The Origins of the Year 2000 Crisis

It is common to read that the origin of the millennium bug lies in the fact that years ago computer programmers used 2-digit representations of years in dates, rather than 4-digit representations, to save memory (which was expensive in the early years of computing). Sometimes there is the suggestion that these programmers were not very bright, perhaps even negligent, since anyone could have foreseen that the year 2000 would arrive before many years had passed, and that it was not impossible (however unlikely) that software written in the 1970s would still be in use in the year 2000 (as indeed has turned out to be so).

This explanation of the cause of the problem not only is simplistic but also is incorrect and is unfair to programmers. One of the principal causes seems to have been obtuseness, not by programmers, but by their managers at IBM and at the Pentagon, as the following extracts from Robert Anson's article reveal. Although here is another case of the military screwing up when it devotes its attention to anything other than war yet there is a deeper cause (see below).

Extracts from
Robert Anson's "31.12.99"
Vanity Fair, January 1999

The one sure thing is that the wondrous machines that govern and ease our lives won't know what to do [come January 2000]. Some will freeze, electronically paralyzed; others will become imbecilic, giving idiot answers and issuing lunatic commands; still others, overwhelmed, will simply die — as will the blind faith the world has placed in them.


The global cost of putting everything right is estimated to be as much as $3.6 trillion, according to Capers Jones, author of the 1997 book The Year 2000 Software Problem. This includes lawsuits, which some expect will total $1 trillion in the United States alone. But squandered treasuries are just the beginning of the misery. Because of Y2K there are predictions of a recession matching the oil shock of 1973-74, hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies, and disruptions of government services from police protection to food inspection.


[In the 1950s and 60s,] in order to squeeze in as much information as possible [using 80-column punch cards], programmers shortened COBOL instructions whenever they could. That included dates, which were reduced from eight digits to six by lopping off the "19" from the year. A computer would thus read "311299" and know the digits stood for December 31, 1999. What a computer could not do was realize that one second after midnight on that date it would be January 1, 2000. So, in the manner of an odometer passing 99,999 miles, the numbers would roll back to "00," which a computer would interpret as 1900 — provided that the sudden loss of a hundred years didn't prevent it from functioning, period.


In 1964 ... IBM introduced its System/360 — the first "family" of computers which could use the same disk drives, printers, and peripherals, regardless of a model's size or power. The intention, [IBM founder Tom] Watson's son and successor, Tom junior, recorded in his memoirs, "was to make all other computers obsolete.... Once customers shifted to System/360 ... we knew we could keep them there for a very long time."

In achieving that goal, IBM succeeded spectacularly well, demolishing the competition and becoming the mainframe standard setter. Less gloriously, it also retained the two-digit year.


[For some programmers at that time] "... It never entered our minds that those programs would have lasted more than a few years."

A handful were more foresighted. Among them was Robert Bemer, an IBM wizard ... During the 50s, Bremer also developed a feature that permitted COBOL programmers to use either two- or four-digit year dates. A passionate proponent of the latter, in 1960 Bremer joined with 47 other industry and government specialists to come up with universally accepted computer standards. The wrangling, however, stretched out for years — too many years for the White House, which, in 1967, ordered the National Bureau of Standards to settle the matter. In so doing, the bureau was to gather input from various federal agencies, some of which were using two-digit years, others four. As a practical matter, the only opinion that counted was that of the Department of Defense, the largest computer operator on earth. For bigger-bang-for-the-buck reasons, it was unshakable on the subject of year dates: no 19s. "They wouldn't listen to anything else," says Harry White, a D.O.D. computer-code specialist and Bemer ally. "They were more occupied with ... Vietnam."

After years of losing fights, White transferred to the Standards Bureau. Hardly had he arrived when the bureau succumbed to Pentagon pressure and announced that two-digit years would become the preferred option for federal agencies, starting January 1, 1970. Hoping for presidential intervention, White and Bemer rounded up 86 technical societies and asked Richard Nixon to declare 1970 "The National Computer Year." When D.O.D. lobbying kept that appeal from reaching the Oval Office, Bemer recruited the presidential science advisor, Edward E. David, to plead the case in person. Nixon listened, then asked for help fixing his TV set. Frantic, Bemer and White beseeched private organizations to call for a voluntary four-digit-year option. But once more the Pentagon's position prevailed. Mindful of government contracts, big business went along.

Bemer was reduced to issuing caveats in obscure technical journals. "There are many horror stories about programs, working for years, that died on some significant change in the date," he wrote in the February 1979 issue of Interface Age. "Don't drop the first two digits [of the century]. The program may well fail from ambiguity in the year 2000." The reaction in some quarters, Bemer recalls, was laughter.


