Printer Friendly Page Y2K, a Rare Opportunity to Test Deeply Rooted Beliefs ~ #46

Y2K, a Rare Opportunity to Test Deeply Rooted Beliefs ~ #46

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2005, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
Feb. 11, 2005

The previous column, No.45, showed that by 1999 a 59% majority of Americans considered Y2K a serious problem.  Even before Jan. 1, 2000, preparation for computers to handle the transition to the new millennium was costing the world the enormous sum of $200 billion.  By1999, 15% of Americans accepted the following "extremely serious" scenario as their expectation of what would happen at the end of the year:

"Y2K is one of the most serious problems the modern world has ever faced. It is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars more to fix it. There are not nearly enough qualified technicians to fix it or could be trained to fix it in time to be ready for the new century. The economy will be disrupted with lengthy shut-downs of electricity supplies and major industries. There will be widespread dislocation and possibly chaos, even a collapse of law and order at all levels of government."

The years 1998 and 1999 became a unique moment in history characterized by the majority's expectation that an enormous disaster was about to occur.  Such a rare event opens up an opportunity to design and phrase survey questions that will resonate with many people in a way not otherwise possible.  This is illustrated by a preamble that served to introduce eight propositions identically asked by ATI in each of three Y2K surveys:

Because Y2K appears to many as a disaster in the making, people may come forward and make propositions about what can be done to make things better.  I will read some of the propositions you might hear.  For each one please tell me if you agree or disagree with it and whether that is strongly or somewhat agree/disagree?

(Propositions are omitted that made sense only if activated before Jan. 1, 2000.)  The remaining eight propositions should shed light on what percentage of the population might favor such propositions even today if, for example, a computer or information technology problem reached the degree of seriousness similar to the majority's expectation for the Y2K bug.  This could happen if problems such as spam, denial of service, worms, viruses, mysterious disappearance of domain names, whatever, were to cripple the Internet.

All eight propositions were asked in each of the three surveys (August 1998, April 1999, November 1999).  The favorability percentages (strongly plus somewhat favorable) did not vary much between surveys and are presented (a) in bold, (b) collapsed by averaging the results of the three surveys and (c) ranked by favorability:

  The Eight Propositions
in Favor


Simpler, more decentralized back-up systems for production, accounting, and communications should be maintained so that your community can retain more options and be more self-reliant.



We should reshape the laws governing our telecommunications industry to assure that our radio, television, the Internet, and all other mass media operate in the public interest and are required to inform the public fully about such issues as Y2K.



Companies that innovate computer technologies should prepare voluntary social impact assessments and publish them, so that the public can understand the tradeoffs in new technologies before they become widespread and displace existing systems



The modern world has become too dependent on computers and other complex technologies.



We can no longer only rely on private enterprises making profit-driven market decisions about technological innovations that change the basic fabric of our lives.



The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment used to evaluate large-scale technological innovations for their social impact and release results to Congress and the public.  This office was abolished in 1996, but the Y2K problem shows that this was a mistake.  The office should be reinstated.



The government should keep its hands off the technological revolution that is improving our standard of living in so many ways.  That is much more beneficial and important to us than the cost of whatever damage Y2K may do.



We should beef up funding of Public Broadcasting and other educational TV and radio networks to provide more programming in the public interest supported by a tax on commercial broadcasting to be used only for this purpose.


Seven of the eight propositions are "progressive" proposals.  The exception, No. 7, is a very conservative proposal that scores near the bottom of the group.  It is probably true that only under the pressure of a serious and foreboding threat like Y2K could a survey find the public to be so progressive and relatively disinterested in a conservative proposal.

The moral of this story is this.  When a major calamity, known to the public, is approaching, then is a great time to design public-interest surveys to investigate how far people are ready to go for the kind of real remediation that would be thought too drastic to consider under "normal" conditions.

I do not know of any polls, other than those conducted by ATI, that examine the willingness of Americans to favor any of a wide range of drastic but carefully thought-out propositions to handle a major calamity.  Such a poll in September 2001 could have been very helpful to determine the U.S. response to the events of Sept. 11.

In the last three years, to fight terror and terrorism, the United States has been the driving force for several wars that have killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and spent several hundred billion U.S. dollars over and beyond record budget deficits.  On top of this, about half of the U.S. population now believe that we have created more terrorists than we have destroyed.  A good poll in September 2001 might well have pointed to a better response plan than the military-centered war on terrorism chosen by our leaders for now and continuing until when? forever, or until terrorism disappears and the war is won.

Some of the ideas that could have been tested surfaced in Hazel Henderson's IPS editorial the month of September 2001.  They include considering the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, criminal acts.  Almost every country in the world was sympathetically ready to assist the United States after the brutal, villainous attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.  The international services of Interpol would readily cooperate to assist the U.S. military and diplomatic forces to quickly find Osama bin Laden and bring him and others to justice.  The costs of the wars in lives and dollars might have been largely avoided.   The good survey to do that would have cost $50,000.

>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

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