Flashback #Star50: The end of civilisation (not)


Much ado about nothing: Although people were expecting  computer glitches, the new Millennium went by like any other day.Much ado about nothing: Although people were expecting computer glitches, the new Millennium went by like any other day.

FROM faulty ATMs and traffic lights to the breakdown of essential services such as power outages, the predictions were dire about Jan 1, 2000.

Back then, there was global concern that the Millennium Bug, or Y2K Bug, could cause technical chaos as older computers might interpret the year 2000 as “1900” when the clock struck midnight on Dec 31, 1999.

The fear was that these computers, which record dates using the last two digits of the year, would register the new year as “00” and assume it to be the year 1900.

So, before the big day approached, governments and companies around the world scrambled to have a foolproof computer system to counter the Millennium Bug.

A. Asohan, who was editor of In.Tech, a weekly pullout on technology in The Star, remembered those days well.

“A lot of the fears came from scaremongering from politicians, consultants and Hollywood. Politicians may have been sincere in their concerns, but didn’t really understand the issue, so hyperbole was the order of the day,” he said.

“Hollywood completely misunderstood the issue and came out with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fare that had many Americans running for the hills and stocking up on food, guns and ammo.”

A Japanese woman decided not to take any chances by stocking up on food such as rice, which she stored in oil drums, in a Dec 18, 1999, article.A Japanese woman decided not to take any chances by stocking up on food such as rice, which she stored in oil drums, in a Dec 18, 1999, article.

As for the IT consultants, he said they were of two varieties – those with actual knowledge, and the other breed called the conmen-consultants who saw a great opportunity for a quick buck.

“At the heart of the issue, it was simple: Because computer storage was so expensive back in the day, programmers saved ‘space’ by shortening the ‘year field’ in their software code to the last two digits, so ‘1975’ was just ‘75’. But as we approached the 21st century, how was a computer going to distinguish ‘1975’ from ‘2075’?

“Computers are idiot savants – they can only process data you put into them. If there is a problem with the data, its calculations may cause glitches,” he said.

Asohan said that this was not about “planes falling from the sky or nuclear reactors having meltdowns” although some of the scaremongering had indeed portrayed such calamities.

Instead, he said that the problem was more about possible miscalculations in bank loans’ interest, bonds expiries, or any calculation where the date is important.

“It was not, as portrayed by politicians, popular press and Hollywood, only about the ‘millennium rollover’ – when the year moves from ‘19XX’ to ‘20XX’ – but about any backward- or forward-looking calculations where dates have to be factored in,” he explained.

Asohan said the In.Tech team had spent years in creating awareness on the Y2K issue “when it was first considered a programming matter, then an IT manager issue, and finally, something that the C-suite needed to take action on”.

“As we approached the last few months, most of the fixes had been in already, although the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector continued to be a concern. But even if the SMEs were neglecting the issue, their tech suppliers and vendors had been patching systems,” he said.

So, as D-day approached, he said much of the hard work had already been done.

“Honestly, we were winding down already in many respects,” he said.

Looking back, he had some regrets, too.

“We brought up the issue back in the mid-1990s, and as we approached the year 2000 and too little was being done to resolve the matter, we upped our coverage to create greater awareness with non-tech decision-makers.

“Perhaps we let a little hyperbole creep in, so much so that people got the wrong idea, and we were left wondering at the monster we created,” he said.

But funny things did happen.

“There was an issue with taxi meters in Singapore charging abundant sums, and this was attributed to the Y2K bug, though nobody could explain why,” he said.

“The only other ‘funny’ thing – and it’s not really funny – is that there was a genuine issue. Responsible people brought it up, irresponsible people took advantage of it, programmers and coders fixed it, and thanks to them, civilisation as we knew it did not end.”

He said the In.Tech team monitored newsfeeds, forums and tech sites (no social media then) – for any Y2K-related disasters through the night of Dec 31, 1999.

While there were a few glitches here and there across the world, there were no major disasters, he said.

“Did people sigh in relief? No, they groaned in disappointment – ‘all that for nothing?’,” he quipped.

When the so-called Y2K Apocalypse did not happen, he said the world instead portrayed the whole thing as a scam.

“Go figure,” he said.

On the “big” night, Asohan said he rested easy, knowing that critical systems had been fixed.

“There was probably beer involved, but I can’t remember that far back!” he said.

This marks the end of our series of flashback stories that had been put together as part of Star Media Group’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Thank you for being part of our journey.

Curious to see more features like this? Visit Starchive on our anniversary website to discover more stories through the decades.

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