Y2K and COVID-19

People know what Y2K was about, but often I feel like they don’t actually understand the problem. You ask them what Y2K is and they’ll say “computers used two digit dates and so it would think 00 was 1900 instead of 2000.” This is, of course, correct, but it is simple and leads people to think computers would be showing “11:59:59 PM 12/31/1999” and the next second would have “00:00:00 AM 1/1/1900” and everything blows up. But that wasn’t true.

The issue, usually, was with storage, not calculation. A clock is calculating time. It’s adding a second to the time on a set cycle. Time + 1, wait, Time + 1, wait, Time + 1, wait… And in calculation, there wasn’t often a Y2K bug. The real Y2K bug was when something would take that timestamp and write it to a file or database, and then it would read it back out. The program would take “06:32:15 AM 4/9/2000” and write it to the file, storing only the “00” of the year. Then later, minutes, hours, maybe even months later, the program would read the file, take the “00” and process it, using a hard-coded “19” to append to the front and come up with “06:32:15 AM 4/9/1900”, which might then play havoc with a bunch of other functions, like maybe one that asks “How overdue is this item?” If the date had been initiated properly, maybe it’s only a few days old, but with the bug it’s over 100 years past due.

But, we (people in the tech industry) knew this might happen. The people who wrote some of these “bad” programs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, understood the issue, but in many cases they just figured “This software will be replaced before then, and surely those programmers will fix it.” But the software “works” so it’s never in the budget to replace it, a decade goes by and suddenly a decision made many years before becomes a problem as 2000 approaches.

It was also in the hardware, the firmware on that hardware. A machine could run just fine across the 1999-to-2000 line, because that’s calculation, but if it was shut down for any reason, or lost power, the bootstrapping methods in the BIOS of the computer might come back up in 1900, which would mess up every program that relied on the “system time”.

But all this is just to say that we saw the problem coming, and if we did nothing, then it would have been bad. We didn’t do “nothing” though. Companies spent a lot of time and money fixing it. From my personal experience, the rollover to Y2K was spent in an office on a conference call, watching systems roll over to the year 2000, then running diagnostic tests to assure that the write-to-file-then-read-from-file type problems had been resolved. Which they had been. Due to all the time and effort put in.

From outside the tech industry, though, it might seem like Y2K was “no big deal”. The world didn’t explode. Economies didn’t collapse. Everything just kept working, just like it had the day before. And unfortunately this leads to people talking about the “Y2K hype” and feeling like it was some kind of hoax and we would have been fine.

We wouldn’t have.

Here we are, twenty years past Y2K, and the US was faced with another problem. We saw it coming. We’ve had outbreaks of other illnesses before, and we responded to them. And here is this new virus, novel as they say, in China, and people are getting sick and it seems to spread pretty quickly.

I think back to Y2K and try to imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t done any of the work, if we hadn’t spent any of the money. What if Y2K came and we hadn’t been ready. What if, one by one, computer systems failed – or worse, they worked properly incorrectly, happily proceeding like 1900 was the correct year to be using in their processing. What if banks had collapsed. What if planes had fallen out of the sky.

Now it’s 2020, a full three years into the current presidency, one which has named the media and experts as enemies of the people. And because of all the times I’ve thought about what might have happened if our response to the oncoming Y2K had been nothing, I haven’t been surprised by what has happened since this administration’s response to COVID-19 has been to do nothing. And yet, even as we stand in the midst of more spikes and sickness and death, there are people saying it’s a hoax, that it’s hype.

With Y2K, I think one of the main reasons that we had so much investment into beating it was that a clear case was made that the bug would affect banks. Money would fail if we didn’t fix the problem. Stories about traffic lights or medical equipment failing and people being hurt didn’t move the needle. But telling the bankers that their banks would fail, that the stock market would fail, that all digital records would fail… that motivated getting it fixed. But with COVID-19, it was always painted as human cost. “People will die,” they said. And those with money didn’t care. Their money was safe. Even when the stock market faltered, they told themselves that the illness would pass, people would die, and then we’d move on. Just keep your money invested, it will recover. You’ll get it back.

You can hear them beating that drum. We have to get back to work. Kids need to get back to school (so that parents can work). We need the economy to get back on track. We need to recover the value that was lost.

The lives that are lost mean nothing to them.

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