All Hyped Up and No Place to Go-What’s a Y2K Alarmist to Do?

Where will the year 2000 experts be on New Year’s Eve? Will they be hiding or preening, gloating or eating crow?

Since 1996, when an analyst from the Gartner Group Inc. issued a report describing a massive year 2000 computer problem that could cost $300 billion to $600 billion, a small group of information technology consultants have traveled the globe, warning of impending disaster. They were popular, well-compensated speakers, yet often the objects of derision. Now that their moment is nigh, some are planning very public last hurrahs. But others are headed for the hills.

Stephanie Moore, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., will be at ground zero of the media feeding frenzy. She has been publishing and consulting about Y2K for most of the last four years. So as the year 2000 rolls across the globe, Ms. Moore will be part of a marathon broadcast with Sam Donaldson of ABC News. The unlikely duo, Ms. Moore, an attractive, thirtysomething blonde and, well, Mr. Donaldson, will be crammed together for 23 hours in an 8-by-6-foot plot at the Federal Government’s Y2K Command Center. They will watch the new millennium roll from the Marshall Islands all the way back to Hawaii.

According to Ms. Moore, 91 news media organizations were slugging it out for prime real estate at this former Secret Service command center on G Street in Washington, D.C. “We’ll be checking with correspondents and contacts all over the world,” Ms. Moore said. “And there will be officials from 67 government agencies to give us progress reports. My role will be to say Yes or No, or ‘Given what I know about this situation, I find it hard to believe what that government official is saying.'”

But other Y2K criers, after years of seeking the spotlight, are now slinking off into the wings. “The last place you’re going to find me is on television,” said one prominent Y2K consultant in Silicon Valley. “If nothing happens, you’re gonna look like Geraldo with the safe. How’d you like to be etched in people’s memory as the guy standing there when nothing happened? You’d never get another consulting gig in your life.”

The so-called Y2K bug was caused by an old shortcut: Computer programmers recorded years in two digit fields. The near universal practice was started in the 50’s and 60’s, when computer memory was a precious commodity and 19’s couldn’t be spared. But putting them back in has been a difficult and imperfect task.

Peter De Jager might have yelled loudest on the Y2K issue. Corybantic self-promotion from his eponymous Vancouver-based consulting firm landed him on Nightline with Ted Koppel and got him quoted in news media all over the world. The American Stock Exchange launched a De Jager Year 2000 Index Fund (which is up 141 percent since its April 1997 inception). And it propelled the heavy-set, bearded Mr. De Jager onto a global rubber chicken circuit, where he charged $12,000 for a one-hour speech. From this pulpit, Mr. De Jager has warned that if Y2K was not addressed, there was potential for bank runs, power failures or worse. But as time went by and corporations seemed to heed Mr. De Jager’s warnings, he scaled back talk of a disaster.

As such, he got used to the questions of skeptical journalists. “It went like this: They’d say, ‘Will it be safe to fly?'” said Mr. De Jager. “And I’d say, I believe so. And they’d ask where I planned to be on New Year’s Eve, so I’d say I plan to be with my family in my favorite Irish pub. And they’d say, ‘Aha! So despite the fact that you say it’s safe to fly on New Year’s Eve, you won’t be anywhere near an airplane.'”

So Mr. De Jager has decided to drop his plans to be with his family on Dec. 31, 1999. Instead, he will be on United Airlines Flight 928 at 5 P.M., from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to London Heathrow Airport. “This is not a publicity stunt,” Mr. De Jager said. “United is not paying me. No one is paying me to do this. I’ll be making phone calls from the flight and traveling with a reporter.” Mr. De Jager said he has turned down requests to appear on any number of networks.

The year 2000 crisis, of course, happened. Total expenditures by governments and corporations approached $311 billion, according to a study by the International Data Corporation, not far off the Gartner Group’s original wild guess. There is even talk of a Y2K dividend, now that companies will be relieved of this expense.

Mr. De Jager, for one, has a Y2K dividend of his own in mind. “Enough of the work got done that we’re going to get through this,” he said. “I will take a year off. I honestly feel as if I’m up for parole for good behavior in about three weeks’ time.”

Cory Johnson is the editor-at-large at All Hyped Up and No Place to Go-What’s a Y2K Alarmist to Do?