The true millennium bug

By Guilherme Becker

We were not expecting this. We were not prepared for this. The year was 1999 and the world was faced with one of its greatest expectations ever: the 2000s. The new millennium. A new era. A time forged from the previous decades, especially in the 1990s, but then also completely different. From the 2000’s on, kids would grow up connected to computers and electronic devices with limitless potential. There was the Internet, with a whole new way of communication. Worldwide. Connection. There were cableless tools. There were Nokia’s, Motorolas, Sony Ericsson’s, and then the IPhone, and Android. A beautiful picture.

Those were only some of the expectations of that time. And you could say that indeed we live in this world today. But back then, blocking the door to that new period, there was a possibly huge problem. A problem that could actually stop the development of this beautifully cybernetic world or maybe postpone it for a couple of years: the so-called millennium bug.

Basically, the millennium bug was a widespread flaw on computer systems, which could cause a series of issues worldwide, with large repercussions. It caused anxiety levels barely ever seen before – certainly the greatest anxiety about possible computers shutting down. The problem, had it occurred, would have happened on the night of December 31st, 1999, exactly at midnight, right at the start of the new millennium. Many were afraid that computers would not be able to recognise that we were entering into the 2000s, and would instead reset their internal clocks to 1900.

But why did people think this? And why would this simple bug even be considered an issue?

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when programmers built the major operating systems of the last century, they designed the code with only two digits. That means that the year 1995, for example, was actually described – or programmed – as 95. To this day some skeptics still think that the bug would not cause any trouble, as it didn’t, but IT professionals – especially those who worked hard on that at that time – guarantee that the “own goal” would be unforgettable.

Almost all computers in the world ran on that system, and all of a sudden we heard that it could simply not work anymore. Therefore it was like a clock with the wrong time, and the world was running against that clock to solve the problem and keep everything functioning properly. A global wide web of technology and data was potentially threatened.

Even 20 years ago, many things already depended on informatics. For months – or even some years before the threat – news was ferocious about asking what would happen if computers could not recognise, let’s say, the future, the new century, the 2000s. It was much more than a matter of numbers. Transport logistics, banks and technological centres already depended directly on computer systems. And because of that, large parts of society did as well. The millennium bug could mean a major collapse in many sectors, for many people. If computer systems would break, a failed radio communication process might have meant that planes could no longer receive instructions, meaning they could crash. Large amounts of money and data would simply evaporate. Uncountable lives were actually in danger. Fear and anxiety became widespread. In the end, however, nothing happened.

The end of the 1990s was a prosperous time. If we briefly analyse the whole decade, it was relatively good in many ways. Well, yes, we had bad times too. We had the First Gulf War (1990-1991), we had the Bosnian War (1992-1995), we had the bubble of the stock market in 1999, we lost Freddy Mercury in 1991 and Kurt Cobain in 1994. All through an era when the Cold War was finally over and the European Union was becoming to fly high through the Schengen Agreement (effectively put into practice in 1995), and populists, nationalists and far-right politicians and movements were completely frozen. The 2000s were the promised new land.

However, the beginning of the new century was quite complicated, as you know. Though we surpassed the millennium bug and the 90s party continued, September 11th would soon come. This would be the end to the encore of the great 90s. The music stopped. The beat was over. Terrorism. East vs. West. Fear of flying. Security measures. Anthrax. Bush. Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. Middle East. Afghanistan. Iraq. War. Another war. A daily war. Patriot Act. Surveillance.

But we survived, even though the following years were also not very easy. Sars erupted in 2003; H1N1 in 2009; Mers in 2012. Millions of people died through similar symptoms and situations like the current Coronavirus: respiratory problems especially among elderly. We also had the Ebola epidemic from 2014. Apart from these ones, we had some other issues, such as two of the biggest tsunamis ever (in the Pacific Ocean, in 2004, and in Japan, in 2011, which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster); in Europe, people experienced the terrorist attacks of Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016), among many others worldwide, like in Bali (2002) and in Moscow (2004), and the uncountable ones in the Middle East and in Africa. We saw the Arabic Spring and the Hong Kong demonstrations (good in one way, bad in another because of the victims). We saw the migrant crises and the rise of far-right parties and politicians, racist and xenophobic movements. It’s been only 20 years, but the current world seems to be so, but so far from the 1990s. Anyway, we survived until now.

Cut to 2020. In January, news spread that a new virus had been discovered in China. A very contagious virus. Still, China is far away. All good. In February, it started to become a problem in Italy. Then it is spread around in France, Spain, Germany, Europe. You start seeing people opening and closing doors with their elbow. You find that strange. But you are young, and young people are not at risk at all, right? Not really. In March, the world is upside down, billions of people are in quarantine and a simple hug has become a lethal weapon. We are stuck. We can’t move. We lost our freedom. We are in a bug.

Days go by, the infection curve doesn’t get lower, the number of deaths and sick people just keeps rising. You are at home. You look through your window and see two, three souls crossing the street where you usually see thirty, forty, a small crowd. You watch another series and go to sleep. You remember your loved ones, those who are far away – even in the same city -, you think of their risk, you think of you, of your friends, you get worried, you open your eyes and ask “why?”. You can’t sleep. You wake up tired, you think of all people again, you know you need to stop thinking of them, you need to work. You feel tired. You don’t produce as much as you want. You are far from all the ones that you like. You can’t go out. There are no bars, no restaurants, no clubs, no festivals, no football. You are bored. You feel sad. You feel sick. You feel cold. You think you got Corona. You think you will die. You think you may have passed on the disease to that old lovely neighbour that you just met in the corridor. You feel guilty. You feel tired. You go to sleep. You can’t sleep. And then comes the day again.

You are afraid. Afraid of touching things. But you go to the supermarket and you have to touch things. You need to eat, you need to survive. You come back from the supermarket and you feel relieved that you are at home. But then you remember that your clothes were outside too. You are afraid of your jacket. You don’t wanna touch it. You drown your hands in the sink, then in the alcohol gel. You are afraid of your trousers, shoes, socks. You take a shower. But you are still afraid. Public transport, pavements, streets, people. You see people sneezing, coughing, complaining, you hear the word “Corona” again. You are afraid to breathe! You are stuck in your own mind. And it doesn’t go away. You try to rest. You have a drink. Then two. Then three. You feel better. You sleep better. But you wake up tired. And then comes the day again. Then another week. Then another. Then a month. Then you realise that you don’t know when you will be free again. You are bugged by an invisible enemy. A virus. A real virus, not a cybernetic one.

That’s the true millennium bug. By the end of the 1990s the threat was a computer bug that would disable everything. Now every system is running smoothly, but nothing really works. And people’s lives collapse.

Perhaps paranoia and stress levels are so high because the current situation affects every generation. Have you already asked your parents or grandparents what we could possibly do regarding this tough time? They don’t know. They have never seen anything like this before either. They are lost too. It is scary. It is tough. It was unpredictable and unthinkable. But we will survive. I am not really sure how things will be after it all, but we will.

One day, when everything is over, we will look back and realise that we survived, as well as we already did in other terrible situations. The thing is that maybe from now on this enemy that we are fighting against might lead us to a huge change. Socially, culturally, economically speaking, as well as in terms of behavior, psychologically.

The virus chooses no social class. Donations, charity and teamwork are in evidence. Although of course there are still those crooks who think only of themselves, solidarity has been shown worldwide. From the balconies of Italy to the media organizations who have made all their content freely accessible. That means information for all. That shows the importance of this moment. Keeping people informed is a great weapon. There is hope in the air.

But don’t be delusional. Mankind may keep being the same: selfish and ruthless, not to mention the tough economic crisis that we will probably face again, a bit more than ten years after the last one. Moreover, this pandemic can also lead us to a real dark era of surveillance. Don’t be surprised if governments conclude that the only way to save humanity is watching us even more. Any time. All the time. Not that this doesn’t already happen. But I am talking about a surveillance that monitors your fever 24/7, for example – as well exposed in this text in the Financial Times -, transforming our lives into the worst chapters of 1984. It can happen. It is possible. I don’t doubt it at all. We are living a time with the best excuse for this.

Borders are closed. Everyone is scared. Nobody moves. Freedom is gone. Nobody knows when it will be over. It seems like a perfect screenplay for a film starred by a totalitarian government. It looks like the past, but it is the present. It looks like a nightmare, but it is reality. In the end, the only one who can actually save us from this all is truly that which totalitarians and stupid people are afraid of more than anything else: science.

We will survive.

Picture: David Wood, Flickr

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