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Why Y2K Was Such A Big Issue | Touchstone Words

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Why Y2K was Such a Big Issue

By Shane Staret on 2018-03-14

Imagine living in a world where your phone, laptop, desktop, GPS systems, and bank accounts stopped operating randomly one day. That would suck A LOT for you, but the world would continue on as though nothing awful happened. Now, imagine living in a world where these things happened to everyone. It would be apocalyptic, as the entire communication grid would likely go offline and the economy would tank. There would be widespread panic. Unbelievably, this was actually a potential reality for society leading up to the year 2000, and it was known as the Y2K problem.

This issue was actually quite a simple one to understand. You see, many computer systems back in the day that needed to know the current date did not store the entire year. For example, if it was 1976, instead of storing “1976” as the year, it would store “76”. This was done to conserve space as less memory would have to be used to store two integers versus four. Can you see where the issue is? What happens when we reach 1999? When the computer resets from “99” to “00”, will it think it is “1900” or “2000”?

The answer to that last question was extremely important, as many computer networks might have started to operate improperly if it thought it was the year 1900. For example, what would a software program that predicted future stock prices do if it believed it to be 1900 instead of 2000? The economic sector was not the only one that could have possibly been affected by software incorrectly recognizing the current date, as medical equipment, utilities, record systems, temperature systems, transportation systems and more could all have major malfunctions because of this oversight.

But that is not even the worst part. As you might assume, news stations picked up the Y2K problem for obvious reasons. It was a real catastrophic threat and everyone knows how much the general population loves to eat those kinds of stories up. Because of this, mass hysteria spread throughout the globe, only worsening the problem and leading to exaggerations and misinformation to be established as fact.

As you may have guessed, programmers and engineers picked up on the fact that programming years in two digits might be troublesome, so they abandoned the practice throughout the 1990s. Recognizing the legitimate threat of keeping the dates stored as is, they also went back and rapidly corrected systems set up to store dates with only two digits. These hotfixes prevented cataclysmic disaster, but it came with a price. It is predicted that the US government spent $100 billion dollars just to prepare their systems for the new millenium. And that is just one country. It is further believed that $300 billion to $500 billion was spent throughout the globe just to ensure that this issue was created.

If you could take one thing away from this article, I think the biggest is that you should plan ahead. If you told someone in the 1970s that coding dates into a software program using two digits instead of four would result in hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, they probably would have laughed in your face. But that’s probably because they didn’t think about how large the computer industry would grow from that time to the turn of the century and how tedious it would be to change every system impacted. When creating a project, whether it is a software program or something entirely unrelated, always plan for the worst because it will relieve your future self of stress and expenses.

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