Once the stuff of dire warnings, power-outage predictions and stock-up-on-ammo paranoia, the so-called Y2K computer phenomenon is prompting the national equivalent of a giant shrug among consumers and some small businesses.
In part, that's because of the success of serious preparation and repair. And partly, say those wrestling with the notorious computer bug, it just is a factor of public "Y2K fatigue."
While there are increasing signs that once-behind local governments and other agencies finally are getting ready in the final weeks before the millennium, there still is concern complacency could catch much of the public flat-footed early in the next millennium.
Norman Dean, head of a national Y2K think tank, went to Los Angeles this PAST week to discuss Y2K preparation and recovery at a convention of 700 nonprofit agencies.
"And all of six people showed up to my workshop," Dean said. "There is a growing level of complacency, and people are getting the message that it is not a big deal."
While the extent of the problem remains the subject of considerable debate, with experts widely divided, Dean is one who believes Y2K well could be a big deal when many computers think 2000 is 1900 on Jan. 1 or the days thereafter.
No, planes are not going to fall from the sky, and the nation's lights will not go dark with the fall of the ball on Times Square. But, he said, rural hospitals and low-income clinics could suffer problems with some equipment and billing systems, and benefit checks to the poor and elderly could be delayed, boosting demands on food banks or shelters.
Small businesses in particular could suffer from lack of preparedness.
But the message is a tough sell, either because people don't believe it's a problem or because the public just is being overwhelmed with conflicting predictions and technical information that is causing them to tune out Y2K, Dean said.
Many community activists who had expected this would be a time of mass mobilization report similar kinds of experiences around the country. The Northern Virginia Year 2000 Community Action Group, outside of Washington, D.C., planned to offer training courses on stockpiling food, purifying water and living without electricity by this time in 1999. Instead, most of those efforts have been scrapped in the face of widespread views among the public that everything will be fine, said the group's president Jay Golter.
Margaret Anderson, a Y2K activist in Washington D.C., said she has a long list of volunteer computer experts ready to repair equipment for nonprofit agencies or small businesses but virtually no takers: "Lots of people just don't want to admit to themselves that this is something they should think about," Anderson said.
Her sentiments are shared by Leon Kappelman, a University of North Texas business professor and Y2K author. While large corporations, including banks, phone and power utilities, are taking Y2K seriously, and have invested millions in repairs, the issue remains far off the radar of many small firms, he said.
"We're not seeing concern on the part of small business or the general public, they've bought the official government line of `don't worry, be happy,' " said Kappelman.
He worries that small businesses, even if they don't have significant computer operations themselves, could be harmed if confusion over Y2K slows shipments - particularly of imported items from countries that lag behind the United States in readiness.
The priority for distributors will be big customers, "and the little guy will be at the end of the line," said Kappelman.
Some, however, believe the complacent public has it right and it is the worried experts who have it wrong.
Business adviser Richard Schmidt, who publishes a business newsletter in Florida, predicts the only problems will be a few minor nuisances and says the issue has been largely overblown.
"There will be some little cutesy problems like in Maine where they registered 80 new 2000 model cars as antique horseless carriages because some computer assumed they were built in 1900," Schmidt said. "But that's about it."
Others hold to a better-safe-than-sorry view. People should back up computer disks in their homes and businesses, even the newest computer should be checked out on the manufacturer's Web site or help line and everyone should be ready for a few surprises in the first few days of 2000.
"The majority view is that there is no risk of a cascading failure," said Bruce McConnell, director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center, a United Nations sponsored expert group in Washington D.C. "I emphasize that that is the majority view, but we haven't gone through this yet."
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