The Y2K Bug! Not something most people think about today. A lot of you young folk may have no idea what it was about. I bet even some of you older people don’t really know…
Back in the early days of computing, we used two digits for the date. This was at first done because of hardware and software limitations, but later it was just the default. What this meant, is that a computer in 1965 would show the year as 65. That same computer in 1987 would show 87.
In the late ‘80s some people began to ask the world what was going to happen when the computer that controlled the damn or power plant showed 00 for 2000. Most ignored it for a few years, but then around 1997 people suddenly woke up to the fact that they only had three years to fix any problems.
Testing was done and it was found that most systems would have odd random glitches. A few wouldn’t work right at all or even just shut down. All had to be considered unreliable, even new systems that weren’t configured properly.
“All” was pretty much all computers that ran governments, infrastructure and large industry, that is, anyone who computerized early. Even if the equipment was modernized, it was all based on ancient code. Often the equipment wasn’t modernized…
We are talking all of the national defense computers in the US, form securing the general’s desktop computer to systems that launched nuclear missiles. We are talking most power-plants, nuclear and conventional. The systems that controlled the stoplights in your town. Your drinking water. The airplanes you flew in. Banks and other financial institutions were based on old equipment and code, worse than most because they had to be very conservative about changes. The telephone system and pretty much all other communications were based on 1960s technology and would go off line, or at least be unreliable to the point of becoming unusable. Power grids, factories, subways, elevators, etc.
Everything means everything that modern life is based on.
All IT workers were told Y2K was their top priority. Hundreds of thousands of people were hired to fix the issue. Programmers who had retired in the 1970s and ‘80s were called back since they were the only ones who understood the old code. Tens of billions of dollars was spent on upgrading systems, perhaps hundreds of billions (this was a huge boom time for computers, so it is hard to tell what was spent on Y2K and what was just improving infrastructure).
It was perhaps the largest, most expensive world-wide coordinated effort in human history.
In the end a few systems (thousands in US and Europe) had minor glitches. Things continued to pop up for a few years, but nothing catastrophic. Overall, though, life went on as normal and 99% of people had no idea any of those glitches occurred.
The world let out a sigh of relief.
By January 3, 2000, throngs of people were screaming that we had made this huge hullabaloo over nothing. Tens of billions of dollars were wasted for nothing.
By the end of the year, it was the butt of jokes. If you tried to bring up an intelligent conversation about it, you received either laughter or anger, sometime deep, deep anger.
The thing is, the reason there was no great catastrophe was just because of the time and money spent. People ran simulations and it is possible there would have been a huge crash. It would have cost hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, to fix after the fact and there is a possibility that thousands, perhaps millions would have died. In fact, the likelihood of an all-out nuclear war cannot be discounted. The economy would have tanked in a way never before seen or even imagined – even then, the vast majority of money was really just numbers in a computer. Imagine if 90% of the world’s wealth disappeared over night… While 20 nuclear power plants were having Chernobyl type melt downs. While the infrastructure of the planet went down – no water, electricity, or anything.
But it didn’t happen because of that huge effort.
Back in late March, I was talking to my brother and sister-in-law on the phone. We all agreed that one big concern was that in a couple of months people would say that the Covid-19 response was a big scare over nothing. Why, just look at how few people have died! They would say the lockdown, the shutting down of economies, the disruption, was not justified by the numbers. They would be screaming to get back to normal.
These people would not understand that the reason the numbers were so low had to do with the lockdown, with the shutdown and with putting things on hold.
Modeling had showed millions of deaths in the US alone if nothing was done. But something was done and we flattened the curve. For now.
But they will think it is “fake news”.
I mentioned Y2K on that phone call. My sister-in-law, a very smart, highly educated techie, said, “Oh, I thought that was just a lot of hot wind over nothing. We spent huge amounts of time and money preparing for the end of the world and nothing happened.”
Exactly! Nothing happened because of that time and money spent.
I don’t remember the lessons of 1918 as I wasn’t’ around back ten, but I do remember y2K well. Perhaps we should all remember it…
Below is a later edit:
(An ounce of prevention to avoid that pound of cure – I did put down the worse case, which may not have ever happened, but the good thing is that we will never know… Be thankful for that ;) )