View From Here: Bug that lives in human brains

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The Independent Online
I AM fascinated by the millennium bug. I've cleared some space in the cellar and I'm beginning to collect a few necessaries. I've got candles and matches, camping gas and washing stuff (no dishwasher - eek!) and the beginnings of some food stores... No coal yet, and, in any case we've only one fireplace that works.

Am I mad? Am I just revelling in perverted pleasure at the thought of doom and disaster? I'm certainly going to feel a right prat if nothing happens. The whole point is that we do not know - and we cannot know.

The millennium bug is a most peculiar meme - along with its subsidiaries "fear of the fug", "millennium hoarding", "Y2K" and even the "I don't think anything's going to happen" meme. I've explained before about memes. They are ideas or habits, stories or catchphrases that are copied from person to person by imitation. They are information passed from brain to brain, brain to book, or computer to computer. Actually the millennium bug is more like a lack of information, a two-digit date when four digits are required.

This is what memes do. Like genes they are replicators, and like genes they'll get themselves copied whenever and wherever they can. This one has got itself copied an awful lot of times.

Powerful memes aren't usually so sneaky. Our languages have spread across the planet. Our social and political structures have fought for supremacy. The ideas of God, justice and human rights have reached millions of minds. These great memes are the very stuff of human culture, but even they have virus-like qualities. You could say that memes make people work to propagate them, just like genes do: religious memes make people build churches and mosques to spread themselves; colds make you sneeze to spread colds This is the crux of replicator power - information that gets itself successfully copied fills up the world with its effects..

Whether or not it proves wise to have hoarded, we know enough about human nature to know it will happen.. Once some people start, others will follow. There will be panics and shortages nearer the time, even if the bug itself causes not one power failure or sewage stoppage, and not a single person gets stuck in a lift. Even now, schools, colleges and universities are spending inordinate amounts of time and money to ensure they are "millennium compliant". Such is the power of the idea of the bug.

And what will happen on the fateful day? Educational establishments have one great advantage. They'll be shut for the holidays. They'll have no pupils in the buildings, no students needing the computers; they can just close down the servers, turn off the heating, and sit it out.

But universities are now so vast and complicated that things may not be that simple. Our university, for example, has over 22,000 students, 2,500 staff, and dozens of separate buildings on several campuses across Bristol. Computer and phone networks link them all. Heating, lighting, and security systems span varying areas. Date-sensitive chips may be buried, unrecorded, under inches of heat-resistant material. They are confident they'll be ready.

But what if the National Grid does go down? If the weather is really cold, the heating system will have to be drained and, I am told, once drained, the grid takes four weeks to get going again. What happens to the students then? They'll have paid their fees won't they? Perhaps we should buy in generators - or reckon to hire them later on? No chance - like baby-sitters for the night itself, wily hire companies are refusing to set their prices in advance. I've just thought - I might still have that old paraffin heater. Do they still sell paraffin?

The writer is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England