How I Survived Y2K
Shortly after the dinosaurs did not dodge a comet or three, there was a time when computers did not live in your pocket. We went blissfully from home, to work, to the gym, and back again without consulting our non-existent portable electronic devices. Safe in the knowledge that we were not that important and nobody would lose an eye while we were temporarily incommunicado. Then, low and behold, somebody invented the telephone answering machine. You could be at home, but without really being at home! The answering machine was the first manifestation of the social media “like.” The minute I walked through the door of my studio apartment in the Annex, the first thing I did was check the message indicator on my answering machine. The readout showed the number of people who had tried to reach me while I was at my step class. It flashed brilliantly with my popularity. You could even remove the cassette tape that held the messages, instead of recording over it, if there was a message you wanted to keep in perpetuity. Or at least until cassette tapes become obsolete. In contrast, the answering feature of my current phone begrudgingly holds a maximum of four messages, and kicks them to the curb after seven days. There’s probably some setting I can adjust to change this, but I can’t be bothered. Nobody phones anyone anymore anyhow except for people pretending to be tax collectors or people who want to give me a free cruise. Phones are for typing, not phoning.
But I digress. Once upon a time, I was an accessory after the fact to the Y2K crisis. I didn’t write any programs, but I installed them and fed them and taught people how to use them so they could become dependent on them. As strange as it might seem, as recently as the waning years of the last century, many businesses were a little hazy about what went on in their datacenters. In 1991, I helped a major Canadian bank figure out how much it cost to process transactions via their automated teller machines. Note that ATMs had been in limited use since 1969, and were widely available by the mid-seventies. In other words, for twenty years, give or take, the banking industry was blissfully ignorant of how much it cost to operate its front-line banking technology or even exactly which moving parts were involved. Go figure.
Fast forward to the late 1990s. Suddenly, it occurred to someone that maybe computers weren’t as smart as we thought. Maybe computers are only as smart as humans. Maybe, even, only as smart as the dumbest humans involved in their upkeep. The kind of humans that think all programs should work in perpetuity even when the code is ancient enough to think 2001 is science fiction. At which point, a flurry of Y2K retrofitting, mitigation, and contingency planning was unleashed. As was a torrent of money, which paved a solid gold brick road for companies like the one I worked for. We didn’t know if ATMs would stop dispensing money, or nuclear power plants would implode, or planes would fall out of the sky. But we were going to make a killing trying to make sure nothing would happen.
On the night the world might stand still, I was at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at my friend Jan’s apartment. But we could not party like it was 1999. Most of us were on call in case our customers’ computers imploded, although I am not quite sure what I could have done. Perhaps make sandwiches from the Spam in the stockpile of Y2K provisions. However, as we all know, the 20th century ended not with a bang but with the whimpering of the Fortune 500 companies that had poured billions into averting disaster, and were not quite sure whether there had been a disaster in the first place. We went out on the balcony while the clocked ticked towards midnight, and watched as fireworks burst and glittered over Lake Ontario, and when the noise died down, there was nary a peep nor beep from anyone’s pager. So we broke out the bubbly, but with less enthusiasm than Prince would’ve liked. The gravy train had finally dried up, just like the run on Spam. Nothing to see here.