Long before Vince Wesley ever heard about Y2K, he watched computers bring his own world to a crashing end.
A professional sign painter who hand-lettered office presentations for the Procter & Gamble Co. and other Cincinnati firms, the 68-year-old man literally lost his livelihood to the computer. New, inexpensive graphics programs meant executives could make their own signs ''much better, quicker, cheaper,'' Wesley said.
Compared to that, the potential computer glitch known as Y2K seems like a minor headache. Wesley and his wife figure the computer bug could knock out their power for a few days or cause a run on food at the supermarket, but technology cannot change their lives more than it already has.
''I'm not worried about it a bit,'' Wesley said, between drags on a cigarette in the kitchen of his Miami Heights townhome. ''The only thing I won't do is be on an airplane - but then I probably wouldn't be on an airplane anyways. I'm not crazy about flying.''
Six months before the turn of the millennium - and the possible onset of Y2K computer problems - most Americans seem aligned with Wesley. Few are worried about food shortages, power shutoffs or total societal breakdowns.
Three out of four Americans believe the Y2K computer glitch - in which the double zero of the year 2000 could cause some computers to think it's 1900 - will produce either ''no problems at all'' or only minor inconveniences, according to a national survey of 815 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.
An even larger majority (eight in 10) believe the realities of Y2K will not be as dire as the dreadful scenarios sometimes portrayed in the news media.
But the survey also found doubts gnawing at millions with the year's end less than 27 weeks away.
Thirty-six percent said they will avoid flying on a commercial airliner around Jan. 1.
Thirty-four percent plan to stock up on extra food at the end of the year.
Twenty-eight percent expect to withdraw some or all of their money from the bank before year's end.
Such actions on such a scale would create serious economic consequences apart from any computer breakdowns.
''We have to be careful not to cause people to gratuitously panic. People could pull money out of the banks, money out of the stock market, buy extra goods,'' said presidential adviser John Koskinen. ''Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy even if the major systems are working fine.''
Koskinen was appointed by the White House to head the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion and was quickly re-christened ''Y2K czar'' by the press and members of Congress.
''Everybody is guessing at this point,'' he said. But Koskinen also says he is increasingly confident America's electrical power grid and telecommunication systems will still operate when the new century arrives, thanks to billions of dollars worth of work by government and industry.
''My guess is that the basic infrastructure will hold,'' he said.
In addition to the poll, Scripps Howard newspapers studied 40 American households during the past four months to evaluate the possible technological and psychological threats they face. The range of anxiety felt in these homes was enormous.
In Westwood, Pat Long and her grown daughter knew almost nothing about the Y2K problem until they watched a cable television program about it last year. The television family had not prepared for the worst and nearly froze to death as they burned dining room furniture for heat and scrounged about for the most basic necessities.
Ms. Long and her daughter did not believe everything they saw, but they could not shake an uneasy feeling about being under-prepared.
''They broke up a dining room chair so they were all huddled around the fireplace with blankets, and I'm like, 'Oh, come on,' '' Ms. Long said. ''And then we got to thinking about it, well maybe. . . It did get us kind of thinking how much we do rely on technology now.''
Like Ms. Long, many Americans wonder if they are worried enough. It's human nature to discount invisible threats, and few understand or can visualize why a problem with the way a computer can calculate the difference between the years 1900 and 2000 could bring a robust technological society to a standstill.
''I haven't taken it as seriously as I probably should,'' mused Ben Conti, owner of Sunbelt Office Furniture and Supplies of Naples, Fla. ''I guess I'm as much in the dark as anyone.''
Conti, 54, has been hearing Y2K reports for about two years. Only recently has he begun to have serious concerns. Most of the chairs, desks and filing cabinets he sells are manufactured in Canada and other countries. His suppliers have given Conti assurances there will be no disruptions. But who can be certain?
A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business found that only a quarter of small business owners see Y2K as a serious problem, even though Koskinen and other national experts warn that these firms are probably at greater risk than large institutions.
Many Americans acknowledge that there is a disconnect between their confidence that the Y2K threat has been grossly overstated and the lengths to which they have gone to prepare for the year's end.
''Every generation has had their doomsdayers,'' said Bobby Owens, 29, an information systems analyst for the Southern Company electrical utility office in Birmingham, Ala. ''If someone tells you that the world will end, make a bet with them. If they are wrong, you get paid. If they are right, oh well.''
Even so, Owens said he plans to purchase $100 worth of bottled water and canned goods.
''I don't want my life controlled by worry, but I'm a little bit concerned about panic setting in with the public,'' Owens said. ''It's very ironic how we develop computers to make our lives easier, but now they've made it hectic for us. I think it's the universe balancing itself.''
In the Scripps survey, only 13 percent of adults reported that they or someone in their household planned to purchase an electric generator, a wood stove or an emergency heater because of the Y2K concerns. Far more common are food stockpiles already amassed in basements and storage closets.
Wesley and his wife, Pat, plan to take out some extra cash from the bank, buy extra food and bottled water and fill up their cars with gas. If the heat goes out, they can always fire up the propane camp stove and sit around the fireplace.
Ms. Long and her daughter, Nicole Nash, 24, will put aside some extra food, water and baby supplies for Ms. Nash's two young sons. She plans to have cloth diapers on hand in case stores run out of disposable ones; her mother will have a cord of wood in the back yard.
''If I'm being overcautious, then the worst thing that can happen is we don't have to do a whole lot of grocery shopping,'' Ms. Long said. ''It would be embarrassing if we had all this going on this year, then something does happen and you're sitting there, 'Oh, whoops, I didn't do that.' ''
Besides, both women like their dining room furniture.
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