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Octopus TV Failure Awards – Millennium Bug - Roaring 2020 Vision Special by Andrew Eborn

Millennium Bug

We are now so dependent on computers and addicted to social media that the fear of losing connection can be mortifying.

A great example is this week’s Octopus TV Failure Awards’ Nominee, The Millennium Bug.

So what was the problem?

Originally, in a number of computer programmes dates were written with 2 digits so 1999 was 99. The concern was that when 2000 came around computers would be confused and not know whether 00 meant that the date was 1900 or 2000.

As Martyn Thomas, Professor of IT, Gresham College, points out

“The first signs of this “Y2K problem” or the Year 2000 bug had appeared 12 years earlier in 1988 when a batch of tinned meat was rejected by a supermarket because it appeared to be more than 80 years past its use-by date. Four years later, Mary Bandar of Winona, Minnesota, was invited to join a kindergarten class because according to a computer she was four. Aged 104, she decided against.”

Y2K fear took hold and there was mass panic that computer systems would fail having been struck by what was called the Millennium Bug.

People around the world took the threat extremely seriously. Numerous experts – many self-proclaimed - popped up and warned of Y2K disruptions in banking, finance, transportation, communications, manufacturing, energy, water and sewerage, health facilities, emergency supplies and food supply.

There was also fear of security risks to the integrity of major weapons and weapons systems including nuclear weapons.

Just in case the banks collapsed, some people emptied cash machines and stock piled provisions.

Want to sell anything? Instil fear that there will be shortages.

Hurry! Whilst Stocks Last!

The best way to make people panic is to tell them not to panic!

When was the last time you calmed someone down by telling them to calm down?

It’s like taking a flight to interview Greta Thunberg.

The Price of Fear

It has been estimated by The UN International Y2K Coordination Centre that the worldwide cost of addressing the Millennium Bug problem was between $300bn and $500bn.

Y2K Bug fails to bite

.. and so what happen?

Bugger all !

As people partied like it was 1999 – because it was – and computer clocks went from 99 to 00 around the world there was not one single report of a major incident…..

Nuclear reactors did not go off.

Planes did not fall out of the sky.

Life as we know it, Jim, continued …

The backlash from the media was predictable ..

Once January 1st 2000 came and went without a major incident being reported it was suggested that the threat had been over-exaggerated and billions wasted.

So was it worth it?

Peter de Jager, the Canadian computer consultant who help raise the fear of Y2K with an article in Computerworld called “Doomsday 2000” published in September 1993, points out:

"The truth of the matter is this. All the hype, including some of the more ludicrous statements, forced companies to do one thing and one thing only. It forced competent managers round the globe to examine their systems with the single-minded goal of answering a simple question: did this thing called Y2K pose a threat to their computer systems? "If the answer was yes, then they took appropriate action. If the answer was no, then they rightfully ignored it."

Martyn Thomas,Professor of IT, Gresham College, London urges that we should not “ perpetuate the falsehood that the millennium bug was a myth … The widespread use of two-digit years in computer systems was a serious threat.” Professor Thomas led the Y2K teams for Deloitte Consulting internationally in the 1990s and spent years “successfully finding and fixing many of the huge number of problems”. The Professor resents the implication that their work was “unnecessary or fraudulent”. .. Details and authoritative references from Gresham College can be found online at”

Professor Thomas points out that “Despite all the worldwide work (coordinated by a special UN team), many failures did occur..from the significant to the trivial. Many credit-card systems and cash points failed. Some customers received bills for 100 years’ interest while others were briefly rich for the same reason.

Internationally, 15 nuclear reactors shut down; the oil pumping station in Yumurtalik failed, cutting off supplies to Istanbul; there were power cuts in Hawaii and government computers failed in China and Hong Kong. A customer at a New York state video rental store had a bill for $91,250, the cost of renting the film The General’s Daughter for 100 years.

One serious UK problem was recognised only when a heath visitor in Yorkshire noticed an unusual number of babies being born with Down’s syndrome. More than 150 pregnant women were given the wrong results from tests because the computer system that was used in nine hospitals calculated the women’s date of birth incorrectly from January 2000; it had worked perfectly for the previous decade. The result was that women who should have been identified as being in a high-risk category were wrongly told that they did not need further testing.”

Alec Muffett, who worked at Sun Microsystems from 1992 to 2009, said: "Anyone saying the millennium bug was in some sense a damp squib is ignoring that its being a squib was due to hard work."

Fact. Fiction. Failure.

What is clear is that billions were spent taking precautions as a result of the fear generated about the Millennium bug. Some of those steps may have been unnecessary.

Generally, computer systems failed to fail. The Millennium bug failed to cause the global devastation predicted and as such is this week’s worthy nominee for Octopus TV Failure Awards.

Reality or myth, the Millennium Bug and the media coverage is yet another example of the vital importance of communication and managing the message. Fear spreads fear and bad news sells.

With the start of a new year let’s look up, communicate, put everything in perspective with 2020 vision, #QuestionEverything and build bridges not walls.

Together we can ensure that these will indeed be the roaring 20’s …

See you next time for more fantastically fabulous failures ….

© Andrew Eborn 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and @OctopusTV

From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.

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In addition to international recognition and glittering prizes the winners will receive the much valued TOFA

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” - Henry Ford

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” - C.S. Lewis

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” - Winston Churchill

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