Airports are never particularly busy places on New Year’s Eve – and few people will choose to spend the night of probably the biggest celebration of the year at 35,000 feet above an ocean. But on New Years Eve 1999, they are likely to be even quieter than normal. The reason is that three airlines have already decided to stand down all flights for 24-hours on New Year’s Eve 1999, and others are expected to follow suit. But the decision has nothing to do with revelry – it is based on fear that the turn over from the year 1999 to 2000 will cause major glitches in air traffic control systems across the globe putting both passengers and crew in untenable danger. Airlines are not the only companies facing such risk. According to the Millenium Bomb, up to 90% of computers could malfunction as a result of the millenium change. 50,000 mainframes, the computers running mission-critical programs at defense installations, power companies, water companies, manufacturers and financial institutions across the world, are at risk, and as many as 50% of companies could be wiped out. The end result – social and economic chaos – and all because computer programmers in the 1960s took a shortcut, building date fields into operating systems and applications with only two digits to represent the year instead of four. The Millenium Bomb, by Simon Reeve, a former Sunday Times journalist, and Colin McGhee, a technology journalist, is a book which clearly aims to shock and, given the nature of the subject, it is an easy goal to achieve. There are hundreds of quotes throughout its pages from information systems directors, politicians and academics stressing the severity of the year 2000 issue and outlining its likely consequences.
Impending global disaster
What the book does not offer, however, is advice – theoretical, practical or otherwise – as to how companies can diffuse the ‘millenium bomb’ and advert impending global disaster. There is no detailed evaluation of the tools and consultancy aid on offer to help companies modify their systems, no in-depth case studies of how other companies in similar fields have addressed the issue, and no step by step action plan. On the contrary, the authors dismally predict that society is doomed and that, with little more than three years left to run, time has already run out. The millenium issue, they say, will take 400 man years for the average large company to sort out and the alterations should have begun before the 1990s even began. In fact, somewhat strangely, The Millenium Bomb paints the year 2000 crisis as something of a neo-luddite victory, and suggests that the only good thing to come out of it may be the marginalisation of the computer and a move back to a non- automated society. Computer industry ‘techies’ have selfishly brought this on the world by taking programming shortcuts, the authors say, and the industry’s endless pursuit of advance, means no-one has ever bothered to sort the problem out. Now society is set to pay them back by switching back to manual methods. The year 2000 date issue is clearly a significant event in the history of the computer, and potentially in the history of the world. The subject has already commanded a considerable number of column inches in newspapers and magazines across the globe but, unfortunately, The Millenium Bomb seems to have been designed just to cash in on the hysteria without really trying to take the subject forward. For systems managers struggling to get their company to acknowledge the existence of the year 2000 problem, or for those struggling to get the budget to try and sort it out, this book could prove a useful education tool and one worth distributing widely. For those already aware of the issue and its possible consequences, it will probably be a frustrating read.
The Millenium Bomb – Countdown to a $400 billion Catastrophe by Simon Reeve and Colin McGhee Publisher: Vision Paperbacks. ISBN: 1-901250-00-8. This article originally appeared in Computer Business Review