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Separating Hype from Reality


By Catherine Winter

Part 1 2

One of the programmers who worked on the fix was David Eddy. He's widely regarded as the guy who coined the term "Y2K." Eddy is still sore that people think there wasn't really a problem.

"I'd love to do a poll," says Eddy, "and eliminate anybody that actually worked on year 2000 work and just talk to, what I would call civilians, and if you ask them, I bet you hard money that most civilians would say, 'Oh, Y2K, whole thing was a hoax. Bodies didn't fall from the sky at the stroke of midnight, I knew the thing was a hoax.' But the reason nothing bad happened was that so many people put so much hard work into it."

Eddy would like a little gratitude for the people who raced to fix the Y2K bug, but doing a good job made them invisible. Just ask John Koskinen. He was appointed by President Clinton to oversee Y2K fixes.

"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."

Mandel worries that Y2K may have lured people into a false sense of security. Next time there's a big disaster looming, people may think it's just hype and ignore the warnings. But some people are still prepared for the end of the world as we know it.

Ben Levi built a house in the foothills of Boulder Colorado designed to survive Y2K. It's a bright, airy place, with three computers in the office and a fountain trickling in the living room. And if the utilities had shut down on New Year's Day, Levi could have kept the computers humming and the fountain flowing with his solar panels and his generator.

"In a way," says Levi, "I was kind of looking forward to it. Wouldn't this be fun, because I really felt that I could meet the challenge."

Levi's not a survivalist; he's a computer consultant. He believed Y2K might be a real catastrophe. But the end of the world as we know it also offered an opportunity to build a better world.

"We would be coming more into balance," says Levi. "Less obsessed with technology and materialism. The opportunity was that it would basically turn the volume down on civilization for awhile."

But if anything, civilization is even noisier, more interconnected, more dependent on technology. So Levi figures, who knows? A crisis could still happen, like the massive east coast power failure in 2003. And if it does, he's still got the year's supply of dried food he stashed.

Back to The Surprising Legacy of Y2K.