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Techies borrow Christian anxiety for a good reason

Back in the Dark Ages of programming computers, three decades or so ago, the memory savings afforded by dropping the first two digits of the year were significant.

At the time, it was hard to imagine the extent of the consequences of computer systems misreading the year 2000 as 1900. Even so, some programmers warned their bosses that this shortcut could have unintended consequences at the turn of the century. Meanwhile, managers scoffed, happy to save the two digits of space, confident that the systems they were designing would be replaced by more modern hardware and software at some point in the future.

When I first heard about the so-called Millennium Bug, or "Y2K," as it is known, even I thought it would turn out to be a funny little quirk that would be little more than a ripple in the ebb and flow of history.

The more I've learned, however, the more it's appearing to closer resemble a tidal wave. The August 1998 issue of Wired includes an article titled "The Y2K Solution: Run For Your Lives" that reports on the plans of several disparate computer systems analysts who have come to the same conclusion:

Y2K will be a catastrophic event, causing long-term shutdowns of much of the nation's-and the world's-existing infrastructure. To prepare for this cataclysm, these doomsayers are hunkering down in remote and well-defended shelters, learning about leather tanning, solar power and emergency medical procedures.

What those early bosses didn't realize was that rather than replacing those legacy systems, information technology teams would build on top of them. A few worst-case scenarios, not entirely implausible, are a useful illustration:

  • Pagers, cell phones, navigation equipment, national security networks, radio and television signals, and the big telephone companies all rely heavily on thousands of orbiting satellites cluttering up the sky. As the delicate algorithms which make the satellites work suddenly sense they've dropped 100 years into the past, they could all fail.

    (And as their internal navigational equipment malfunctions, they may all come crashing down.)

  • Immense billing systems at Allstate, Citibank, the Internal Revenue Service and the like contain billions of lines of code, all of which needs to be inventoried, categorized, reviewed and repaired. Unum Life Insurance Company of America got a brief whiff of the Y2K bug in 1995; 700 clients were automatically deleted when the billing software determined that their accounts expired a century earlier.

  • There are four highly complex and mostly independent systems for distributing electric power in North America. The flow of electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants to your doorstep is governed by highly sensitive and complex computers. These systems have safeguards which attempt to prevent a domino-effect multiple failure, but it is not known whether these precautions could handle the failure of multiple systems simultaneously.

    (Montana Power's website says that "it is not currently possible to estimate the overall cost of any required modifications." Nor can the company "estimate the potentially adverse consequences" that could result from other entities' failing to adequately address the Y2K issue.)

  • The problem of elevators has become rather a famous example. I talked to a freelance software engineer currently working on a Y2K solution for the DataFlex programming language, and he explained it like this:

    Most elevators have embedded processors. Some systems have fail-safe modes that demand that the elevator get inspected every 90 days or so. If the elevator senses it hasn't been inspected in that many days, it goes into a fail safe mode where it goes to the ground floor, opens the doors and disables itself. If, on January 1, 2000, the elevator senses that it hasn't been inspected in 100 years, that fail safe mode may kick in.

That's a seemingly minor glitch until you consider the ubiquity of these chips. Sure, it's no big deal if your VCR coughs when the year rolls over, but what if traffic lights die? Or air traffic control?

Is all this doom and gloom based on likely events? Maybe.

The solution is fairly straightforward. Read through trillions of lines of code in millions of diverse computer systems, and repair noncompliant subroutines.

Are there enough days and enough programmers to accomplish this task? Some, such as Gary North, a historian who maintains the Y2K site, say there's not a chance. Others, such as public relations spokespersons for government and industry, assure us that the important systems will be repaired in the nick of time.

If there's one thing I have faith in more than any other, it's that the military industrial complex has the resources and the will to keep itself going. A systems administrator at a major military contractor with whom I spoke agreed. He told, me that, at the very least, "if [the military] can't make the systems compliant, they'll spend the money to port to compliant platforms...."

Where both the systems administrator and the Dataflex programmer agree is that the people in the U.S. who will be hit the hardest by the Y2K bug are the small to medium sized businesses running custom software. They both predict that as billing, shipping, and payroll systems fail, many such businesses will be forced to revert to manual methods, and may go bankrupt as a result.

We shall see.

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