The Pollyanna Fallacy Revisited : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

It is a truism that "no one knows the consequences of Y2K today."

Duh. Duh. Duh. Today is January 26, 1999. No one knows the consequences of Y2K at this time. Duh.

The core Pollyanna fallacy is that it asserts a positive (Y2K effects will be containable) while hiding behind the truism ("no one knows").

Now, Pollyanna's argue that doombrooders assert a negative (Y2K effect will not be containable) while hiding equally behind the truism.

I deny that this second statement is correct.

The fact is that the Y2K "bug" is indisputably present in nearly all serious systems (that is, worldwide enterprise systems) and in 'x' number of embedded systems (the precise number is insignificant; again, they appear within or linked to the same or an overlapping set of worldwide enterprise systems). The bug is not only present trivially, but present ubiquitously in these systems.

There is no historical precedent for the successful remediation, testing and reintroduction of the world's enterprise systems simultaneously (indeed, we are approaching a singular event type) even if we assume what is not predicted by pollyannas, that all will be so compliant by 1/1/2000.

However, there is ample historical and statistical evidence of the fragility of individual systems that undergo significant remediation of any kind and subsequent reintroduction (cf Jones, Boehm, Yourdon, others).

That is, while the consequences of Y2K are unknowable (the truism), there is not a single logical ground for optimism. This was true in 1990, just as it is true in 1999. I am not arguing that Y2K could not have been fixed if a death march had been started in 1990: probably, it could have been. I am simply saying that there has never been a "theoretical" or logical reason to be optimistic about this issue.

Consequently, while doombrooders are not necessarily correct in predicting TEOTWAWKI (see the truism above once more; "correct" will be determined by historians), the doombrooder position is inherently logical and consistent to the nature of the Y2K bug, even if an individual doombrooder claim proves to be illogical or non-factual.

By contrast, the pollyanna position is inherently illogical and inconsistent.

This is not a matter of semantics, nor does it matter for the purposes of this thread whether 'x' person is a pollyanna or not, or which point on the Y2K damage scale identifies a pollyanna. Rather, this is an epistemological point but one of great practical relevance.

The relevance is that "pollyanna-ism" leads inevitably to a weakening of the community's will to prepare, given the inertial tendency of human beings to avoid facing singularity (see other threads sponsored by Runway Cat on why human beings DGI in general).

Taking the "doombrooder" position is not done IN ORDER to stimulate preparation (the end would not justify the means). However, this logical and correct position about Y2K will reduce the damage of the still-future historical event by maximizing community readiness.

Gentlemen and ladies, fire away. This is a serious post intended for serious debate from all sides. Flaming is permitted provided that the following ground rules are obeyed:

... I am focusing only on the logic of the two positions

... Arguments about the data (we're going to make it; we're not going to make it) are disallowed

I acknowledge that the weakest part of my own argument could be viewed as the "historical" evidence to the fragility of systems, but the appeal to Jones, Boehm and Yourdon is legitimate. The first two particularly have devoted careers to meticulously establishing this very point. While we cannot prove in advance that Y2K remediation will follow the historical pattern, I do submit Yourdon's Deja Vu article as background reading for this thread. In other words, anyone who wishes to debate this point should do it by arguing against Yourdon's Deja Vu article, within which I explicitly cloak myself here.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999


Let me add a brief clarification for definition purposes. When I assume for argument that systems will be made "compliant", I am speaking about public claims to that effect. The underlying argument to this thread on my part is that the simultaneous re-introduction of thousands of "fixed" enterprise systems is itself logically bound to fail, given our knowledge of software engineering.

That is, the acceptance test for Y2K is "the world". There is no time machine for testing except "the world". Again, there can only be a logically negative judgment made about the likelihood of this final production test succeeding.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

Dog, I still believe that this reintroduction will be spread throughout 1999. It is going on right now. I have stated elsewhere that I believe that the current tools and methods of dealing with software have advanced considerably over what people like Gary North and InfoMagic and even Hamasaki assume.

