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The Network


By Catherine Winter

Listen or Read the transcript.


Nearly a century ago, EM Forster wrote a dark science fiction story called "The Machine Stops." In the story, people live underground in separate chambers, and communicate using electric screens. They depend on a system called "the machine" for everything, even air. When the machine breaks down, everyone dies. What was wild fancy in 1909 seemed weirdly prescient five years ago when we faced the Y2K bug.

"This was really the first realization that our technology had escaped our ability to really understand it," says Michael Mandel, chief economist for Business Week. "Nobody knew the size of the potential problem. ... What's comparable today is that nobody knows quite how much of a disaster you could sort of develop if you had some sort of negative internet cascade where the internet really went down."

Y2K showed how dependent we are on an interconnected system that spans the globe. Paul Saffo directs the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California. He says since Y2K, the computer network has only become more complex.

"We are more vulnerable than ever," says Saffo. "The more sophisticated technology becomes, ... the easier it is for it to fail in unexpected ways and the bigger the consequences."

Every computer that connects to the network is a potential entry point for viruses. Or worse.

President Clinton's Y2K czar, John Koskinen, worries about cyber-terrorism.

"The way to shut down the power system is not to bomb anything," says Koskinen. "It's actually to hack into the computer controls and shut it down that way."

Koskinen remembers a 1998 incident: a satellite went down, and most of the nation's pagers went silent. And he points to the massive power outage on the east coast in 2003. He says these kinds of random problems are harder to anticipate than Y2K was.

"My view of this was that we ought to treat Y2K as the first attack on the infrastructure, different from terrorism ... in the sense that we knew exactly what the problem was, we knew when it would happen, so it was simpler."

The problem with more malicious attacks is there's no way to know when or where they'll strike. Businesses and government are working to protect themselves, but they're in a high-tech race against fast-moving opponents. Information technology experts say as the network gets bigger and more complex, it faces a rapidly increasing number of attacks, and the attacks get ever more sophisticated. They say it's important for businesses to have disaster recovery plans, and many businesses do - plans they developed to get ready for Y2K.

Back to The Surprising Legacy of Y2K.