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Trust And Y2k

  Y2K seems like a millennium ago in computer time, so maybe we have enough historical perspective by now to draw some lessons from the nonevent.

  In case you’ve been hiding out from the news the past couple of years, Y2K (for “Year 2000”) was the term for the possible problem caused by computers being unable to distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900 when the two-digit electronic calendars flipped from ’99 to ’00 at midnight December 31.The fear was that, with the world so dependent on computers, important parts of society and the economy would shut down.

  Well, nothing happened. And for once, that’s good.

  One lesson learned is that you can trust your local electric cooperative. For several years electric co-ops, and the entire utility industry, have been working to make sure the electricity would stay on without Y2K interruptions into the year 2000 and beyond. In fact, business and government in general delivered on promises of smooth sailing through Y2K. From banks to grocery stores, from airports to credit card companies, they worked overtime to assure business as usual.

  But what the co-ops and Kentucky Living know about is the business of supplying electricity. 

  And it’s not just for keeping the lights on that co-ops proved trustworthy and forthright. They also were very open about their concerns, and their confidence, that they could reliably supply electricity. But they even listened to and worked with those who had their doubts. When the co-ops heard that a number of people were looking into buying electric generators as a Y2K precaution, the co-ops offered information about how to use those generators safely-even as they were saying buying a generator wouldn’t be necessary.

  While the co-ops were saying they would make every effort to keep the lights on through Y2K, I took a more radical position in my “From the Editor” column in this magazine. I didn’t have a shred of doubt that the electric co-op folks would analyze, anticipate, and avoid any potential glitch that would keep electricity from flowing. I said so a year ahead of the deadline, and in a column that went into the mail the day before the dreaded date. I knew I could count on the people working at the co-ops.

  Still, there is a deeper lesson about our increasingly complex technology.

  I knew neighbors who stored provisions and bought generators, just in case, to protect their families. The local newspaper had all reporters standing by at the midnight hour. There was no question in my mind they were wasting their money, time, and worry. In all fairness, not everyone has access to the kind of knowledge I had about electric utilities. We have been wronged in the past by the experts. How could we trust their assurances this time?

  It’s a large and scary question, because one of the places it could lead is to an answer that we should never trust the experts. Even the news media spent a lot of money preparing coverage, not because they knew things would go wrong, but “just in case” they did. Part of the reason for reacting that way is an inability, or an unwillingness, to do the work required to figure out what the risks really are. But the more significant reason is that we’re not sure who we can trust. Who can we turn to for assurances on computer technology that often seems miraculous in both good ways and bad ways?

  We need trust in this world. Blanket cynicism and lack of faith in people and institutions is not the way to a hopeful future. I’m not suggesting blind faith but informed trust. Examine. Question. Figure out who and what you can count on, and on what subjects they can speak with authority.

  Which brings me back to electric cooperatives. In their area of expertise, energy and related technology issues, you can rely on them. They proved it this past January
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