THE TIMES: "The bug that never was" : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Meanwhile, the data errors silently accumulate...

January 6 2000


Who says you can't fool all of the people all of the time?

The bug that never was

So how does it feel, sucker? You and I have just fallen for the biggest confidence trick in history - and I certainly don't like the feeling. No, I do not mean the pedantic argument about whether the new millennium really begins in 2001 or 2000. Nor do I mean the embarrassing vulgarity of the Millennium Dome - although I would feel much angrier about this waste of #750 million of public money if I were an NHS patient waiting in pain for a hip operation, or a university lecturer denied a decent pay increase on the ground that the Government "can't afford it".

No, even the Dome fiasco pales into insignificance beside the greatest example of human gullibility in our lifetimes: the quixotic battle against a non-existent millennium bug, a campaign that has cost the world's taxpayers, workers and shareholders a staggering $400 billion, equivalent roughly to the entire gross domestic product of a medium-size European country such as The Netherlands.

Let us look at that figure, which comes from Tuesday's Financial Times, in another perspective. Let us compare it, for example, with the money spent on some of the charitable causes that many people have had on their minds around Christmas and the millennium. The global total spent on the bug is five times the amount required to write off completely the debts crushing all the world's developing countries. It is roughly ten times the amount spent on cancer research by governments and charities the world over.

Then consider the matter from a purely British perspective. Britain is estimated to have spent about #20 billion on the bug - considerably more in relation to its GDP than other European countries. That is roughly half what the Government spends annually on education or the National Health Service. It is roughly 15 times the Government's annual spending on science. To be fair, the one-off sum spent on exterminating the imaginary bug should not be compared with an annual stream of money going into health, education or science. So let us suppose that the #20 billion wasted on the bug had instead been spent on setting up a permanent endowment to promote British science and technology. The income from such an endowment, assuming an annual return of 5 per cent in real terms, would have been sufficient to increase spending on British science by an inflation-adjusted #1 billion a year in perpetuity.

Of course, the computer industry apologists have two excuses for all this astonishing expenditure. It was impossible to know in advance that computers would not crash, traffic lights would not stop working and planes would not fall out of the sky in those fateful millennium seconds. And, who knows, Y2K might really have been a disaster if all the money had not been spent.

The second of these arguments, is completely untenable - even though it has been repeated endlessly this week by computer industry apologists from Bill Gates downwards. Now that the millennium has passed without incident, it really is possible to assert with scientific confidence that the costly preparations undertaken in Britain and the United States were unnecessary. This can be stated with certainty because this was an instance of that rare case in history - a genuine controlled experiment.

While Britain and America spent tens of billions tracking and exterminating supposed computer bugs, many other countries largely ignored the millennium scare. Russia spent next to nothing, yet its power stations did not blow up, its planes did not crash (at least no more than usual) and its banks did not cease to function. The same was true across most of Africa, Latin America and even in the relatively advanced emerging economies of Asia, such as Korea and Thailand, which were too preoccupied in dealing with their recent financial and economic crises to worry much about the millennium bug. These countries' trouble-free experiences prove that the Y2K preparations were unnecessary - at least with the benefit of hindsight.

Even the chairman of Britain's Taskforce 2000, Robin Guenier, was frank enough to make this point in an interview on Monday: "I think people like the Italians, who spent very little on Y2K, are quite right to ask what it was all about. If British Telecom spent #400 million and Telecom Italia next to nothing, questions will have to be asked."

Hindsight is all very well, but what about the apologists' first defence - that it was simply impossible to predict in advance whether the bug would strike? This is, in a sense, undeniable. Nothing is ever knowable for certain, especially about the future. Nobody can say for sure that Mars is not inhabited by little green creatures with pointy ears, at least until we go up there and have a good look around. In dealing with uncertain future problems, three questions have to be asked. How much damage might be done? How likely is this to happen? And how do the costs of averting the damage compare with the possible costs of suffering the problem if it should strike?

In many of the Y2K assessments, at least in Britain, none of these questions was asked - or, if they were asked, the answers seemed to be ignored. Had the probabilities and the costs and benefits been properly weighed, then the Y2K preparations would surely have been much more narrowly focused. Obviously the risks to air traffic control systems, life support machines and nuclear reactors could not be ignored even if the chances of failure were tiny. But would temporary glitches in ordinary manufacturing processes or financial transactions really have been so catastrophic as to justify the immense preventive measures undertaken in the past two years? With hindsight the answer is obviously negative.

The most astonishing aspect of the whole Y2K hysteria was that nobody was ever called upon to explain what harm the millennium bug might actually do to human life or Western civilisation. At first, in fact, most people including businessmen and politicians treated most of the Y2K "disaster scenarios" about failing traffic lights and 100-year life insurance premiums largely as a joke. But as time went on, these scenarios were taken more seriously - not because anyone was able to show that a few traffic lights failing or a few erroneous bank transactions would amount to a national catastrophe, but for a much more interesting reason. People started taking Y2K seriously because so many others seemed to be taking it seriously. They worried about the bug because everyone else did.

To question the bug's existence or its seriousness was to risk appearing an ignorant fool. In other words, the millennium bug became a classic example of mass hysteria, a case of the emperor's new clothes.

