What kind of critter is this "Millennium Bug" anyway? | TahoeDailyTribune.com

What kind of critter is this "Millennium Bug" anyway?

So it’s the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 2000. You run over to the local ATM and insert your bank card. You request $60.

“I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that.”

Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, who collaborated on the script for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” foresaw the day when a computer system might malfunction and take control over the humans it was built to serve. But what passed as science fiction in 1968 is looking more like science fact in 1999, as corporations, small businesses and government agencies scramble to defuse the dreaded Millennium Bug.

Ah yes, “Y2K.” It has become our catchword for impending disaster – responsible for more panic and general gnashing of teeth than killer bees, giant hurtling asteroids and Legionnaires Disease combined.

Hal 9000, the wayward computer in Kubrick’s masterpiece, simply refused to open the pod bay doors – leaving Discovery astronaut Dave Bowman hung out to dry in deep space.

But that’s nothing, according to various Y2K pundits. When the year 2000 rolls around, say some, be prepared for power systems failing, jet airliners falling from the sky, the Federal Reserve collapsing and, heck, the end of civilization as we know it.

Many real technology experts indicate, however, that none of that will actually happen. Or at least they’re pretty sure …

“The thing is, nobody is really sure what could happen,” said Tom Oleson, Y2K Research Director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. “The chances of catastrophic failure in critical computer systems is small. But the thing is, we don’t really know until that clock ticks over.

“I wouldn’t start stockpiling provisions, though.”

What is Y2K? It goes back to the early 1970s, when computers were as big as automobiles and data was fed to them with punch cards. Early programmers – most long since retired or unavailable to help sort out the current mess – eliminated the first two digits of the year to save space, not foreseeing the day, as Kubrick did, when the computers would find a way to “seek revenge.”

So for many computers which have not yet been fixed, the date “2000” will simply read “00,” causing some systems to read the date as “1900.”

The potential failure of systems which rely on self-maintenence checks has sent much of modern society into a frenzy. Most technology sectors have taken steps to comply, some beginning as early as 1995. The cost has been high – the world’s airlines will spend approximately $1.6 billion to eradicate the bug, and some estimates put the total cost of fixing the Y2K problem worldwide at $1.4 trillion.

“While we can’t really predict what the initial problems will be, I wouldn’t expect major disasters,” said Bill Thorpe, a Y2K troubleshooter based in Placerville who does possibility resource consulting for El Dorado County. “The problems will probably be of less dynamic nature (than what you hear about).”

Thorpe sees Y2K as a sort of mythical dragon. While we build walls to keep the imagined dragon out, real problems could hurt us from within.

“At last count there were about 42,000 Y2K Internet sites,” he said. “When I cruise the Internet, I find sites in two main categories, computer program fixes and survival supplies. There’s nothing about community responses to this.

“We’re failing to deal with this on a basic level. You probably won’t see banks failing because of this. What you are more likely to see are things like your social security check not arriving on time, or longer lines at the DMV. Are we ready for short power outages? If you are living check-to-check, do you have a little money on hand to tide you over, if there’s a delay with your paycheck? It’s the low income families, the elderly and the people who rely on the government computer infrastructure who are most at risk.”

But in this, the X-Files generation, we are willing to believe the worst – creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think people aren’t going nuts over this, then how about the predictions that include the Millennial debut of none other than Satan himself?

There are several Christian Web sites which claim that prayer is the best weapon against the Y2K menace. Many are using the Millennium Bug as an excuse to predict, yet again, the end of the world.

The reality is most likely much more pedestrian. But …

“With our electronic infrastructure, we are not even fully aware of what could break down,” Thorpe said. “It’s like the thing we had not too long ago with the pagers. One satellite went down, and pagers went out all over the country.

“We’ll probably see a lot of problems, mostly minor ones, for the next 20 years or so. It’s like when we built our railroad and telegraph infrastructure at the turn of the century. There were tremendous breakdowns … it took until about the 1920s or so until the railroads were completely reliable.

“We’re kind of in the same boat now. Only it won’t all happen at once, and it won’t be as bad as people think.”

Next: Telecommunications. Will you be able to phone home in 2000?

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