Social and ethical aspects of the Y2K problem


László Ropolyi
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Eötvös University
1518 Budapest, Pf. 32.


According to several analyses the Year 2000 computer problem (the Millennium Bug, Y2K Crisis, Time Bomb 2000, etc.) has been the most significant and enormously dangerous technological difficulty in the history of mankind. In spite of this, many experts have emphasized a radically different opinion: the difficulty was not real, no significant danger was expected due to the date problem. The debate between the different groups of “experts” about the nature and treatment of the problem has been widely popularized, in this way the public was informed, however, the lay public was not able to estimate the reality of the risk and the possible consequences of the problem and certain hysteric and apocalyptic reactions were observed especially in the USA. This strange situation demands a detailed social, socio – psychological, psychological, ethical and philosophical investigation.

Studying hundreds of web pages devoted to the problem I shall present a philosophical analysis of the “Year 2000” computer problem in order to demonstrate its most important social and ethical aspects and to contribute to the understanding of the problem with some ideas.

  1. At the beginning of the events (a few years earlier) the Year 2000 problem seemed like an enormous software business. Later (a few months before the crucial date) the problem liberated from this framework and became similar to a complete social catastrophe which can destroy the whole human (especially the Western) civilization: the dangers appeared in the personal life of the citizens as well; the collapse of the networks of water, and of electricity supply, and of banking, moreover, the end of the modern city and/or society was visionized. How and why did the problem change so radically? It had clear social and ethical causes.
  2. The Year 2000 problem was a complex problem of three – relatively separated – sub-problems: a technical-technological, a business related, and a social sub-problem. The direct technical problem of the date representation in computers did not have any difficulty, for the most experts it was clear that this problem can be solved in a very simple way. However, essential groups of the lay intelligentsia did not trust these computer experts. Realizing the dimension of the technological task it was demonstrated that most technological projects did not get finished in due time, especially in the software industry, so it would be important to take into account the presumable technical, economical, social difficulties. The crucial question is: the presence or absence of the trust of the public in the solution of the technical problem. How and why was this trust constructed or destroyed? A sharp struggle of the social actors for forming of the public opinion in question has been observed. During this struggle the technical problem was transformed into a problem of business and politics.
  3. The business related problem had many different aspects. There were some forecasts about the economic crisis and some others about the economic boom caused by the Y2K problem. One of the most important phenomena was probably the appearance of the ideas and activity of the so called survivalists, who – due to the possible collapse of the trade systems – suggested to buy, to store, to supply practically everything which is important for the civilized life. They have emphasized the possible risks of the date problem and with the ideological support of certain apocalyptic religious prophets and movements they have suggested to prepare to a social chaos saying that they are “dedicated to helping you prepare the worst, while hoping for the best”. In this way the question of trust was directly related to the trading activity motivated by a fear of the end of civilization. The representatives of the survivalism were not basically interested in the solution of the technical problem of date but they were interested in a special managing of the fear of people. These relationships formed an advantageous environment to the emergence of the social problem of Y2K.
  4. The social problem has been three different managing strategies. The position of survivalism was characterized above. The critical opponents of the survivalist strategy pointed out its hidden business related aspect and criticized its pretended attitude. The government wanted to demonstrate its efforts to prepare its computer systems and that of the other critical sectors of the economy and society, in this way to save the public trust in itself, especially in its high level problem solving abilities.
  5. The Y2K problem and its treatment was very significant for the social scientists. It became clear that the modernity have already transcended. The modern computers build up into the social networks have a crucial role in the working of the postmodern network society. The serious anxiety of many people about the collapse of civilization is an important sign that in their thinking the network society represents already the civilized society. The actual running of the Year 2000 problem can be considered as a measurement process of the postmodernity of the present society.