The Sorcerers' Apprehension

Bookmark and Share | Ron Brunton
Courier Mail 15th January, 2000

Do you want some comforting thoughts to help you face the tribulations that various experts have predicted for the years ahead? Cast your mind over all those terrifying forecasts about the world-wide catastrophes that the millennium bug was going to cause.

Meltdowns at nuclear power stations; devastating food shortages as essential services and transport systems collapsed; planes and satellites falling from the sky; global economic depression; these and other expected calamities would lead to social mayhem. Some on the loony right of American politics even convinced themselves that Bill Clinton would use this turmoil to declare martial law and make himself president for life. (Surprisingly, they didn't seem to recognise the bright side of this scenario---wacky Al Gore would never get to occupy the White House.)

Faced with the embarrassing disparity between their forecasts of doom and the actual course of events, Y2K consultants resorted to what can be called the 'witch-doctor gambit'. When things turn out well, sorcerers in tribal societies attempt to claim all the credit for everyone's good fortune. But when disaster strikes it is because the sorcerers were not taken seriously enough, or because they were given too few pigs or shells, or for some other self-serving reason.

Some information technology specialists tried to portray themselves as heroes whose timely warnings and valiant efforts had saved our civilisation from a terrible fate. Unfortunately for them however, there was just too little difference between the experiences of those who paid the sorcerers a great deal, and those who virtually ignored them.

As the year 2000 began, the only place that seemed to suffer serious computer problems was The Gambia, an almost make-believe nation which occupies a sliver of country 295 km long and 25 km wide in the middle of West Africa, and whose whole economy is based on peanuts. But things are always breaking down in The Gambia. So no-one can be sure whether the real culprit was the Y2K bug, or the normal chaos of everyday life.

Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to argue that the hundreds of billions of dollars that were spent around the world in attempting to rectify the Y2K problem were completely wasted. The failure of computer programmers in the early days of the industry to allow for years to be entered with four digits rather than just two could have caused some computers to treat the year 2000 as 1900, with potentially serious consequences for systems which depend on accurate dates.

It would have been highly irresponsible to ignore the risks to computer controlled operations in certain critical areas---nuclear weapons systems, aviation, and essential services such as health, water and electricity. In this sense, there was at least one significant difference between tribal sorcerers and Y2K consultants. Despite what some people are now claiming, the latter were not involved in a complete con. A genuine problem did exist, and it was necessary to take certain precautions.

But how much caution was justified? The humbug which surrounded the Y2K bug offers some useful lessons for thinking about other areas of contemporary life which also attract self-interested doomsayers, such as the state of the natural environment.

Both greens and Y2K consultants would argue that they are forced to hype up the dangers, because otherwise they might be ignored. As one prominent Cassandra once confessed, in order to obtain public support, scientists involved in environmental causes 'have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts that we might have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest'.

The trouble with this kind of approach is that it ignores one of the more valuable ideas that environmentalists have popularised---the need to think 'holistically'. Nothing exists in isolation, so we should always consider the effects that our actions might have on other areas of concern, no matter how unrelated these might initially seem.

This means recognising that precautions always come with costs. Resources devoted to addressing one set of possible dangers inevitably require funds to be diverted from somewhere else.

Many governments, organisations and individuals spent vast sums of money to fix potential Y2K problems which at worst would have produced only minor irritations, or which could have been fixed by a simple manual adjustment of the date once the millennium began. As spokespeople for various interest groups like public health and education observed, some of the $12 billion spent on the Y2K bug in Australia alone could have found far better use in dealing with problems in their own sectors.

When every potential risk, from greenhouse gases to the Y2K bug to genetically modified foods, is presented as threatening the end of the world as we know it, it becomes so much harder to apportion our limited resources on the basis of a rational assessment and comparison of the genuine threats that we may face.

Rather, the greater share of funds will go towards meeting the concerns of those who can develop and successfully market the most disturbing scenarios, whether or not their jeremiahs are really justified. And as each scary prediction proves unfounded, the voices of doom become more and more strident, crowding out the calm and rational public debate on which sensible policy depends.

These conditions are fine for talented and unconscionable doomsters, whether their focus is technology, the environment, or some other seemingly plausible calamity. But their successes are invariably won at the expense of the broader community, which at best has its resources misallocated, and at worst finds that economic and technological developments that can bring new sources of prosperity are being prevented.

Faced with advocates who promise to deliver us from disaster, informed scepticism is the only cautionary approach that always repays its costs.