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Explaining the great Y2K bust
Wednesday, January 5, 2000
'It may be the biggest problem that the world has ever faced," expert Gary North once wrote of the Y2K computer bug. "At midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, most of the world's mainframe computers will either shut down or begin spewing out bad data. . . . This will create a nightmare for every area of life, in every region of the industrialized world."
Well, not quite. Y2K has come and gone with nary a sign of the threatened catastrophe. Stock markets kept running, the lights kept burning and planes failed to drop out of the sky. Apart from the occasional glitch -- such as the computer at an Albany, N.Y., video store that charged a customer a $91,250 (U.S.) late fee when it decided his video was 100 years overdue -- life went on pretty much as normal. In the immortal words of Monty Python: Suddenly, nothing happened!
Ah, but never mind. Y2K cultists have an explanation for what one New York tabloid called The Yawn of a New Era. Two explanations, actually.
Explanation 1: Just because it didn't happen on New Year's doesn't mean it never will. Edward Yourdon, the American consultant whose book Time Bomb 2000 helped set off the Y2K scare, says there is still plenty of time for computers to fail as people return to the office from the holidays and start turning their machines back on. "It is possible that bugs will manifest themselves in coming days and weeks," he told The New York Times hopefully. Programmer Lane Core agrees. As he once wrote in his Internet column: "Y2K is not a one-time event. It's a chronic condition."
Explanation 2: It didn't happen because we prevented it from happening. Keen to justify the billions they spent trying to avert the imagined apocalypse, governments around the world were patting themselves on the back for being prepared. "That the Y2K bug didn't cause any huge problems is, I think, the result of the massive effort put in by all countries," said Zhang Qi, China's Y2K czarina.
Both explanations are hard to disprove. We won't know for days or weeks whether Y2K bugs will manifest themselves in days or weeks. As we pundits like to say, only time will tell. Or as Mr. Yourdon says, "Either there will be a lot of Y2K problems, and I will make a tremendous living as an expert witness in the next year or two. Or, if it turns out, a month from now, that there never were any serious problems, I may have to eat my words, publicly and with great embarrassment." It should be quite a feast.
Similarly, we won't ever really know whether all those Y2K billions were well spent, or a total waste. We know the Maginot Line was a waste of money because the Germans went around it. We don't know if the all those hundreds of billions that the West spent on nuclear missiles during the Cold War saved us from a Soviet nuclear attack, because the attack never came. Its effect was as a deterrent. You could argue that the Y2K billions had the same effect.
Clearly, something had to be done about Y2K. With millions of computers programmed not to recognize the digits in the year 2000, the potential for trouble was there. But did the threat justify the thundering hype and the enormous cost? Ottawa alone spent $2.5-billion and employed upward of 11,000 people to prepare for Y2K. Estimates of the amount spent around the world range from $200-billion (U.S.) to three times that much. What's $200-billion? Well, for instance, it's four times the amount that all of the rich countries in the world give to the poor countries in development aid every year.
When something like Y2K comes along, the role of governments is to determine the seriousness of the threat and respond proportionately. Is the threat so serious that we should divert scarce money from other priorities -- AIDS research, the fight against homelessness, the world's poor? Instead, governments simply joined the Y2K hysteria.
That hysteria was typical of this skittish, self-absorbed age. People in the world's wealthy nations fear a host of mythical horrors, from lead in their venetian blinds to the insulation in their ceilings to mad-cow disease in the their beef. The Y2K scaremongers tapped into this mood and -- hey, presto! -- a global scare was born.
Even poorer countries were not immune. The Y2K scare reached as far as Thailand, where street-food vendor Kieuthong Attaparb was so worried about Y2K that she withdrew her $2,700 (U.S.) life savings from the bank and kept the money at home over New Year's weekend. On Sunday morning, her house burned down and her savings went up in smoke.
-- John Whitley (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 05, 2000