Constructing The Millennium Bug
Trust, Risk, And Technological Uncertainty
Jennifer Ruth Fosket
and Jennifer Fishman
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Cambridge, MA:
4. See for
example: Short Jr., James F. and Lee Clarke (eds.). Organizations,
Uncertainties, and Risk. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Jeff. "Y2K Scenarios & Strategies." The Futurist, April 1, 1999.
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.
Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.
New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Malkani, Gautam. "FAA to decide soon on Y2K flight bans." Financial Times
(London), March 16, 1999, p.7.
Hellweg, Eric 1999. "A Global Guide to Y2K." Business 2.0, January 1999,
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.
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.
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