The nation’s Year 2000 czar is now a deputy mayor in Washington, D.C. The $50 million Y2K crisis center houses George W. Bush’s transition team. The international Y2K coordinator plans to relax with friends this New Year’s Eve.
A year after the turn-of-the-millennium computer scare, it’s just a fading memory for most people. But leading figures in the Y2K consciousness-raising effort say the episode taught important and enduring lessons.
“It showed that we can, if we put the resources to it, solve tough global problems of our making,” said Bruce McConnell, who directed the international Y2K effort. “It was a great story of cooperation and hard work. It was expensive, but it was successful.”
For those quick to forget, Y2K was caused by decisions by computer makers decades ago to use two digits to represent the year. The shortcut saved money on memory and storage, but also caused some computers to wrongly interpret 2000 as 1900.
Left uncorrected, the Y2K glitch could have fouled computers that control power grids, air traffic, banking systems and phone networks.
Billions Spent on Prevention
Businesses and governments around the world threw some $200 billion at the problem — and then they watched nervously, hoping enough of the errant dates had been fixed to avert a worldwide disaster.
For the most part they had. The lights didn’t go out. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Nuclear missiles didn’t launch in the middle of the night.
Because few problems materialized, those who had sounded the Y2K alarm had to fend off criticism from people who believed they were victims of a big-money bamboozle.
“It’s like saying to a surgeon after he conducts a major intrusive operation that because the patient’s fine, it’s not a big deal,” said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. “Problems did occur, and the fact that it was so minimal means that people did a good job.”
Among the failures: Computers that process images from U.S. spy satellites broke down. Some credit cards charged for the same items multiple times. Japanese nuclear power plants experienced glitches — among them, a failed clock on a reactor monitoring system — but no radiation leaks or safety problems.
Many more failures may have gone unreported. Leon Kappelman, a University of North Texas professor who helped businesses with Y2K assessments, says a major telecommunications company — which he would not identify — experienced 100 Y2K errors during the first week of 2000.
Those problems were quickly fixed, he says, and customers never noticed.
As a Y2K windfall, businesses and governments got better computers and other equipment. With the help of the World Bank and other Y2K funders, poorer countries got machines and Internet connections they were allowed to keep.
Many U.S. businesses weeded out older machines, combined redundant systems and did something they’d never done before: inventoried their software and computers. Individuals, businesses and countries learned to work together. Within companies, technologists talked with executives, often for the first time.
Greater Understanding Gained
Mark Haselkorn, a professor of technical communications at the University of Washington, says previously technophobic managers got to see their organizations as dynamic ecosystems and better understand information systems.
For example, supervisors at International Paper Co.’s mill in Franklin, Va., last summer used their Y2K surveys to quickly locate defective circuit boards throughout the plant after a supplier warned of problems.
“There was a heightened awareness of people’s perspectives, of people looking beyond just what was happening to them or their particular group, which was a big change,” said Stephen Schaefgen, who headed International Paper’s Y2K efforts.
At the international level, Y2K planners channeled their energies into improving access to technology and defending networks from security threats. Those planners still regularly communicate by e-mail and telephone.
The world discovered that while society has become dependent on machines, people are still in charge.
“There’s nothing better than human capital,” said John Hall, a spokesman with the American Bankers Association. “I think people gained an appreciation for technology and the people who make that technology possible.”
Sen. Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who headed the Senate’s Y2K advisory committee, says the world also discovered the extent to which computers are interconnected.
Another reminder came in May, when the “I Love You” computer virus crippled systems worldwide and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages.
When his Y2K team dismantled in March, Bennett formed a working group in the Senate to address terrorism and other network security threats.
“What happens to us if someone comes at the United States in a very aggressive way?” he asked.
Many companies and governments simply applied software bandages to address Y2K, noted Dale Way, the Y2K point person with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
A common fix involved tricking computers into thinking the century rollover occurs 30 years or so from now; so more fixes will be needed within 30 years.
“We dodged a bullet,” Way said. “But lasting fixes will not be easy to implement. ... When you look at this infrastructure, it is highly uncertain and it breaks all the time.”
A year ago, Y2K planners urged individuals to have extra food, water and flashlight batteries on hand — though they discouraged overstocking. Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan sought to calm public fears even while increasing the money supply.
Companies set up command centers, canceled vacations, and then held their collective breath and watched the clocks.
Another Y2K date is coming on Dec. 31 for computers that calculate dates strictly on the basis of a 365-day calendar. Because 2000 is a leap year, Dec. 31 is Day 366. Major problems, however, are not expected.
Y2K contingency teams have disbanded, their personnel moving on to other tasks.
John Koskinen, who spent two years directing Y2K planning in the United States, took a job in September as the District of Columbia’s chief administrator.
The U.S. Information Coordination Center — where Koskinen and his staff prepared for the dawn of 2000 — closed in March. The 90,000-square-foot space is now being used by the Bush presidential transition team.
Cathy Hotka, who worked on the National Retail Federation’s Y2K efforts, has a bottle of New Year’s Eve champagne in her refrigerator.
“I’m going to drink like a fish,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything last year.”
Likewise, McConnell of the now-defunct International Y2K Cooperation Center will be “reminiscing fondly over our success and grateful I don’t have to work this year.”
Anticipating the worst last year, many people bought generators and laid in extra provisions. Some even built special shelters and took refuge in the countryside.
About 20 families who headed for the hills of Floyd County, Va., remain there a year later. Some went into debt to buy several years’ worth of water, dehydrated foods and kerosene lanterns.
Some Still Suspicious
Howard King, who left his job in Baltimore to join the Rivendell community, plans to stay there for the long haul, his deep distrust of technology unsubsided.
“Now that we’ve moved here, we are more convinced that the Christian lifestyle in the modern world requires us to live with each other,” he said.
In Hudson, Wis., Dennis Olson bought 400 boxes of Hamburger Helper, 175 pounds of pasta and nine tubes of toothpaste, along with drinking water and a power generator.
He has donated much of the food to charity, but still has about two months’ worth of stocks left. He’ll keep the first-aid supplies in case of tornadoes or other disasters.
Olson says he has no regrets about spending $20,000 to stockpile for Y2K.
“It’s only money, and you can always make more, but a boat would have been fun,” he said. “You have to look at it satirically. It was a serious issue in its time, but it’s behind us now.”