The truth behind the Year 2000 story

By Nicholas Zvegintzov


What is the truth behind the Year 2000 computer doomsday story?

The doomsday story says that many, most, or all computers will fail on or about January 1, 2000 because they count years in two digits ("98" for 1998), and when the year reaches 00 they will fail. The story also says that this is the biggest problem and the biggest public danger in the history of computing, that all the world's resources will barely be sufficient to avert it, and that it will cost trillions of dollars world-wide.

Is this story for real? If it isn't, how could it take hold and appear in every medium -- in computer and financial and business magazines, in daily newspapers, in _Newsweek_ and _People_ and supermarket tabloids, on countless TV programs? How could it influence millions of people, decision-makers, legislators, commentators, and people in the street? And if the true story is not dangerous, could the false one be?

It is real and it isn't real. There is a real Year 2000 problem, but there is also hype, exaggeration, alarmism, ignorance, and deliberately misleading promotion.

First -- the kernel of reality.
Yes -- some computer software represents years with two digits.
Yes -- this could cause trouble if the software does not interpret
these two digits right.
Yes -- it is wise for every organization to check its computer
software for this trouble and correct it.
Yes -- it's a big job.

But does this add up to the biggest problem and the biggest public danger in the history of computing?
No -- much computer software does not represent years with two digits, but uses four digits or entirely different ways of representing dates.
No -- much computer software interprets two-digit years perfectly well. If you are not confused because your driver's license expires in 01, why should a computer be confused?
No -- because organizations are checking their software and correcting them.
No -- it's a big job on a small problem. It's big job only because computer software is a big industry, and it has big resources to use on this small problem.

The truth is that January 1, 2000 will come and go, and the world and its computers will go on working about as well as before, with perhaps a few minor mishaps, and you will find yourself wondering what the big excitement was about.

But if this is so, why are we living through this doomsday hype before January 1, 2000? What is fuelling the computer doomsday machine?

Like a spring flood-tide, when sun and moon pull in the same direction, several forces conspire to make the Year 2000 computer problem an irresistible story.

First, it is a real problem. No responsible software professional would say that the problem of the two-digit years could not happen or has never happened.

Second, organizations must take prudent precautions. No responsible software decision-maker would not put resources into checking and correcting.

Third, there is a lot of computer software to check. Software underlies everything in our computerized society -- business, industry, government, communications, travel, entertainment, all kinds of machinery, all kinds of common devices.

These are the rational sources of concern. Next, there are three less rational reasons that keep the story bubbling.

Fourth, the problem with two-digit dates is a software problem, perhaps the only one, that is readily understood by lay people and by managers. The vast majority of software failures, from last year's explosion of an Ariane space rocket to daily freezes of a desktop computer system, arise from problems which are complex, elusive, hard to diagnose, and almost impossible to explain to lay people. Thus the Year 2000 problem is a hugely popular exception-- the software problem that everyone understands.

Fifth, the very mysteriousness of software, and our dependance on it, causes anxiety. To be dependant on something that you cannot understand is frightening. The idea that all of software is vulnerable to a characteristic flaw concentrates this fear and seems to give it body.

Sixth, the Year 2000 problem is neatly attached to the most memorable date and time for the next or the last thousand years. Even the word "millennium" carries with it overtones of unreal hope
and mysterious dread.

Finally, with powerful motivations, rational and irrational, driving the movement, it is inevitable that there will appear the most powerful motivator of all -- money. With so much public concern about the issue, with managerial, financial, political, and legal pressure, major resources are being budgeted. Software managers are happy to press for special budgets, because, though
they may be skeptical of the problem as understood by the public and though their systems may show little exposure to the problem, in the course of looking for bad dates they have an opportunity to examine and strengthen their systems against other problems, less blatant but more real. Software suppliers and service vendors lobby and advertise in their hundreds for the business. And the same wily lawyers who can ramp up a $100 sprained finger into a $1,000,000 disability promote this into a $1.6 trillion worldwide cataclysm.

But after January 1, 2000, when computers do not fail and the world does not come to an end, will the Year 2000 hysteria have done mischief?

To some extent, serious projects that need to be carried forward will have been shunted aside and postponed. Software professionals, whose skill and dedication and hard work have made software the universal workhorse that we all rely on, will be unfairly ridiculed as irresponsible blunderers who couldn't predict that 2000 would come after 1999. But, on the other hand, software will have had a dose of attention to safety and reliability that will pay off in the future. And in the end everyone will take credit for averting the worldwide Year 2000 computer disaster, the software profession that did the unsung work, and the purveyors of hysteria and hype for their shrill warnings.


16 Feb 1998

Copyright 1988 Nicholas Zvegintzov

Nicholas Zvegintzov
Software Management Network
141 Saint Marks Place, Suite 5F
Staten Island NY 10301 USA
telephone +1-718-816-5522
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