10 years ago I was – like many other information industry professionals – nervously counting down to Y2K. The Year 2000 Problem / Y2K entry at Wikipedia has a good overview of the issue. While it seems looking back as if the problem was overblown, this retrospective on the legacy of Y2K from American Radio quotes David Eddy (the guy who coined Y2K) as saying that while most civilians believe that the whole Y2K thing was a hoax, the real reason nothing bad happened was that so many people put so much hard work into it. John Koskinen, President Clinton’s czar in charge of overseeing Y2K fixes, echoed that:
“The only way to be a hero,” says Koskinen, “would be for half the world to stop and then somehow get it started again which was not one of our goals. Like a lot of things in government, if it works well nobody cares much.”
Koskinen points to evidence that the fix was needed. Some computers that didn’t get fixed stopped working on New Year’s Day. He says some of those glitches would normally have been big news, but since people were expecting the end of the world, they didn’t seem like that big a deal. Koskinen was in the Y2K nerve center in Washington, D.C. that night, monitoring systems all over the world. He says the public doesn’t realize how many things went wrong.
Koskinen describes the scene as he saw it unfurl. “The low level wind shear detectors at every major airport go out at 7:00 on Friday night, the defense intelligence satellite system goes down, the French intelligence satellite goes down, the Japanese lose the ability to monitor a couple of their nuclear power plants, and come Monday morning, there are thousands of businesses that when you buy something with your credit card charge you every day of the week”
But in the end, most major business and government computers did get fixed. In fact, so few things went wrong that after Y2K, some businesspeople complained that the money they spent was wasted. But Business Week chief economist Michael Mandel disagrees. He says Y2K forced business to make upgrades that they’re still using. “If you look at the Y2K,” says Mandel, “you can sort of say, ‘Maybe we didn’t have to be so wired up about it.’ But the fact is, it may have been the right thing to do from a social and economic point of view.”
You can also read Y2K COMPUTER BUG — THE YAWN OF A NEW MILLENNIUM by Ben Best for more about the techno-apocalypse that wasn’t.
Looking back, I wish that I could have had some of the many hours of meetings with clients and local government officials back, but in the end I pretty much agree that Y2K did a lot of good by pointing out to people how dependent we are on those low-level computer systems. Happy Y2K + 10 and here’s a little video about what didn’t happen: