Crying Wolf (the Y2K scare)

September 9, 1999

I’M ALMOST DISAPPOINTED ;). I half-expected to wake up to a world in technological chaos, planes crashing, traffic signals going berserk, microwaves exploding, and my cell phone calling India for no apparent reason :). Reports from Japan, however, tell the tale that nothing happened. What a drag… after building up momentum like a crazed 2 tonne rhinoceros we are down to the report “All systems in working order”.

What am I talking about? Well, the fact that some software programmers used the number 9999 as a ‘stop signal’, i.e. an end-of-process or end-of-file trigger. This led some people to believe that the date 9/9/99 would result in computer processes shutting down all over the world. Media hooked on to this belief, blowing it out of proportions and creating a scare, as media tends to do.

MY CALENDAR WITH forgotten English words defines the word drabloch today: “Refuse, trash, as the smallest kind of potatoes, not fully grown are called ‘mere drabloch.'” — from John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1808. That is exactly what I think the 9999 scare is: mere drabloch!

The fact of the matter is that programmers can use any combination of numbers as an end-of-process trigger. For a problem to kick in on this date in history, programmers will have to have made some pretty stupid mistakes. In the Gregorian calendar, September 9, 1999 is 990909, not 9999. No matter how you format the date, it does not produce 9999. So, provided that the programmer did use 9999 as an end-of-process string and did format the date in a pure nonsensical manner, there is a problem. Hence, if the date in one of your programs has always been impossible to interpret, start worrying. In the light of this you can see how the media hype really is drabloch…

WORRYING, THOUGH, IS by no means over. Ericsson specialists have stayed up tonight, doing a dress rehearsal for New Years Eve. That’s really when the trouble may, or may not, kick in. And it doesn’t end there, because since programmers ignored four digit years and the year 2000, they also ignored the fact that the year 2000 is a leap year. So we also have to be wary of February 29, 2000 — taking in the fact that computers may not be able to calculate a leap year from ’00’.

Somehow it seems like there will always be something to worry about when it comes to computers, and trying to prepare for a glitch that some programmer may or may not have caused to some extent seems like a waste of time. In my mind, computers won’t go down when we expect them to — they’ll go down whenever they want, just as they keep doing everyday, all over the world, regardless of the bloomin’ date.

If a computer tells me that February 29, 2000, does not exist, I know better. If a computer tells me I’m 2 years old, I know better. Relax, and try to see the fun in it. Cleaning up is dirty work but if we can have a good laugh about it along the way — no worries. After all, we’re all human and we all make mistakes — and we created computers.

WHEN I’M WRITING this, the timeline still has not passed across the US of A. If we wish to believe that specific software over there has been programmed by some daft individuals, then by all means, keep worrying. Me, I say it’s drabloch.

Per Axbom

Per Axbom

@axbom

Per Axbom is a Swedish communication theorist born in Liberia. For two decades he has educated digital professionals and helped organizations with digital usability and accessibility. Per makes tech safe and compassionate through reflective reasoning, human-considerate design, coaching and teaching. You can hear his voice on UX Podcast.

Digital compassion book cover Per's recent handbook on managing ethics in tech, Digital compassion, is available to order from Amazon in Kindle format. Send an e-mail to Per for more options.

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