The Blog

THE YEAR 2000 CRISIS

12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By LAWRENCE J. SISKIND
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The governments and major corporations of this interdependent world understand that they will sink or swim together through this trial. An entity with Year-2000-compliant software will still face ruin if its customers, suppliers, or distributors are unable to operate the software. To avert, or at least minimize, the disaster, governments and companies are pooling information on how to rework and rewrite their systems. Much of the information-sharing takes place on an Internet site named "y2k." This titanic exercise in global cooperation among so many disparate and often competing entities brings to mind the rallying of the world's surviving air forces for the final coordinated battle in the movie Independence Day.


The progression of the calendar is as regular and incorrigible as an undoctored odometer. It doesn't take a village to teach a child that Tuesday follows Monday, that July follows June, and that the Year 2000 follows the Year 1999.


That being so, why all this frenzy? How did so much software containing such patent shortcomings get into so many hands so near to the date of obsolescence?


When the first primitive computer programs went into operation to handle payroll in the 1950s, the date problem seemed understandable. No one expected these programs to be running in 2000. But as the years progressed, and as the turn of the century drew nearer, why did code writers continue to incorporate the twodigit date field? Why, in the face of imminent inevitable failure, did the computer industry continue for so long its march of folly?


A number of explanations are circulating. One is that the industry is long on code writers and short on code designers. The writers, sometimes called " techno-twits," tend to focus on the narrow problem at hand, without regard for the overall structure of the system. One expert has analogized the industry to pre1600 Europe, when bridges and even cathedrals were constructed by craftsmen working without plans. Some of those bridges and cathedrals stood for a long time. Most did not.


Another explanation arises from the special time pressures on the computer business. There is usually an immediate need to get a system up and running, coupled with an understanding that there will be plenty of time down the road for refinement and corrections.


A third explanation deals with the pace of computer-technology innovation. Hardware and software have improved so rapidly over the past generation that no one expects his product to last long. Even as the window of time has narrowed, programmers still could not believe that their handiwork would be around in 2000. Adapting Lord Keynes's axiom to the computer industry, they believed that in the long run we'd all be updated.


All these explanations share a common element: remarkable shortsightedness. The crisis has not developed in secrecy. The inherent flaws of the two-digit date field were public knowledge from the beginning. But all the parties involved -- and that includes not only the designers and writers, but also their corporate and government customers -- seemed constitutionally incapable of viewing the situation beyond the range of the moment. Behaviorists are familiar with the phenomenon known as mass hysteria. The Year 2000 crisis has followed a period of mass myopia.


This myopia has other consequences in the industry. One program designer contends that the Year 2000 problem is not unique. It is one of many widespread program flaws, charmingly known in the trade as "cluster-f--s." He points to the upcoming exhaustion of available Internet Protocol addresses (we will run out by 2009) as another example.


More significantly, the myopia is not confined to the computer industry. We are approaching other collisions with shortsightedness in Social Security, Medicare, education, and other public matters. They may not occur as soon. The Social Security trust fund will not run out until 2029, according to the bipartisan commission that "fixed" the problem. But these collisions, these social cluster-f--s, will occur. We approach them with our eyes wide open, knowing that disaster is inevitable if we do not change course -- and yet we do not change course.


The Year 2000 crisis is not so much technological as it is cultural. It is the product of a generation incapable of vision beyond the range of the moment, a generation endlessly encouraged to "Just Do It." A generation whose object is immediate gratification, and whose slogan is: The Future is Not.