The Bug That Didn't Bite

Billions of dollars later, Y2K is on the run. The lessons of a millennial computer scare.

Newsweek, January 10, 2000
By Steven Levy

Last week we were worrying about welcoming a new century in the dark. Now the biggest problem seems to be disposing of all that tuna fish we stocked up on. Our long anxiety that a computer breakdown would leave us powerless, thirsty and ATM-deprived on New Year's Eve has been resolved: everything kept working. While officials had been giving us fairly confident techno-forecasts for the past few months, even the wildest Y2K optimist wouldn't have dared predict such a glitch-free transition.

So glitch-free, in fact, that you couldn't blame skeptics for wondering whether the whole thing was a hype. Certainly one suspects that for Y2K specialists, the accumulating evidence that nothing had gone wrong in essential services might have seemed, let's say, an embarrassment of riches. For years they have been pounding us with dire scenarios of what might happen if we didn't reach deep into our pockets to debug our systems. So we did. The United States laid out $100 billion, the world laid out $500 billion and a formerly obscure bureaucrat named John Koskinen (who looks a little like the Monopoly guy without the moustache) became a familiar talking head. By Saturday he appeared to be a very happy czar, singing of hunky-dorys all over the globe. With no disasters to report, he offered only two-bit glitches, like an Omaha building-in-renovation whose security system got locked in an "open" position. (The Defense Department did have a temporary outage with a spook satellite, but its spokesperson also found time to mention that an Okinawa military base suffered^×oh, the horror^×a faulty cash register.)

I wonder if our bug hunters would have felt better if at least one crummy power facility had gone down in some allegedly Y2K-complacent nation. We'd been hearing that Italy, Venezuela and even Austria had been somewhat cavalier in addressing the problem^×why did they get away so easily? For a lot of us, the whole point of watching midnight celebrations around the world was the suspense factor, wondering if a millennial brownout would silence a hip-shaking samba or plunge a Kabuki dance into darkness. By the time even Newfoundland got through the danger zone, the rubbernecker factor was clearly gone. We were left feeling like someone who worked through the night to board up the windows before a hurricane, evacuated and was delighted to discover an unharmed homestead upon return^×a joy tempered by seeing that the house next door was equally pristine, when all the neighbor did was pop open a beer can and pull down the shades.

So did we overreact by spending hundreds of billions to exterminate the bug (even Bill Gates couldn't have funded the national Y2K effort)? Was it a conspiracy by the bottled-water providers? I don't think so. While it might not be so unusual for the federal government to devote billions of dollars toward fixing a problem that doesn't exist, real corporations operate on a reality principle that usually requires a reason to shell out huge sums. CEOs would have loved to ignore the problem, but their people did tests and proved that things would fall apart if the bug wasn't fixed in payroll systems, elevator programs, hospital equipment and just about everything done on a mainframe. And jokes aside, the government would have been criminally derelict if it did not do all it could to purge the bug from our weapons systems and nuke plants. Money spent to avoid loss of life is always money well spent.

What's more, the bug is far from exterminated. Experts have been saying all along that the actual turnover period would be the source of only about 10 percent of the problems. It's reasonable to expect that in the coming weeks, we'll see loads of unspectacular but annoying and sometimes costly problems in our systems^×what Y2K expert Bruce Webster calls "torment by a thousand flea bites."

Still, the story of the weekend was that the big things didn't go wrong, not in places where extraordinary effort was expended and not in places that applied some eleventh-hour Band-Aids. Nobody's come up with a good explanation why, so let me offer something unscientific but worth considering. One of the most bedeviling aspects of the Y2K problem has been getting a realistic picture of what happens when a complex system encounters an unexpected condition^×like an unaccounted-for date. In trying to fix the problem, programmers reasonably had to assume that the worst would happen: machines would shut down, or even go a bit bonkers. But sometimes our complex networks are more robust than we suspect. Friday night was a challenge for those systems: we humans had screwed things up, failing to properly anticipate that our antiquated programs would last until the millennium, and making fixes we weren't sure would work everywhere. But the machines, with our help, muddled through. In some places we may well experience a so-called degradation when underprepared systems continue to cope with an alien calendar condition. But at the crucial moment, when it really counted, the computers gave us a break.

A thousand years from now, this drama won't be repeated. By then the machines won't dare leave such important stuff to human beings. Maybe we'll have, as the late poet Richard Brautigan wrote:

a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors...
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

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