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WHY THE CONCERN ABOUT Y2K?

GREGG HOFFMANN [*]

Notes Written Before January 1, 2000

FOR MONTHS, we have been reading and seeing "the sky is falling" predictions about what will happen when the calendar moves to 1/1/00.

We have been told to stock up on food and cash in case the grocery stores and banks can't function. Some of us have bought generators in case the utilities crash and we need emergency electricity and heat. We've been told to avoid flying on New Year's Eve, as if that's how most of us celebrate the passing of another year.

A made-for-TV movie created a stir, even though it included numerous warnings that it was fiction based on worst-case scenarios.

Of course, the concerns about Y2K are based on the reality that we rely so heavily on computers these days, and we don't know what those tools of artificial intelligence are programmed to do when they detect 00.

The Y2K situation calls for several applications of critical thinking and media literacy, perhaps based on general semantics. First, we have created almost mystical language and imagery about computers, as obscure and unconnected to the "average" person's life as is the dogma of religion or some esoteric philosophy.

Considered Important, But Beyond Comprehension

This language and imagery are put forth with an assumption that we consider them important, but beyond comprehension. We establish "experts," not unlike priests and philosophers, to decipher the language for us and to engender faith in them as conveyors of truth.

In a few cases, these "experts" resemble the leaders of various religious groups that periodically predict the end of the world. Most of us have woken up the day after those predictions. Those who haven't were those "whose time had come."

Secondly, we are being asked to believe in predictions, without knowing if there are enough converging inferences based on research. Credit should go to those "experts" who actually tested various systems and then made their predictions and adjustments. But, many of the predictions about Y2K are based on sketchy premises and assumptions. Those seldom lead to accurate predictions.

Finally, you should remember that the Y2K concerns are being conveyed to us primarily through media. In our mediated world, the unusual is emphasized. Controversy and drama are considered key elements in any "good" story. Over-generalization is common.

That holds true for entertainment and more and more for news. So, the movie about Y2K was bound to emphasize worst-case scenarios. Most of the news coverage also has explored what is the "worst" that could happen.

At least one national news organization has its staff on alert, to wait for crashes of various systems when the clock strikes 12 midnight. They very well could suffer from the same let-down that Geraldo Rivera had a few years ago when he opened on live TV a secret hiding place of the gangster Al Capone, only to find a couple of empty whiskey bottles and other trash.

This is not to say that we should assume everything will be just fine -- that no computers in the world will mistake the 00 for 1900 and shut down. But, we should keep a few things in mind.

First, most of our uses for computers are not as tied to the time as media sources suggest. They go on functioning regardless of what time it "is." If you want to test that, set your computer's clock at the wrong time of day. You likely will be able to continue to use it.

Second, despite the obscure, mystical language of computers, we still control them. They basically are electronic tools. We can decide how to use them and when to use them.

And, if we take the time to really understand them, we don't necessarily need the high tech equivalent of a priest to guide us through the language and imagery.

Finally, remember that media images are constructions -- "maps" as we general semanticists call them -- that are often built around certain industry values such as timeliness, the unusual, controversy, drama, etc. The actual territory does not really conform to the values of the map.

Media tend to create panic-thinking, and to set agendas for what seems important. Y2K might very well be the latest example of those functions taken to extremes.

As often is the case, we really won't know the effect of Y2K until we experience the moment. Everything that is written and produced before that moment falls into the category of a construction, based on assumptions and projections.

(*.) Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Vice President of Media Relations for the International Society for General Semantics. His columns appear on the ISGS web site [less than]www.generalsemantics.org[greater than] and may be reprinted without charge as guest editorials, op-ed pieces, fillers, etc. (Please request permission, acknowledge the Society as a source, and supply tear sheets.)
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Author:HOFFMANN, GREGG
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:822
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