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System Meltdown

By Robert Kuttner

Friday, August 13, 1999; Page A25, Washington Post

I just had a chilling preview of the Y2K problem six months early. Maybe the electrons are already feeling premonitions of the millennium.

As is evident from this column, I work as a writer (and editor). This makes me dependent on technology, but no more than most people.

In a single horrific week, the following things happened:

My laptop computer stopped working, and the needed part is on indefinite back order from Japan. My warranty obligates Toshiba to fix it. It just doesn't specify when.

My home telephone, which has two lines (one for e-mail and faxes) chose this week to get cranky. The lines are crossed, and with deregulation the phone company no longer comes out to fix it instantly.

By coincidence, my office moved last week, too. The phone installation took a week longer than expected. And the company that hosts our e-mail belatedly advised that it doesn't service our new location.

So, I can use e-mail from home, but not from the office. However, I can't efficiently telephone from home, which makes it hard to use e-mail as well as make calls.

I took a cell phone to work, but the cell phone is now balky, too. It has begun displaying terms I've never seen before, like "outdoor," and only puts calls through when it feels like it. (Do I call AT&T or Nokia?)

In short, all my systems and back-up systems are failing. If anyone reading this column has been trying to reach me, I am alive and well and on hold at the local pay phone. Sorry about the e-mail pile-up, too.

I now spend half my life on hold in a voice mail hell (press 3 if you want to slit your wrists). I'm really beginning to think something is in the air, because a close colleague is experiencing similar electronic calamities.

I draw several inferences from this technological meltdown. First, the new technology is said to be "empowering." Ha. Ho. Hee.

Wired Magazine, shrine to the new technology, says, "We are as gods and we might as well get used to it." But in truth, we are more like the Sorcerer's apprentice.

Ordinary tools are now more baroque than they're worth. As high-tech systems become more complicated, they have more ways to go awry. The very first generation of word processing was easier to use and less prone to mysterious glitches. Each generation of Windows is more difficult to use than the last, and buggier.

Information technology, as Nobel economist Robert Solow likes to observe, only seems to make us more productive -- because we spend so much time learning things that soon become obsolete, as well as time making the damned stuff work at all.

Second, just as technology is becoming more Byzantine and prone to breakdown, deregulation makes its servicing less reliable. In the bad old days, the monopoly phone company owned all the stuff; they had guaranteed earnings and enough money to hire competent technicians who came when you called.

Because intense competition puts great pressure on companies to cut costs, human contact is a luxury they can't afford. So the customer wastes countless hours in voice mail systems that become ever more convoluted. When you do get a human, it is often a kid reading from a technical cookbook, and he usually doesn't know much more about the technology than you do.

This brings me to point three. In the Information Age, when technology changes ever more rapidly, the smartest and most indispensable person in the office is usually the youngest (who grew up with this stuff).

This inversion is splendidly democratic -- an unprecedented reversal of the normal hierarchy of large organizations. But it adds to the precariousness of our working lives.

Kids are known for quick learning but not for mature judgment. Some "neat" innovations that appeal to 25-year-old techies are also pretty goofy when ordinary adults try to use them for routine tasks.

Note that all of this pre-dates the Y2K problem. Despite all the investment in making old computer systems compatible with the millennium, in six months the technology will likely break down in multiple ways that nobody has foreseen.

So I am writing this column longhand, and I will have it delivered as soon as I find a way to telephone the courier service. I expect my digital TV to shut down just as the ball at Times Square drops, and I anticipate unimaginable Millennium fireworks. Happy New Year to all!

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect.

-- washpostDC (op@ed.y2k), August 14, 1999


yeah all that rabid downsizing is going to come back and bite the global economy. The question is, will enough be permanently learned by this disaster's mistakes to set a better course in the near and long-term future?

-- h (h@h.h), August 14, 1999.

kids smarter=but lack>WISDOM.reminds me of when GOD told israel[paraphrasing]>so you don,t want to do what i say? OK. have it your way. i will let children RULE over you.where have all the wise-men gone--long time ago.prepare for new ruler,s who will,be controlled by spirit of immaturity=chaos.

-- this is prophetic. (, August 14, 1999.

snip- kids smarter=but lack>WISDOM.reminds me of when GOD...." al-d, I've noticed nearly everything reminds you of God. You are=NUTS.

-- tired of al-d (, August 14, 1999.

EYES TO SEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeee' i quit running a long time ago.

-- observer. (, August 14, 1999.


If you quit smokin that stuff, you don't spill as much on your keyboard and you make more sense, although it's less entertaining.

When I hear stories like Bob's, I get a subliminal message that seems to read "cascading cross defaults." Is that relevant?

I thought so.

-- Chekyni Toutman (, August 14, 1999.

yeah all that rabid downsizing is going to come back and bite the global economy. The question is, will enough be permanently learned by this disaster's mistakes to set a better course in the near and long-term future?

-- h (h@h.h), August 14, 1999.


You have that right. Downsizing looked good on the books and everything was running smoothly so why not get rid of those workers that maintain the equipment and have someone come in when something goes wrong?

The problem with that was

1. The equipment was running smoothly because it was "maintained" on a daily basis that prevented a lot of failures.

2. Bringing someone in on failure is more costly because the person is usually not familiar with the ideocentricies (sp) of that particular piece of equipment and costs the company a lot of money (wages) due to the longer amount of time it takes to troubleshoot and fix unfamiliar equipment, and the financial loss due to the equipment not working for that time.

The cost of a 12 hour failure on a piece of equipment can be two or three times the Annual pay for a full time worker. More or less depending on everything :o)

I am using personal experience for that figure.

-- Cherri (, August 14, 1999.

Good points, Cherri. The "creative bookkeeping" will get even more convoluted soon. How long do you think it will take before corporations see that it is far superior to maintain the skill and know-how and consistency on premises?

-- weeks (drag on@off.on), August 14, 1999.

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