Y2K: an endless search for scapegoats

Y2K hysteria has followed the pattern of HIV, writes Karl Fielder

Y2K hysteria has followed the pattern of HIV, writes Karl Fielder

There are few truly global icons - the marketing men cross the east/west divide with their polished briefcases containing yet more Coca Cola and McDonalds. But the condom - well, that's known the world over.

On a recent visit to Singapore I found a street of shops with such names as "Condom World" and "Protect Yourself". While these names don't win any prizes for imagination, the fact that a whole shop could be devoted to the safe sex business in a city as uptight as Singapore made me smile.

This led me to think about the similarities between the media treatment of Y2K and HIV. I don't want to trivialise HIV - I am very sympathetic to people suffering from this terrible sickness. But whenever I think of the difficulties we had explaining Y2K, I remember a time when the news first broke that a killer virus of a very different kind was lurking in our midst.

There was mass rejection of the idea. "It's all media hype," was a typical response, which led to the doctors and researchers coming up with increasingly scary statistics about what percentage of the population would be affected, and by when. But the trouble was, many of these scientists had little previous exposure to the media circus, and they were made mincemeat of time and again.

Then there was the scapegoat phase. This was when public opinion decided that AIDS was an exclusively gay issue. Even the less radical church-goers muttered about "divine retribution".

But the gay community got to grips with HIV-related issues pretty quickly. The Terence Higgins Trust built campaigns around safe sex, books were published and stories were told in the national press. Do you remember the advertising campaigns? Perhaps the government's campaigns to encourage the use of condoms took their inspiration from the ads that first targeted the gay community.

And while AIDS has killed millions of people, the truth is that it has killed a lot fewer people in the developed world than was at first predicted because of the level of attention the issue received.

You can see where I'm going with this. The Y2K problem is a difficult concept to communicate to a wide audience. What's worse, most of us are in denial about the potential of Y2K to hit our businesses. And, just like AIDS, not all of those affected will be hit at exactly the same time.

Sure, the mad computer scientists told the world that the year 2000 PC problem was a killer. And, just as surely, the public response has been "it's all hype".

And we've had the scapegoat phase: "It's all the fault of the computer companies. It's a conspiracy".

Well, I ask you, where are the teenage guides to safe computing? Where are the sensible technologists with their secure strategies for the future? The answer, of course, is that they are on the way, but late.

Karl Feilder is founder of Greenwich Mean Time, developer of the Check 2000 range of PC millennium tools

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