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December 1999

All systems 00

Imagine this: it’s 10 minutes after midnight on January 1. The year 2000 has just begun. We’ve hugged our loved ones and wished them Happy New Year. We’ve finally stopped singing For Auld Lang Syne, and our glasses are being refilled with champagne. But what about that millennium bug the alarmists of the world have been talking about — and writing about in thousands of articles — over the past three years? Shouldn’t civilization have collapsed by now? If we open the windows and observe the outside world, we see light in the streets, as well as in a nearby hospital. Over there at the gas station, a guy is topping off his tank. A party guest offers to go to the bank around the corner to try and get some cash out of the ATM. Ten minutes later, he returns, triumphantly waving four 100-mark bills. The telephone rings. It’s cousin George calling from Chicago, where it’s still December 31, shortly after 6 p.m., inquiring eagerly — with a trace of fear in his voice — about the state of affairs in the Old World. Now we have another look into the world — this time via TV. We switch it on, it works. We see movies, shows and partying as we zap through the various channels. We even get hold of a news program. There is no hint of airplanes falling from the sky or a Russian rocket on its way to Washington as the result of a Y2K-related computer malfunction. All this, of course, is but a daydream. Compared with the hundreds of frightening Y2K prophecies doled out during the last several years, this scenario certainly offers a more pleasant, optimistic outlook on the future. It works on the hypothesis that mankind will master the anarchy-threatening crash of the worldwide computer net, or for those with a most idealistic worldview, that the crash won’t happen at all. In the early hours of 2000, raise your glass and toast one such positive thinking (or, perhaps, blissfully ignorant?) nation. It’s a country to be congratulated on not giving a damn about the Y2K problem. I’m speaking of my homeland, Germany. Apart from some thousand experts in big business, banking and science, very few Germans seem to care about impending danger on the internationally-linked computer highway while, in most other countries of the civilized world, this communication breakdown is regarded as some sort of doomsday. It’s strange: for ages, Germany has been regarded as a nation intimately linked with pessimism and irrational fear. Through the world’s eyes Germans are seen as profound, earnest thinkers — not exactly what you might call a happy-go-lucky folk. Give us a problem and we will throw ourselves into the task of solving it. And now this: without the slightest twinge of fear, let alone panic, this nation is dancing, happily toward that magic date, 1.1.00. The well-informed, of course, have heard about the problem, but by no means take it as a serious threat. Conversely, millions of Americans plan to retreat into the woods when the end of the year, or of the millennium, or of the world itself, approaches. Many city dwellers have chosen to stay and fight — having already purchased weapons with which they plan to defend themselves against marauders. That’s what our correspondents report from the U.S., with an amused twinkle in their eyes. Or, take a look at the Far East. Japanese authorities are bombarding the public with monthly bulletins about what to do when “it” happens. In Indonesia, the CEO of a flashlight battery company has ordered around-the-clock shifts. The general opinion is that the little helpers might come in useful shortly after New Year’s eve. In China, the government has ordered airline executives to fly with their carrier’s jets on January 1, 2000, to prove to customers that the Chinese have fulfilled every necessary safety requirement. A Norwegian banking tycoon has been spotted building a huge wooden ark near his home in a coastal village. When “the moment” comes, he reckons he will take his family members, pets and provisions and, like Noah in the Bible, sail safely out to sea. Sure, we laugh at these angst-ridden people around the world. But no one can accuse the Germans of being completely indifferent. The decision of where on the planet we wish to greet 2000 occupies our thoughts: London? New York City? the Bahamas? on board a yacht? Or, wouldn’t it be fun to go to some exotic island in the Pacific Ocean near the dateline? There, we might even have the chance to ring in Y2K on two consecutive nights. But, alas, offers by travel agencies and airlines are far too expensive. This “captive audience” approach to sales is currently a hotly disputed topic at almost every dinner party in Deutschland. Germans are now thinking it would perhaps be wiser to simply stay home. Not a bad idea. It just might get exciting over here. <<<

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