Not only is this a new year, this is a new decade. Speaking of new decades, I’ve been surprised at the number of news articles revisiting the Year 2000 problem at the turn of the century, otherwise known as Y2K (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2000_problem) .
In case you don’t remember or are very young, as we approached the end of the last millennium, people began realizing virtually all of our computer programs registered two digits for the year. How would these computers realize we were moving into a new century? If they didn’t, what would happen? The fears ranged from being charged 100 years worth of library late fees and new-born babies being registered as 100-year-olds to power plants shutting down and airplanes falling from the sky.
Very fortunately, none of the apocalyptic predictions came true. The warnings were pretty much dismissed as fear mongering and the world moved on.
Or maybe we’re missing something. The beginning of a new decade, and the passage of twenty years, is creating an introspective on that problem, and the emerging reality isn’t what most of us remember.
Popular Mechanics magazine takes a comprehensive look at that period in “‘Here We Go. The Chaos Is Starting’: An Oral History of Y2K” by Eric Spitznagel (https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/security/a30338692/y2k-panic/?)
The warnings began as early as the late 1960s, but it was hard to get anyone’s attention. In 1978, Canadian computer programmer Peter De Jager realized what was coming: “So I went to my boss and said, ‘We have a problem. The computers out there aren’t going to work properly when we hit the year 2000.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re worried about a problem that isn’t going to happen for 22 years? Relax, somebody will fix it by then.'”
De Jager persisted, writing a 1993 article entitled “Doomsday 2000” for Computerworld magazine. As he remembers it, “In the beginning, I was laughed at. I was called a farce and a jokester. But when they realized I was right, that the danger was real, I became the fear monger.”
Finally, everyone took the threat seriously to the extreme of some people adopting a survivalist strategy. Preparations were made for the worst. To make a very long story short, the world held its breath on December 31, 1999… and nothing happened. Was it fear mongering?
Steven M. Bellivin, Professor in the Computer Science department at Columbia University, puts it this way: “What avoided problems was a lot of hard work by many people in many places. There was no one fix; every program and every database required separate attention, and custom analysis and a custom fix. It was a lot of work by a lot of people. The risk was not at all hype; serious trouble was averted because of all of this invisible work. It’s a disservice to think that it was all invented—it wasn’t.”
In “20 Years Later, the Y2K Bug Seems Like a Joke—Because Those Behind the Scenes Took It Seriously” by Francine Uenuma (https://time.com/5752129/y2k-bug-history/?), Paul Saffo, a futurist and adjunct professor at Stanford University is quoted as saying “The Y2K crisis didn’t happen precisely because people started preparing for it over a decade in advance. And the general public who was busy stocking up on supplies and stuff just didn’t have a sense that the programmers were on the job.”
Now that we can look back, and as computers have taken over even more of our lives, what have we learned? Peter De Jager is not optimistic: “You want the truth? Take out your wallet. Look at all the receipts. How many digits are in the year system? Look at the expiration date on your credit card. It’s a two-digit year. We learned nothing.”
Happy New Year!
Update: An article in the December 30, 2019 issue of The New Yorker magazine, “When Russia and America Cooperated to Avert a Y2K Apocalypse” by Geoff Manaugh tells how the nuclear superpowers worked together to keep from blundering into catastrophic war (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/when-russia-and-america-cooperated-to-avert-a-y2k-apocalypse?).