But, to address the strictly logical point: it is much more probable that any given generation is NOT facing an ELE than that it is. This is inherent in the nature of ELE or other massive singularities. From a strictly logical point of view, you would have to predict continuity, if continuity is at least possible (in the y2k case, I believe it is among the possible outcomes). This principle is put into practice when probabilistic methods are used in data compression: in a time sequence, any given sample at time t is more likely to resemble the previous sample than to be a "singularity".


-- Runway Cat (, January 26, 1999.

Cat ---

Yeah, but you work for that Rich and Famous Software Company. Given the scope and breadth of the reintroduction of remediated systems, I would consider "all of 1999" to be simultaneous for practical purposes. I admit, that is a judgment call. However, in practice, most enterprise systems will be reintroduced between October 1999 and March (?) 2000, within a very tight time frame (see the thread on Cowles' forum, "What Happened to Implementation"?)

While change management tools have improved hugely over the decades, their improvement is trivial compared to the cultural (ie, management and life cycle) issues that have plagued Y2K, just as they have plagued most IT projects (cf. Deja Vu). We knew 30 years ago (e.g., following the IBM 360 lessons, Brooks and many others) how to *manage* large systems software. But that is the problem, it is a management challenge far more than it has ever been a technical challenge. The ability to reintroduce software more quickly and efficiently "technically" does not help us here.

I recall a thread (yours?) that discussed quite accurately the likelihood that Y2K consequences will regress away from singularity to a middle mean. This influenced my Y2K thinking, although looking forward, we can only say about Y2K itself, "Maybe, maybe not." I was focusing in this thread purely on the reluctance of people to address the potential of singularity.

More pertinent, I do not want to slip back into a prediction HERE of Y2K consequences. Assume it is a bump in the road for this argument, fine. That the event is singular with respect to *IT history* is, I believe, wholly unarguable.

Now, I understand your point, which is very challenging to my thesis, is that the nature of ELE would cause us to predict continuity (ie, "be a pollyanna")? However, if we are **already** in the mid-phase of a documentable singularity (which I believe is true of Y2K as an IT event even before its impact is experienced), it's a different ballgame.

Even a de Jager has said for years, in effect, that Y2K IS NOW singular: that's why he lets the end (the righteousness of getting people alarmed) justify the means (we won't get into that again here).

One of the big reasons most folks DGI is because it *is* too singular for them to map to their previous experience, but they try to force this mapping anyway. And, yes, if you force that mapping, you become a pollyanna (predict continuity with the past).

So, scratch back some more please, Cat. I have never seen the Doombrood-Pollyanna debate as, first, a flame war or merely semantics, but as something deeply relevant to limiting Y2K impact and considering how we will rebuild systems, especially culturally, after impact.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

BD, your thinking is quite logical to me.

"Taking the "doombrooder" position is not done IN ORDER to stimulate preparation (the end would not justify the means). However, this logical and correct position about Y2K will reduce the damage of the still-future historical event by maximizing community readiness."

That statement is in a nutshell the paradox of Y2K as I see it. A doombrooder attitude in everyone is essential to be motivated sufficiently to be effective in adequately addressing the problem. It's this "war effort" atmosphere that would give us a chance to negate the expectations of doombrooders. A polyanna attitude from the majority only ensures that the doombrooders WILL be right. However, there is the danger of doombrooding too much which would lead to hopelessness and a giving up attitude, being as effective as the polyanna attitude in fixing the problem. Some optimism is clearly needed. Bump-in-the-road and TEOTWAWKI mindsets are both disfunctional for the purpose of averting TEOTWAWKI.

I fear TEOTWAWKI will happen when I think "logically", but I can't shake an irrational denial that this can't happen, and that's why I'm not totally depressed and hopeless. This is why I don't like Milne's aproach, he gives people no choice but to either brace against him and fight him no matter how improbable, or see it as he does and accept hopelessness.

-- Chris (, January 26, 1999.