Nevertheless, warnings about Y2K persisted, including in a book written by an Illinois couple, Jerome and Marilyn Murray. Published in mid-1984, Computers in Crisis: How to Avert the Coming Worldwide Computer Systems Collapse had its genesis on a day when Mrs. Murray ... keyed in an annuity due after 2000, at which point the computer spat back "1900," then reams of gibberish. ... Predicting "domestic and international chaos" if someone didn't come up with [a solution], the Murrays wrote in their foreword: "We have placed our confidence, physical and economic well-being, and future hope in the development of a technology now seen to be fatally flawed through collective human oversight. What have we done? What will we do?"


Two years later, in South Africa, a programmer named Chris Anderson started asking himself the same questions. The answers he came up with were sufficiently alarming that he took out a magazine ad — "The Timebomb in Your IBM Mainframe System." Big Blue responded: "IBM and other vendors have known about this for many years. This problem is fully understood by IBM's software developers, who anticipate no difficulty in programming around it."

But with every new computer — 62 million of which were in use in the U.S. by 1991 — the scale of the problem increased. So, too, did the complexity of fixing it.


But in the name of "downsizing" and "productivity," computers were increasingly running everything. And how they ran never stopped changing, as business kept demanding better, faster, cheaper thises and thats. In the rush, no one bothered to get rid of [the] COBOL core. Instead, revisions were piled on top of it, layer upon layer, until a system containing hundreds of millions of records could have thousands of levels, constructed by hundreds of different programmers — each of whom had his own way of doing things.


As the Reagan era drew to a close [in the late 1980s], few even knew that a problem existed. Bemer had retired in 1982 ... Harry White continued to press old co-workers at the Standards Bureau. They were sympathetic, but did nothing. "No one wanted to step up to the plate," says White. "It wasn't politically expedient."

See also Chris Taylor's The History And The Hype

"Not politically expedient." Don't rock the boat. Cover your ass. Don't make waves. Go along with what your peers believe. Above all — don't threaten the company's bottom line. This is an attitude which may be personally beneficial in the short run, but collectively it leads in the long run to disaster.

This is explained lucidly in Tom Winan's "Y2K, Political Reality & Awakening", from which the following extracts are taken.

So while most Y2K commentators focus on the technical side of this ... the real problem is, as some of the Y2K commentators have indirectly already pointed out, that evolution has delivered us to a point where there are simply too many people for whom political-reality is a greater driving force than physical-reality, and political-reality demands:
  1. That, in general, we not upset other people's feelings with facts.
  2. That we don't say the emperor has no clothes.
  3. That we don't talk about new and unusual ways that things can go wrong.


My opinion is that it is neither our inter-connectedness (i.e. the grid) nor our inherent political cohesion (i.e. collectivity per se) [that] are the source of our problems, so much as the deep rooted *FEAR* that is the foundation for so many of the default forms and assumptions of our culture including:

  1. The greatly excessive prevalence of hierarchical simian power politics.
  2. Our culture's hyper-Darwinian "law of the jungle" philosophical basis.
  3. And collective group-think unable to deal with truly novel events and ideas.

Manifesting in:

  1. Our current system of group-think so bad that we have actually allowed our hierarchical system of simian power politics to enshrine a neoDarwinian style hyper-competitiveness in a legal system so absurd that it allows jackals (utterly passive stockholders and their lawyers) to severely penalize corporations for admitting mistakes (i.e. not facing up to the cost and need of addressing Y2K — and other issues) or in any other way doing, or ever having done anything novel, or for the common good, that results in any type of loss of profits on a quarterly report.
  2. A system of atavistic tendencies in human culture for which the teleological (from the future) forces of evolution have arranged for, and are going to take our entire global culture through, a near-death experience to strip away many of those things which are no longer appropriate for our further evolution. To prepare us for a way of life that is simply beyond anything yet seen on this planet ...


Read what I say below and see if you don't agree that in a hard-hitting Y2K scenario we will have created something for ourselves that will not only knock down a social/legal system that enshrines short-sightedness, greed, and paranoia, but will actually brightly illuminate the following three pillars of unexamined behavior built on top of our fear that hold up the current system:

  1. Everywhere you look, whether corporate or government, our political structures are based on simian power politics and its unfailing focus on what we/they call the "chain of command", no matter how inappropriate it may be for the situation. (Indeed, once in the corporate world, I saw a "higher up" being discussed — by people who didn't really known him — with the kind of "obeisance" and/or "worship" normally reserved for a monarch.) So while Mitch mentions the FEMA plan for total control, I would add that it's not just the power-hungry and the control freaks, but also the deeply ingrained systemic problem in our society for people to give away their power to hierarchical systems fundamentally unsuited for the problems they are being asked to solve.

