< The Last Worst Time


Friday, December 25, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If you follow the news at all, it can be difficult to keep straight one potential apocalypse from the next. Financial collapse, global warming, Mayan prophecy - they've all started to run together, haven't they? But ten years ago there was a catastrophe looming that captured the world’s attention, as dramatically rendered by the TV’s least emotional life form.


LEONARD NIMOY: In dead of winter, at the stroke of midnight, January 1st, 2000:



Elevators may stop, heat may vanish.

CROWD: Nine!


Credit cards and ATMs may cease to function.


BOB GARFIELD: Y2K - the logic was simple enough. Our ubiquitous, omnipotent computers had a simple design flaw. They ran according to clocks that were not programmed to recognize the arrival of the new century. At the turn of the Millennium they were likely to freeze, bringing everything, everything, to an abrupt halt.

CROWD: Five!

BOB GARFIELD: But then, as the clock struck midnight, again and again around the world – nothing. Planes flew, dialysis machines functioned and everybody could check their AOL dial-up accounts. In short, it was a global false alarm on a grand scale. Or was it? Farhad Manjoo, Slate’s technology columnist, has argued recently about what we stand to lose if we misremember Y2K. Farhad, welcome back to the show.


BOB GARFIELD: I forget. Did the world come grinding to a halt?


BOB GARFIELD: And on balance, was this because the world had gotten itself fixated on a problem that was not that big a problem to begin with, or that we combined resources to actually solve it before the nightmare materialized?

FARHAD MANJOO: It’s a little bit of both. If you go back and look at some of the alarm about Y2K, before Y2K, some of it is over the top. But there were real fears and, to a large extent, governments, corporations, various groups around the world came together, spent large amounts of money and they put off real problems. What we don't know is how well they did it because we didn't really go back and do any kind of investigation into whether the money was well spent.

BOB GARFIELD: Well okay, but as nothing horrible did go wrong we've got to assume that the expenditure wasn't entirely in vain. And while this wasn't exactly, you know, the Allies’ response to the Nazis, the world did mobilize to nip this in the bud. What exactly did we do? How was that money spent?

FARHAD MANJOO: Y2K was sort of fundamentally about this small little computer bug. To fix it we just had to patch the software, essentially. But there were so many different computers running so many different kinds of software that doing so required this huge effort to go over all of the code in all of the computers that we had. And, you know, that’s what it took. It took a lot of money for analysts and programmers who understood code that had been written a long time ago, but because of it, it really sparked major changes in the tech industry and how we run computers in companies.

BOB GARFIELD: Ah, the Velcro effect. You know, we spent a squajillion dollars to go to the moon and you can argue about whether it was worth it in pure scientific terms, but it did yield a lot of technological innovation, like Velcro. What was the Velcro out of Y2K?

FARHAD MANJOO: People argue whether this is a good thing, but one of the things we did is companies went out and were looking for cheap ways to fix Y2K. They hit upon this country called India, where there were lots of programmers who were looking for work. There have been economic studies on this, and companies found Indian programmers that were good at fixing Y2K, but then they found, you know, they were also a good, cheap source to work on other kinds of software. And so, Y2K is seen by many people in India, in the Indian software industry, as the spark that led to that boom in outsourcing in the software industry.

BOB GARFIELD: As you look back at the mobilization for Y2K, one thing that really stands out is how politicized it wasn't. It wasn't the subject of any kind of political opportunism. Is that because it was just utterly technical and had no moral underpinnings, or was it just that those were different days?

FARHAD MANJOO: Well, it wasn't that those were different days. There wasn't the kind of huge political partisan questions we get with other issues, with, for example, climate change, where in order to fix a problem you kind of have to change the way you live or change your understanding of your relationship to nature. Those involve questions of ethics and morals, and they affect people in their day-to-day lives, where I think fixing Y2K didn't have all of that attendant to it.

BOB GARFIELD: Granted, all the world had to do was spend a few piddling 100 billion dollars to take care of the Y2K problem, compared to the trillions of ongoing economic impact if we were to reduce greenhouse gases. That said, is there nothing to be optimistic about as the world takes on climate change, looking back at the cooperation that we achieved a decade ago?

FARHAD MANJOO: It’s hard to say. Early on in Y2K, people weren't sure, even in the tech industry, whether it was a real problem. But then when there was a consensus reached, then people started to really work together. And maybe you could say we're not at that point with global warming yet but at some point we’ll realize. On the other hand, there’s this way that we remember Y2K - because we addressed the problem - we remember it in the popular culture as not having been a problem, as the price you pay when you listen to cranks who are touting some kind of impending disaster. That’s kind of the danger here. The environmentalists have this idea called the precautionary principle, which is if there’s a small chance of a huge disaster you try to take extraordinary means to solve that problem. The problem with the precautionary principle is that if you successfully avert the disaster, you have no record that it was an actual problem. And the same thing could happen with global warming or H1N1. If we solve the problem, if we don't have a flu epidemic, it'll sort of be open to the charge that there wasn't a problem to begin with. And that’s how Y2K is remembered. Nothing happened on January 1st, and so that proves that [LAUGHS] we spent all the money recklessly, needlessly and that, you know, in the future we shouldn't listen to experts, we shouldn't prepare for future problems.

BOB GARFIELD: So the moral of the story is?

FARHAD MANJOO: It should be remembered as a lesson of cooperation, of how the world successfully averted disaster.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Farhad, thank you so much.


BOB GARFIELD: Farhad Manjoo is technology columnist for Slate.