Originally created 01/02/00

Snags unrelated to Y2K bug illustrate dependency on imperfect technologies

Call them non-Y2K bugs.

Most of the technology snags reported by governments and businesses in the millennium's dawn -- from failed cash machines in Italy to nuclear plant shutdowns in the United States -- had nothing to do with the feared computer glitch.

Brought to public attention by Y2K, these routine failures on Saturday underscored just how dependent the world has become on imperfect computer systems that are increasingly interconnected, complex and powerful.

The potential for widespread disruptions could increase this century, as technology companies build computers into everything from kitchen appliances to cellular phones and refrigerator doors.

"These are the sort of accidents that occur naturally, but the news media doesn't pay attention to them," said Norman Dean, executive director of the Center for Y2K and Society, a Washington-based group created to lessen the damage from Y2K-related problems on disadvantaged people.

"Y2K shows how vulnerable we have become to failures in technology," he said.

In the wee hours of New Year's Day, some cash machines in Rome failed to connect with a bank's computer network, for reasons unrelated to Y2K. In Paris, a lit-up display panel showing "2000" on the Eiffel Tower flickered out Friday hours before midnight, blamed by officials on a simple power outage.

In Italy, around midnight it was sometimes impossible to get through on mobile networks as millions of Italians were calling family and friends to offer good wishes.

U.S. nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and South Carolina were shut down and a third had trouble with a scheduled startup as the new year approached.

In fact, most of the disruptions reported to the federal Y2K command post had nothing to do with date-faulty computers.

In short, "stuff breaks every day," said Gartner Group analyst Matt Hotle, adding that the real question on Saturday was whether everything would break at once. Governments and businesses in the United States spent roughly $100 billion to help keep that from happening.

A danger in the 21st century is that more and more people are likely to use the same computers and software, liked together by networks that allow them to more easily communicate with each other. A problem with one machine could also hit millions of others, making it increasingly important to install back-up technologies to handle the load in the event of failures.

Another peril lies in a trend by businesses to "outsource" more of their computer processes. Hiring outside consulting firms to build and run technology networks may make good business sense, yet it further distances employees and in-house technical staff from knowing how technology works and how to fix problems.

"That means you're turning over responsibility for things that are important to your lives to someone you may not know or understand. It creates some interesting conundrums," says Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Giga Information Group consulting company.

The enormous cost of fixing widespread high-tech problems is also a concern. Dean says only once every hundred years or so will society be able to afford the bill to snuff out a bug as extensive as Y2K.

"As systems get more complex and faster and more interconnected it's going to get harder to prevent problems and to fix them," Dean said. "I think we'll see other Y2K problems in the future."


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