Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Discarding the Bottom Feeders

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, August 11, 1998 --  

A mong the most hated professions in history, the Year 2000 computer programmer doesn't really seem to fit in.

Good candidates for this list include pawnbrokers, drug pushers, prostitutes, televangelists and personal injury lawyers. These people subsist by the lowest elements of society. Pawnbrokers and lawyers live off of the poor. Drug pushers and prostitutes prey upon the weak. Televangelists, meanwhile, pursue the feeble-minded. These are the bottom feeders of the world, and they are almost universally derided.

Yet ranked by pure filthiness*, Year 2000 workers are far lower life forms than the average bottom feeder. Traditional bottom feeding occupations at least have the pretense of providing a benefit to society. Pawnbrokers offer emergency cash to those lacking credit. Televangelists inspire those who severely need hope.

But the only benefit provided by those in the Year 2000 industry is the perpetuation of obsolete computer systems that should have been replaced years ago. Those in the industry try to drown out this reality with hysterical tales of airplane disasters, lost savings accounts and failed hospital systems. The bottom feeding tale-tellers then proceed to keep the threat of computational disaster alive by maintaining the very systems that pose the danger in the first place.

But what drags the Year 2000 profession to its lowest depths is its customers. Read any article about the Year 2000 effort and you'll see a laundry list of inefficient government offices and bureaucratic companies: The USDA, FAA, Fannie Mae, HUD, Social Security Administration, etc. Look at the activities of a good number of these organizations and you'll find yourself precisely where you started -- among the bottom feeders.

The Year 2000 industry therefore has the dubious distinction of being a second order bottom feeder. Not only is it a bottom feeder itself, it attempts to help others feed off of the bottom, too.

Given such ugly truths about the industry, why do so many organizations waste billions of dollars perpetuating obsolete technology? Simple. People are extremely ignorant when it comes to technical issues. This ignorance manifests itself in several different ways:

  • People belonging to older generations -- which are disproportionately represented among Year 2000 customers -- are often frightened by computers, and thus more vulnerable to the bottom feeders' fear tactics.
  • The problem caused by using two-digit dates is extremely simple to understand, and thus easy to sell to technically ignorant managers and politicians.
  • The new millennium sounds ominous. Believers in numerology and similar superstitions are rampant in the technically ignorant masses. Combine computers with the new millennium, and you have the greatest scare story since The Book of Revelations.

The answer to the problem of obsolete systems is simple. Replace the old systems. If there is no time to do it, then the old systems should be discarded. Not upgraded; discarded.

This is clearly a hard pill to swallow. But the root of this problem is with the managers of organizations that are so unwilling to change that even the perceived threat of a millennial disaster isn't enough to get them to invest in new systems. Any organization that is this incredibly stagnant deserves to die. And it deserves to die miserably.

Follow this prescription and small disasters will happen. Records will be lost, orders will be cancelled, and companies will go bankrupt. Most of all, bureaucracies will die.

And thousands of bottom feeders will go with them.

* Like any good capitalist, I must stress the right of these people to freely engage in these trades with their customers. But I don't have to like it. While everyone has the inalienable right to trade goods and services with others, the existence of rights does not mean they will be used wisely. Bottom feeders count on this fact to make a filthy living from the self-destructive choices of others.