Remember Y2K

26th June 2018

Steven Pinker writes:

In the 1990s, as the turn of the millennium drew near, computer scientists began to warn the world of an impending catastrophe. In the early decades of computing when information was expensive, programmers often saved a couple of bytes by representing a year by its last two digits. They figured that by the time the year 2000 came around and the implicit “19” was no longer valid, the programs would be long obsolete. But complicated software is replaced slowly and many old programs were still running on institutional mainframes and embedded chips. When 12:00am on January 1, 2000 arrived and the digits rolled over, a program would think it was 1900 and would crash or go haywire.

Dire warnings were published around the world and much was spent in dollar terms and in time spent by many trying to be a step ahead of this event.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell declared, “I believe that Y2K may be God’s instrument to shake this nation, humble this nation, awaken this nation and from this nation start revival that spreads the face of the earth before the Rapture of the CHurch.” A hundred billion dollars was spent worldwide on reprogramming software for Y2K Readiness, a challenge that was likened to replacing every bolt in every bridge in the world.

And what happened?

As a former assembly language programmer I was sceptical of the doomsday scenarios, and fortuitously I was in New Zealand, the first country to welcome the new millennium, at the fateful moment. Sure enough, at 12:00am on January 1, nothing happened….. The Y2K reprogrammers, like the elephant-repellent salesman, took credit for averting disaster, but many countries and small businesses had taken their chances without any Y2K preparation, and they had no problems either.

The Great Y2K Panic does not mean that all warnings of potential catastrophes are false alarms, but it reminds us that we are vulnerable to techno-apocalyptic delusions.

Perhaps we could do well to remember this.

Thanks to Stephen Pinker

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