Peter de Jager: Waking up the world to the Y2k : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


Peter de Jager: waking up the world to the Y2K

WOZA Internet (Johannesburg) October 26, 1999 By Elaine Durbach

Johannesburg - You don't ask the business world to spend $600 billion to avert a possible disaster and then expect accolades. That's why Peter de Jager has been blase about being called a lunatic, an hysteric, a fraud and various other uglier terms. But the South African-born computer pundit, now a Canadian national, has the satisfaction of knowing he might also go down in history as something of a saviour.

De Jager, who left South Africa as a teenager, was not the first to foresee the potential catastrophe. He says people had been sounding the alarm for 40 years that computers' two-digit date code could misinterpret the shift from the 1900s to the year 2000, leading to miscalculations, shutdowns or sheer chaos.

But it was this jovial programmer with a gift for catchy phrases who sounded the trumpet blast that finally began the worldwide wake-up to the problem.

He noticed it himself about 22 years ago. But it wasn't until 1989, when he learnt about a 1965 power failure that darkened the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States, that he made the connection.

If the failure of one switch could lead to a disaster like that, he wondered, what would happen if billions of computer codes went haywire? He says his first fears were for his family - and then it dawned on him what would happen to the world.

His 1993 article, "Doomsday 2000", in Computerworld Magazine, launched him on a trajectory few could have anticipated.

"If I'd known how difficult a task this was I think I would have passed," he says, but then hesitates and adds: "It's always a choice. I could quit at any time."

In the past six years he has written two books, advised members of American and British governments, amongst others, given countless seminars, created a library of videos and given something like five media interviews a day. That's in addition to establishing the leading Y2K resource site on the internet,, and having an entire stock index of Y2K-related companies on the American Stock Exchange named after him.

Has it been worth it? De Jager has seen very little of his wife, Antoinette, and their two teenage sons in the past few years. And he has had to answer charges that he's merely doing it for money, that he's not really serious about the threat and that he is downright wrong.

On that last score, he is impatient. His Year2000 site runs a list of newspaper stories about failures that have already taken place. Some are as minor as new model cars in the state of Maine being classified as "horseless carriages" because the state computers thought they pre-dated the invention of cars.

Others involve more disturbing systems like air traffic control and oil refinery functions. He talks with real fury about willfully blind management clinging to their "Cinderella" systems.

He is less touchy about the money issue. He has earned a lot more than he would otherwise have done. But he has kept himself scrupulously independent, not buying shares in Y2K companies, not endorsing vendors or accepting fees to promote - or shield - anyone.

As he points out, he has removed himself from the enormously lucrative legal arena where he could have acted as an expert witness in the multitude of court cases likely to begin next year.

"My goal was to avoid the problem," he has said, not to deal with fixing it after the fact.

As for whether he has been serious about the danger posed by Y2K, De Jager makes his commitment very clear. He was away giving a lecture on Y2K when his brother David died of cancer. They had agreed that his work should take priority.

When his father died of the same disease two years later, again he was far away, giving an all-day seminar on Y2K. His father had joked to him that they both had a deadline to meet, and he was sure to make his.

De Jager says he has made his too. If the deathbed choice arose again, he would take the time off to be there. "Thanks to the efforts of programmers around the world, Y2K would no longer be important enough to keep me away," he says.

But, lest we get too complacent, De Jager still points out that the issue won't be resolved on New Year's Day.

"You'll be hearing about new Y2K problems until at least the first months of 2003," he predicts.

But, even if it does end up costing $600 billion to fix, we won't be facing the global mayhem that might have ensued if he and his cohorts had not put themselves on the line to alert us.

Why did he do it? He answers with a quote: "If not me - who? If not now - when?"

-- Homer Beanfang (, October 28, 1999

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