.” The Futurist, April 1, 1999.

6. Ibid.

7. Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970; Douglas, Mary. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1992.

8. Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

9. Malkani, Gautam. “FAA to decide soon on Y2K flight bans.” Financial Times (London), March 16, 1999, p.7.

10. Hellweg, Eric 1999. “A Global Guide to Y2K.” Business 2.0, January 1999, pp.52-66.

11. McMahon, Colin and Laurie Goering. 1999. “Y2K’s global warning; Many nations are unwilling or unable to fix possible computer woes, leaving the U.S. in peril.” Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1999, p.1C.

12. Feder, Barnaby J. and Andrew Pollack. “Trillion-dollar digits: A special report.; Computers and 2000: Race for security.” The New York Times, December 27, 1998, p.1.

Jennifer Ruth Fosket and Jennifer Fishman are both doctoral candidates in Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco.