Helplessly dependent on frozen computers : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Helplessly dependent on frozen computers

WILLIAM WONG Feb. 21, 2000


THIS 21st century story begins in a wholly banal fashion. I went shopping at my local Safeway, which fea

tured bargains on orange juice and whole chickens, among other items. I also needed facial tissues for the sniffles my son and I are experiencing.

I rolled my cart into one of those express lanes. I didn't immediately notice that the clerks were just standing there while customers ahead of me had their goods on the conveyor belt ready to be checked out. It quickly dawned on me that the check-out registers weren't working.

Only a few minutes, I surmised. Someone would fix the problem and I'd be out of there in no time.

To while away the minutes, I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the latest People magazine.

The clerks remained inactive. More customers, their carts bulging, lined up behind me and others. The checkout aisles, relatively empty when I got into line, were now jamming up with people and their carts.

A disembodied voice announced over the store's intercom system that the computers were down and that central headquarters was fixing the problem. Apologies for the delay, etc.

A few people started dropping out. More minutes passed. More carts lined up.

A woman customer just behind me - her cart brimming with food - started chatting with a man. "This is scary," she said. "This is Y2K. We've got to think about the bigger picture here. We are so dependent on computers. My husband wants to pay our bills online. I don't really want to do that."

The man concurred.

"Once they get your Social Security number, that's it. They can do anything with it."

Two clerks, as helpless as anyone else, started reminiscing about previous computer shutdowns at the store.

"The longest was two or three hours," one said. "Oh, I've never been through something that long," the other said.

Forty-five minutes into this waiting game, the disembodied voice said, "We are shutting down all terminals, except for the floral station and number one." With that announcement, I bailed out, leaving my two chickens, two cartons of orange juice and three facial-tissue boxes in the cart.

I have no idea how long it took for that store to bring its computers back online.

For me, this episode in everyday living in post-modern America was a mere inconvenience. But it does conjure up scarier thoughts, in light of the recent hacker attacks on major Web sites.

The only connection between the supermarket incident and the Internet attacks is our dependence on the confoundingly complex technology of computers.

Just before the Safeway shutdown, my once-trusty home computer caused me grief for the better part of a week. It froze when I hit the "send" in my e-mail program. After hours on the phone with several different technical support services and two visits to a local computer repair shop, the problem was fixed - for now.

Someone in the Safeway line asked, perhaps facetiously, whether the clerks could check out items manually, the way they did before computers took over.

When my computer stopped working, I was tempted to unearth my manual typewriter.

But does anyone know how to add up a list of prices by hand anymore? And how could I compose an article or a letter without the wizardry of computer technology?

The world didn't end when 1999 became 2000 and computer systems around the world survived. Or did they?

-- Homer Beanfang (, February 22, 2000


TP I might have managed without, but kleenex? No way, got plenty of that! ;-)

I probably would have been among the first abandoning my shopping cart. Wonder about the costs of getting all those carts straightened out, especially the perishables.

You didn't really believe the lie about being able to go manual, did you??

-- Brooks (, February 22, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