traci's lists of ten

Traci's 7th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Think About Year 2000 Issues

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 9/8/98.

ACW-L has been talking about preparing computers for the Year 2000, and a recent post by Chitralekha Duttagupta turned to the question of how the issues related to the writing classroom.

My first thought was of articles and presentations on literacy and computers that urge us to interrogate the technologies that we bring to the classroom. Following this advice, we ask our students to join us in questioning and dissecting issues such as universal access, the default assumptions made by software packages, and the physical layout of computer labs.

My idea was to bring that kind of interrogation to the discussion of Year 2000 by creating writing projects that asked students to think about the ways that we talk and think about this issue. If you have access to computers in your classroom, your students can find web-page resources for themselves; however, you could print out web pages or find articles in the library that would allow your student to consider these issues without classroom access to computers.

NOTE: Item #2 includes a list of Year 2000 articles that you might use as background for any of the writing activities. The information is listed only once, even though it might be a part of the other assignments as well.

  1. Write an analytical essay that explores the stylistic choices and persuasive techniques used in a company's press releases and/or other public statements on their preparation for the Year 2000.

    For example, consider this excerpt from the Year 2000 Statement at Eudora's web site: "The format keeps the number of seconds passed since January 1, 1970, in a 32-bit signed integer. If you do the math (i.e., 2^31=2,147,483,648), this integer will overflow after 68 years of seconds. Therefore, the maximum date the integer will store is year 2038."
    ( -- now 404).

    The author is explaining that the software will stop working in the year 2038 -- why have they gone to the trouble of adding the explanation? Do you understand the explanation? Why has the company chosen to include these technical terms?

    For your writing assignment, ask these same kinds of questions for a complete document that you've found. How does the statement use explanations and description? Is the document "user-friendly"? Does the statement rely on legalistic language or technical jargon? Think about the company's purpose and audience for the document. Why has the company chosen the particular strategies that are used in the document?

  2. Find three articles about computer technology and the Year 2000. If possible, find articles with different attitudes about the issues involved. Analyze the articles looking at the author's purpose, audience, and writing situation. What is the author's point of view? How is the author's point of view communicated in the article? How does the author's point of view affect the way that the ideas are discussed? What names are used? What details are included? What is explained -- and what isn't?

    Here are some articles you can use to get started:
  3. Find an article, essay, or story that discusses the "dangers" of a new technology -- you might find a turn-of-the-century piece that warns of the problems that will be encountered in the 1900's, or a piece that warns about trains, automobiles, airplanes, and so forth. Compare the way that the technological danger in your older article is discussed to the way that the Year 2000 issues are discussed in a current article. Look particularly at the difference between facts and opinions or speculation. Consider the language that is used, the details that are included, and the explanations that are used.

  4. Write your own science fiction account of what will happen at midnight on January 1, 2000. Speculate and dream all you want, but relate your ideas to the facts that we know about technology and the Year 2000. In other words, it would be appropriate to talk about computer failures, but not to talk about the sun burning out (unless you have some facts that support that event happening). Be sure to focus your discussion -- you could easily write a novel if you tried to cover everything, but you only need to write a four-page paper. Don't try to talk about everything that could happen; you'll become overwhelmed. You might write from your personal perspective (what will happen to you?). Or you could write about what happens at our school, to the police department in town, and so forth.

  5. "A rose by any other name...." Look at the variety of names used to describe what will happen when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000. The names are quite varied: Year 2000 Problem, Millennium Bug, Year 2000 Project, Y2K, Millennial Bomb, M-bug, Year 2000 Solutions, Y2K Compliance, and so forth. How do the names differ? Take a look at who uses which name. What does the name that is used tell you about the author who uses it? Write a paper that explores the way that naming affects the way that we think about the situation involved.

  6. Write a short research or I-search paper on something you're interested in or a system that you rely on and its relationship to Year 2000 preparation. You might examine the computer equipment that you own, a piece of software that you use frequently, your bank's accounting system, our school's class scheduling system, accounting system, or QCA tracking system, the local electric company, or your car's on-board computer. For your paper, examine how the product or system works now, what needs to be done to prepare it for the Year 2000, and the steps that are being taken.

  7. Write a satire that explores an issue related to the Year 2000. You might write a parody that talks about the dangers that people must be prepared for. You could write satirical instructions telling someone how to test a computer or a piece of software. Write a solution to the Year 2000 problem, using Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as your model. Whatever you choose, pay attention to the relationship between the real facts you know about the Year 2000 and the satirical details that you include in your paper. What makes a satire good is its relationship to the real world.

  8. Look at the web sites (or other advertisements and descriptions) for software or consulting services that help someone analyze their computer equipment and prepare for the Year 2000. How do the sites talk about the Year 2000 and about their products or services? What persuasive strategies and appeals do they use? Do you notice argumentative fallacies? How do they try to convince the reader that they can help prepare machines and system? Write an analysis of one of these sites that explores the argumentative strategies and techniques that the company uses.
  9. Compare the Year 2000 statements posted by different governmental agencies (or by different governments)? What rhetorical strategies do they have in common? What differences do you see? What are the goals and audience for the statements? How does the statement use explanations and description? Is the document "user-friendly"? Does the statement rely on legalistic language or technical jargon? Write an analytical paper that discusses the way that the agency involved presents their details on the Year 2000.

    For instance, consider the United States's "The White House Millennium Council" page
    ( -- now 404). The United States page is calm and unconcerned about the turn of the century. It's not concerned with a problem or a situation -- it's the statement of a "council." Given the details on the White House page, you might think there was nothing to do -- the first links refer the unveiling of the Millennium logo and a campaign to save historical buildings in the United States. Further, the page includes absolutely irrelevant facts such as "The year 2000 will mark the 150th anniversary of 12th President Zachary Taylor's illness and death while in office." Choose a government page, press release, or other article or speech to analyze. Look at the way that the information is presented and think about the effect that the page will have on readers.

  10. Consider the politics of blame associated with the discussion of the Year 2000. Even the most objective article makes someone responsible for the situation -- examine an article that discusses the Year 2000 and note who is blamed. What kind of language is used to describe the situation? What facts and details are used? What's at stake for the author? How does the author's position relate to who is blamed for what? Compare where the problems have actually come from and the source that is described in the article you are analyzing.

    The language used in discussions of the Year 2000 can be loaded. Consider this excerpt from Lloyd Grove's Washington Post article: "[T]he world's myriad computer systems, which control every aspect of modern life, will crash immediately after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, because of an unbelievably stupid foul-up by software nerds, and thus plunge the planet into an unimaginable technological apocalypse." Grove doesn't blame programmers, but "software nerds"; and the end result isn't just trouble, but an "apocalypse." Look for the same sort of language in the article that you're analyzing and think about the relationship between the language that is used and the way that the language constructs the situation that is being discussed.