Therein, I think, lies the chief political interest and possible long-term significance of the whole Y2K debacle. The bug may remind us how easy it is for whole societies to descend into crowd psychology and how costly the consequences of such mass hysteria can be. It illustrates how easily pseudo-science can deceive businessmen and officials (especially in a society such as Britain where the ruling class is notoriously ignorant of technology and science). The critical faculties of tight-fisted finance directors and Treasury ministers are no match for technological mumbo-jumbo.

The good news may be that the Y2K experience could make societies more serious in assessing technological risks rather than succumbing to all-or-nothing reactions. The hope would be more measured reactions to relatively minor and controllable risks such as BSE and genetically modified foods. But the danger is that politicians and public commentators may become even more reckless about genuinely catastrophic dangers such as global warming.

The best news of all may be that the billions wasted on Y2K may help to inoculate businessmen and politicians against the future blandishments of the computer industry's technological hucksters. If the millennium bug triggers a backlash against demands for unnecessary investments in upgrades and new versions of software, it could even save government and business resources.

If you are a government minister or a company director and your computer department informs you that you must "invest" millions in a new version of Windows or risk corporate catastrophe, you now know what to answer: "Isn't that exactly what you said about the millennium bug?"

And the best answer to this guest Opinion piece in THE TIMES, of course, is THE TIMES' own editorial of yesterday...

Subject: THE TIMES - editorial: "THE BUG NEXT TIME: Those little monsters still lurking to strike" - 'the worst is still to come' and 'what other insurance allows you to eat your own premium afterwards'

January 5 2000

The Times, London

Those little monsters still lurking to strike

The planes are still flying. Traffic lights are changing. Water flows from the tap. Bank balances show the usual overdrafts. It is already five days since all the clocks clicked round to zero, and the dreaded millennium bug has so far barely shown its feelers. Is this because the world spent an estimated #400 billion on its eradication? Or is it because the bug was never as voracious as the prophets of chaos forecast? Already the cry has gone up that the world has been hoodwinked; that the computer industry created a monster so that it could spend billions taming it. By no means, the boffins reply: the dreaded bug may still lurk in the woodwork, gnawing through our systems.

So far, miraculously, none of the 890 satellites whirling across the heavens has run amok. Russia's ageing nuclear reactors, as unsafe as any technology could be, have not been tripped into meltdown. Italy, which spent a mere #100 million on examining its computers, was not carried away on a cloud of optimism - although some prisoners did discover, inconveniently, that a century had mistakenly been added to their sentences.

The problem was, in truth, never solely the witching hour of midnight 2000. Most systems that govern our daily lives are relatively simple, and the chips were not buried deep in inaccessible technological crevices. Taskforce 2000, the Cassandras who have spent three years warning the world of disaster, estimated that only 5 per cent of difficulties would reveal themselves immediately. There may be more than a hint of disappointment beneath the expressions of relief from the bug-catchers. But, they insist, the worst is still to come.

Around 80 per cent of all the glitches will probably come in the next three months as payments and transactions fall due. Britain, like many Western nations, awakes today from its winter sleep, and as millions of computers are switched on some may offer a peculiar response. Margaret Beckett, charged by the Government with technological insecticide, is not dropping her guard. Nor are those who have taken extreme measures, hoarding food and buying generators. They argue that, like fire insurance, the cost cannot be written off as waste simply because there was no fire. They may find it tiresome to consume six weeks' worth of emergency provisions. But what other insurance allows you to eat your own premium afterwards?


-- John Whitley (, January 06, 2000


As I have said before and will keep saying, Not to worry about those billions of billions because they are more than likely safely salted away in secret accounts all over the world. I am unable to prove that, however I know human nature. We have been bilked big time, and we will all as one people feel it at tax time.

-- Notforlong (, January 06, 2000.

I can't work out whether this is a balanced approach, or a confused and cynical attempt to broader their readership by pressing people's buttons with uninformed ranting.

Oops, my mistake, I can work it out. ;)

-- Servant (, January 06, 2000.

The only people being bilked or duped at this point are the one's believing the "Y2K was no problem" BS. Many, many failures most of which may be quickly fixable-some not, are happening everywhere. Wait until the big enterprise legacy systems have to start making sense of the millions of transactions with bad data at the end of the week/month.

-- gomer (, January 06, 2000.

An excellent post. And the good part is, you can post it AGAIN down the road to point out to the doomsaying diehards that even AFTER the evidence was presented to them that Y2K was not TEOTWAWKI, they still clung to their position that it would bring doom REAL SOON NOW. This last category of diehards should be the most embarrassed in the long run.

I'll say it again: Y2K is only a bomb if all the powder blows up at once--spread over time it's skin burns.

-- Jim Thompson (, January 06, 2000.

This opinion's summary of the great implications of the Y2K "ruse" is how easily a society can fall into "crowd psychology." The truth is, Y2K was a catalyst for individuals to ASCEND out of crowd psychology. Most people live in a perpetual state of suspended judgment, following the flow, never stopping to consider if the wave they are caught up in is what they truly intended for their lives.

Y2K was a pause for the incessant rush of the world's mob of humanity. It was a moment to ponder the ultimate question for a man, should I consider everything going on around me and take what I consider the most appropriate action, or should I just continue "doing my part" and leave the responsibility for any long-term effects to the "authorities."

-- David Wojcik (, January 06, 2000.

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