    >I've read this multi-page edict. It defines conditions
    >then sets up FEMA as overriding authority, not
    >answerable to anyone, to deal with major national
    >emergency. Under the FEMA authority, each Dept of
    >Fed govt will assume total control of that part
    >of the private sector over which that dept has sway.
    >You ought to see the black helicopter paranoids
    >talk about this ExOrder, it becomes quite funny,
    >.... in a way. Then it becomes pure black comedy
    >when you realize that these very depts who are
    >going to take command are the very depts which
    >right now show no capability themselves to be able
    >to function come Y2K.

    Mitch presents it with great illumination here.....The "chain of command" which is going to save us contains some of the weakest links in the whole system. This will repeat world wide, not only will centralized governments be incapacitated by Y2K by varying degrees, but *the whole idea of centralized planning and remediation* (i.e. "the government will do something") will become discredited by this fiasco. Aspect one of this global NDE.

  2. Number two is the hyper-Darwinian "law of the jungle" which is the philosophical basis for both our corporate competition, and to a large extent for international politics. A hyper-competitive philosophy that whips up our most primitive fears of starvation in this world of material riches, only to now have contributed greatly to both the creation of and the failure to address the Y2K issue. So very obviously, this hyper-competitive philosophy will be brought under a very bright light that will highlight its many flaws.

    This could be even more significant than number one above. Being social animals, our brains are in general wired to react with either competition or cooperation to situations. While inter-tribal and human conflict has always existed (sometimes quite violently) since the rise of agriculture, a neurological system designed to work either way has been pushed ever more relentlessly into competition by what has been essentially a recapitulation of the entire evolutionary process within the human memetic systems as competition between memes has taken the place of competition between genes.

    But in that, is the whole brilliance of the underlying intelligence behind the structure of our reality. Competition that is rigidly hard-wired in genes, as it is in other life forms, is fate. A hungry lion is going to have lunch at some other life form's expense if at all possible; male lions will fight to the death to preserve their territory, BUT a competitive philosophy wired into a memetic system that abruptly blows up in everyone's face I suspect will lead to some very very deep soul searching.

  3. Related to the above, but distinct in many ways, is a very definite lack of foresight, for both good and bad, not in individual behavior, but in our collective behavior. One could say, "a lack of appreciation of novelty in the body politic".

    This goes back to the issue of "political pressure" that I mentioned above. The group-think inside our institutions, both businesses and government simply don't want to hear about anything not within their collective memories (a trait with great survival value when the rate of change was low, but exceedingly dangerous today). Say that we need to prepare for the threat of war, and many ears will listen and be willing to spend trillions, say that Y2K software bugs are going to knock us on our ass (and quite possibly cost us a trillion once embedded chips, and domino crashes get figured in) and very few listen until it's too late.

    Same thing for things that might improve our lot. How many times have I heard some booster for the status quo say we have the best political system ever invented yet, as if this microscopic slice of time that humans have even been civilized is any representative of reality's true potential. Nor are corporations in general willing to consider things even as simple as productivity improvements in the writing of software that are not already being widely talked about within industry. I know, I've been through this one personally.

    Experiencing a major self-created global catastrophe that is utterly novel in nature (even if not in the human-nature behind it) will be a major wake up call that says: "Yes, our collective decision making really *DOES* have to deal with stuff never seen before", and *YES* there is a need for people to not so much fear what their neighbor/coworker thinks that they avoid speaking up when an issue comes up.

    Let's pray and hope that we don't crash and burn as badly as humans did during the horrible tragedy of Easter Island in which the blindness of a human culture led to a situation that reduced dense forests and abundant wildlife to cannibalism and an island so barren they couldn't even build fishing boats.

    Yes, anything that wakes up an awareness that human collectives really do have to deal with the utterly novel will be a major awakening. This aspect number three of the global NDE also promises to be very synergistic with item number one, in that both centralized government and simian power hierarchies are, for certain, the single biggest impediment to the free flow of information necessary for human collectives to really deal with novel situations.

So finally, when all three of these defense mechanisms we've built to conceal our fear from ourselves (simian-hierarchy, hyper-competitiveness, and group-think) fail us all at the same time in a single self-created event, then I feel that for the first time, the human race will have to deal with and examine its fears at a collective level. And for the first time really embrace the evolutionary process at the conscious level.

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