Chris --- This is why this NG is valuable: the TBOTWAWKI thread which invites us to envision a positive post-Y2K future is a vital piece of the puzzle. And TEOTWAWKI, as many have said, is not TEOTW. Arguably (Diane?), TEOTWAWKI itself could lead to a "better" world as easily as a "worse" world in the long run.

Your "war effort" analogy is apt, not so much to my logical argument but the consequences we should draw. Hamasaki likes to say that we should have been on a death march technically for several years in order to fix Y2K. Yes. The doombrooder argument is that we *must* go on a personal "death march" of preparation, not so we'll die (duy, not), but so we'll live and, yeah, flourish after Y2K.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

A head cold is keeping me from adding anything intelectually useful today, so I'll add something trivial to this well-reasoned thread. (If I keep handing out straight lines like that around here, this could become the Comedy Channel. BTW Dog/Cat, thanks for the responses on the other, odder issue. I promise to read them if I can ever think again.)

In my gut, I suspect things will not be as bad as I anticipate. Why? in my life experience, they never are. I've noticed that I'm much better at imagining bad futures than good futures. Maybe I'm just lousy at prognosticating.

Maybe I'll just go to bed.

-- Lewis (, January 26, 1999.

Big Dog:

At the risk of misinterpreting you (I don't mean to), let me recast it into slightly different terms:

Given that computers are almost everywhere.

Given that those computers most critical to our infrastructure and economy make heavy use of dates.

Given that almost all of those dates (and the routines handling them) were and are unable to accommodate a change of century.

So far, we have a recipe for disaster. I don't think even the pollyannas have serious debates with these assertions. I haven't found anyone who's looked at the issue at all who argues that we'll fix all the bugs properly, or that the bugs don't matter. (I've found lots of people who haven't looked at the issue and don't want to. I don't think you're talking about them, though). Even those at the far end of the 'informed pollyanna' spectrum are preparing, and consider preparation prudent. Bugs there will be. Bugs *cannot* be good. Serious bugs are very bad. Lots of serious bugs everywhere is very very bad.

In turn, this leads to a series of good questions:

1) What do we mean by serious? Pollyannas argue that, to be serious, a bug must impact a sizeable number of people, outside the organization that has the bug, for a significant period of time. If a bug's impact is entirely internal to the organization (even though it means round-the-clock work by the insiders), it's not serious. If it has a non-fatal impact on only a few thousand outsiders for months, it's not serious. If it affects millions, but only for a day or two, it's not serious. Nonserious impacts, regardless of how universal, do not constitute catastrophe. Doomists argue that such problems are nonserious only in isolation, and that enough of them happening all at once and interacting with each other, lead to a metaphenomenon indistinguishable from catastrophe.

2) What has been the impact of remediation? Pollyannas argue that all of the fortunes being thrown at intensive repair efforts have had and will continue to have the effect of reducing the problem to manageable levels. Doomists argue that this is absurd and remediation efforts fall far short of this goal. This has led to a swearing contest, whereby each side swears the available material strongly supports their position. Often, the *same* information is cited as support by *both* positions.

3) How effectively can we perform damage control, and how long will the worst of the effects last? Pollyannas argue that most of the damage can be repaired or worked around fairly quickly, and that people and organizations will adapt to the rest, uncomfortably and unhappily, until the major dislocations have blown over in a month or two. Doomists argue that damage control is strictly limited, and our lives will all take undeniable turns for the worse for an extended period of time. The lunatic fringe argues that remediation will have no useful effect, that damage cannot be controlled, and that the few survivors will need generations at minimum to recover even a fraction of what we have now.

4) How much does the world need to change before it's no longer 'as we know it'? I've seen no real effort to address this issue. Pollyannas argue that the 1930's depression was still the world as we knew it, we were simply going through a particularly rough iteration of a normal economic cycle. Doomists argue that the Great Depression was unquestionably a major detour from what we knew. There have been some attempts to quantify 'as we know it' in terms of death rates, market levels, dollar purchasing power changes, availability of power, unemployment rates, bankruptcy rates, and the like. No agreement at all. It seems that we must all answer this question according to our own situations and individual zones of tolerance for change.

I think if most people's lives continue on their current track, and their exposure to y2k problems consists of watching TV reports about troubles other people are facing, the pollyannas were right. If most people's lives become a battle for survival (and many lose), the doomists were right. If most people experience a series of frustrating problems they can live with but dearly wish they didn't have to, we'll argue forever.

-- Flint (, January 26, 1999.

Flint --- I agree with your "givens." However, many pollyannas deny that this is a recipe for disaster, for many reasons ("it's so serious this time that they will surely fix it," etc etc etc). In other words, pollyannas rule out A PRIORI the possibility of disaster FROM Y2K (Paul Davis: am I right or wrong, if so I'll retract) where I'll define disaster as a decade-long 1930s-style depression. Is that a "realistic" pollyanna scenario (> 5%, say) or no? But mark: discussing this was not the basis for posting this thread.

As for your other points, they all touch on the Monday-morning quarterbacking that will take place post Y2K effects. What do we mean by serious? Tune in 1/1/2001 for the debate. What has been the impact of remediation? No one knows. Tune in 1/1/2001 for debate.

My argument on this thread, forgive the repetition, is that there were no grounds for pollyannishness on 1/1/90 and there are no grounds for it on 1/1/99, given the logical and singular nature of Y2K as an IT problem. I am not dealing with speculation about what will happen or not.

Y2K *is* already here and singular: I challenge anyone to define an equivalent IT event past, present, or future (and failure to properly window Y2K so it has to be done again in 21st century doesn't count, same problem). Could there be a future IT problem of Y2K magnitude. Duh. Of course. But, as long as 30 years ago, the Y2K problem AS A PROBLEM, was known. There is no such other known problem facing IT today is my point.

I have no problem (though others may) with someone saying,

"You're right, there is no logical reason for any optimism, but I personally believe Y2K will be a bump, for 'x' reasons."

I have a problem with people saying,

"Optimism (pollyanna) or pessimism (doombrood) is an irrational matter of temperament, bias, axes to grind, etc." Nonsense, I say.

In a sense, I am more radical than Milne. I believe that there are no facts that can be released in 1999 that could possibly generate optimism BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF Y2K AS A PROBLEM. This is not identical to saying we will have a disaster. Today is 1/26/99, not 01/01/2000 and we cannot, by definition, understand the "entire world system," because we can't simulate it anywhere.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

However, I should add that it is logical to expect, forecase and prepare for a disaster (1930's style depression or worse). I assume that is obvious from the entire argument but perhaps not.

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

Runway Cat, you could use the same reasoning to argue for continuity even if an asteroid the size of Texas were on a collision course with us. Trends and probabilities divorced from facts are worthless.

However, I think you have hit on the basic psychology of a DGI (not saying you're one)... "Major disasters like this don't happen often, therefore I can't believe it's really happening now."

-- Shimrod (, January 26, 1999.

You are right Shimrod. However, there's no denying that in the physical world, from a general point of view, statistically speaking, continuity happens, more frequently than not. Otherwise, most of the field of digital signal processing, which deals with physical facts and realities, would be out of business.

You may say, but what about the human world. Well, even there, we have to be careful how we define discontinuity. For example, from the Japanese point of view, the defeat in WWII was a pretty serious discontinuity on the surface, but within a short time many of the major prewar power-centers/corporations/personnel were restored. As in the Communist countries after their "fall". After slavery officially ended in the south, conditions for blacks didn't markely improve, and so on.

Anyway, I think the world could end and people are so sleepy it wouldn't register. The best single image I've ever gotten off this NG was somebody who wrote "They'll die sitting in front of their TV sets, waiting for the picture to come back on"


-- Runway Cat (, January 26, 1999.

Understand RC was responding to Shimrod and there agree mucho. Right or wrong, I have become convinced that 1999 will see little or no panic (while the masses pat themselves on the back that they're not kooks, media is helping them along, thank you) and that panic will only occur when people begin losing their jobs OR their money. But, as I said, that was not topic of this thread as such .....

-- BigDog (, January 26, 1999.

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