Book Reviews

The Millennium Bug by Michael S. Hyatt

Hyatt is "convinced that Y2K problems presents us with, potentially, the most significant, extensive, and disruptive crisis we have ever faced (p. xix)." He has written this best seller in order "to lay the facts before you, help you understand how they will affect you, and then help you decide what you must do – personally" (p. xviii). Just in case you personally decide to take drastic steps, Hyatt has a web site which sells the "Countdown to Chaos Protection Kit," a six-audio-tape set plus an accompanying handbook, complete with "recommendations, checklist, and the essential resources and supplies you’ll need to survive this looming crisis" – for $89 (Wall Street Journal 1/21/99).

"When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000, computer systems all over the world will begin spewing out bad data – or stop working altogether! When this happens, it will be similar to a giant hard-disk failure: It’s inevitable, and it’s going to be terribly ugly when it happens" (p.3). So begins Hyatt’s argument for a worst-case scenario. According to this view everything from the Social Security system to banks to the utility grid will break down to such a degree that our lives will be severely changed. All this is inevitable, the author believes, due to the magnitude of the problem. Not only do we have billions of lines of computer code to review and repair; we also have millions of embedded chips that could cause trouble. Add to this the simple fact that we have started too late to solve the problem and we have a recipe for disaster. And if there were not bad enough, the source code for many programs no longer exists, and without the source code programmers cannot make any changes to the programs.

Ironically, with all this doom and gloom, Hyatt occasionally surfaces with a bit of moderation, if not optimism: "Am I saying that it will be impossible to get the vast majority of our computers and computer programs compliant by midnight, January 1, 2000? No. Am I saying it is highly improbable" (p.39). But on the other hand, to Hyatt it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of computers are compliant, because due to the interconnection of the computer world, "potentially, if all the computers aren’t fixed, then none of them is safe" (p.43).

The Millennium Bug devotes chapters to the various infrastructures that the author believes will collapse – and the prognosis is often ugly. Chapter 4 is devoted to our utility system. If, for example, our electricity goes down, so will the banks. We will then eventually run out of money, will not be able to purchase food, and will die. Of course, we might die from the contaminated water supply, or freeze to death because of lack of heat. If this weren’t bad enough, wouldn’t you know it, we are due for solar flares during the year 2000, which could cause blackouts all on their own. As the scholars on Hee-Haw used to bemoan, "If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all."

If somehow we dodge the utility bullet, the next concern will be the banks (chapter 5). Our banking system is a system of faith. As we learned in "It’s a Wonderful Life," our money does not sit around in vaults; it is invested in the economy (houses, factories, stores, etc.). What happens if a large number of people are spooked into wanting all their money in cash? The system will collapse. What would trigger such a panic (outside of books such as these)? The belief or fact that a bank (or banks) is not Y2K-compliant (p.87). In short, we may be looking at bank runs of the magnitude of the Great Depression or worse.

The next chapter deals with the federal government’s compliance or lack thereof. According to Hyatt most of the federal departments and agencies are in sad shape, but probably not as bad as state and local governments (p.120).

One of the most important duties of government is defense. Will our military and police forces be ready for the year 2000? Apparently not (chapter 7)! And here is the interesting thing according to Hyatt, "Globally, a failure in the military computers could upset the delicate balance of world peace and give the advantage to those countries that are less dependent upon advanced technology. China, for example, might suddenly find itself in a position of military superiority over the rest of the world" (p.127). Wait a minute; didn’t we sell all those weapons to China? How did they get those all those pesky computer chips fixed before us?

And if we are able to limp through all of this relatively unscathed, guess who is going to clean our plate. You’re right, the lawyers. Litigation, Hyatt predicts, over Y2K foul ups will be incredible (chapter 8). "Experts estimate that the Y2K Crisis will provide the biggest litigation opportunity of all time. ... Estimates range from a low of $100 billion to in excess of $1 trillion in the United States" (p.146).

In chapter 10 Hyatt presents three possible scenarios as a result of Y2K. The first is The Brownout Scenario, which sees the vast majority of computer codes and embedded chips fixed in time. Under the Brownout Scenario, "We can expect isolated system failures, particularly in smaller companies and less important federal, state, and local government agencies," resulting in periodic interruptions and difficulties (p.162). Hyatt believes that under this scenario disruptions would last two weeks to three months and result in severe recession. Keep in mind that this is his best-case scenario.

The second possibility is a Blackout Scenario. If we are unsuccessful in converting enough codes and chips in time the result would be power grid collapse, full-scale bank runs, martial law, possible invasion from low-tech countries such as China, the formation of neighborhood militia groups, and few functioning hospitals. This blackout condition could last from four months to three years and would result in chaos and a massive economic depression. Believe it or not, it gets worse.

The final scenario is Meltdown. Meltdown will be a more intense version of Blackout, with life, as we know it, over.

Which will it be? Hyatt believes it will be somewhere between the Brownout and the Blackout scenarios. "It really all comes down to whether the power grid and banking systems make it. Lose either one of these, and we will find ourselves in some version of the Blackout Scenario" (p.180).

In light of all this how should we prepare for the Y2K Crisis that is looming on the horizon? The Millennium Bug offers thirteen specific recommendations:

1. Secure hard copies of important documents.

2. Build an emergency preparedness library (survival know-how).

3. Evaluate your current location (you may want to move to the country).

4. Determine your self-defense philosophy (own a gun).

5. Find an alternative source of water.

6. Stockpile food and common household goods.

7. Purchase adequate clothing.

8. Develop an alternative source of heat and energy.

9. Prepare an emergency medical kit.

10. Determine how you will dispose of waste.

11. Secure an alternative form of currency (which includes everything from toilet paper to "Bic" lighters to gold.

12. Develop an alternative communications system (short-wave and CB radios)

13. Acquire a basic selection of hand tools and learn how to use them.

While Hyatt does not know for certain what we will face as the clock ticks over to the year 2000, his position is pretty clear – we are in deep doo-doo, with virtually no hope of avoiding major catastrophe on several fronts. His motto, one that is popping up all over the web sites and literature of the Y2K forecasters is, "Hope for the best, but plan for the worst" (p.200).