y2k, 9/11 and a story of data persistence

My friend Margaret Anderson, whom I had met through a meditation group, had invited me to attend a special event at the New Musuem. Margaret is one of those wonderful people who are devoted to listening, helping others and a peaceful spirit that is contagious. Just three months before she had agreed to co-produce a show with me and her creativity and passion for theater — something she had never worked with — was a huge success.

The event started on December 12, 2014 and I had no idea what to expect. When a short documentary film about all the doomsday predictions for Y2k kicked off the night, I laughed with abandon with the rest of the audience. Pastors, prophets and the paranoid were featured in interviews and on camera in their homes preparing for the end of the world. Safely and well into the 21st century, we bathed in the absurdity that anyone had panicked at all leading up to that New Year’s Eve.

When the lights came up, there was Margaret at a table with two other panelists and the artist, Perry Chen, who was curating the evening.

After introductions were made Margaret said, “Now you all laugh, but disaster was averted that night. For years leading up to Y2K we worked to save systems from failing, records being lost and billions of dollars disappearing.” The room fell silent.

Margaret had mentioned to me that in a past life she was a computer scientist, but I had been too consumed with my own artistic work to pay much attention. That night I found out that Margaret had been the Senior Director of the Center for Y2K and Society, and had been a leader in preparing for the event throughout most of the 90s.

Engineering the End of the World

When Margaret began working as an engineer in the 1970s, “main frames” housed the central processing unit (CPU) and main memory of these early computers. They were massive, finicky beasts. Just to compare these old mainframes to mobile phones today, the System/370 Model 145 had 500 KB of RAM, 233 megabytes of hard disk space, and ran at 2.5 MHz. Adjusted for inflation today, it cost $4 to $10 million. Today it would only be able to store a few photos and slowly access them.

During the 70s, the IBM 7090 mainframe computer filled a large room.

In 2018, companies still use mainframes, but the term now refers to large, high-end computers with more processing power than consumer-oriented machines like laptops and desktop computers.

The lone engineer on the panel, Margaret explained the looming tech crisis of the 90s. All of the mainframes she had worked for decades on were built on two-digit year datatypes. That meant that when the year 1999 switched to 2000, software would not be able to distinguish 2000 from 1900. From a record-keeping perspective, this was a huge problem. From the perspective of many complex industrial, commercial and municipal mainframes, this would spell certain disaster.

This is when Margaret, along with many other computer scientists, began working together on prevention. She had worked with the punchcard system that most computers ran on in the 60s and 70s, and 80s and 90s computers were built upon. Cutting off the first two digits of the year saved on memory in those early computers. When they first built these programs no one had ever anticipated that the computers would one day need to party like it’s 1999.

In every language and system there were multiple plans of attack for the myriad of bugs that lurked in the corners of the software. To give a small example, in JavaScript the solution was to turn 2001 into 101.

Still true for 2018
A webpage screenshot of the JavaScript .getYear() method problem

Unexpected Fallouts

As the years passed and project Y2K grew, Margaret found that in the U.S. she was working with an unprecedented number of women to find solutions. Many of the high-profile male managers she had worked with refused to be associated with Y2K; the amount of unpaid hours and potential for huge disaster, blame and professional shame ensured they stayed away. Success, which is what happened, would be treated like there had been no real threat. From a management career perspective, there was little upside to getting engaged. The effect was that the competitive, masculine energy familiar to her in the field was often replaced by collaboration, open communication and teamwork.

Excitingly, she observed that those at the operational, engineering and programming level, regardless of gender, initiated a very high level of cooperation and information sharing, across organizational and national lines. That was key — essential to Y2Ks success!

It was also interesting that countries new to the digital revolution in the 90s were largely protected from the looming catastrophe. As many nations in Africa, Asia and South America didn’t join the World Wide Web until the 1990s, they received the latest technology that accounted for the change to the 21st century. Developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom were running on much more date-bug vulnerable software.

As the evening wound down, we were on the edge of our seats. Like some sort of Men in Black movie, we were dazzled by the unknown peril we had been in the midst of fifteen years previously. Then, of course, on all of our minds was something else. When we reflected back to January 1, 2000, we remembered a much more tragic date that would definitively set tone of the new millennium: September 11, 2001.

The New Museum, only a mile from the World Trade Center, was a fitting place for the next lesson of the evening. As American computer systems updated to reliably keep track of the four-digit Gregorian year, other industry-wide upgrades were implemented. The WTC was home to about 300 mainframes, and as part of Y2K strategy, much of the data they stored was persisted to off-site servers. The 1993 WTC attack further fueled these protective measures.

On a very somber note to end the evening, Margaret said that had it not been for Y2K, the tragedy of 9/11 would have been made even worse. Much of the financial records of Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, Chase, Morgan Stanley and many more would have gone up in smoke, destroying the financial welfare and safety of millions of people worldwide.

The Bugs to Come

As I train as a web developer in Manhattan’s Financial District, I pass the World Trade Center every day. This past weekend the doors of the Cortlandt Street Station opened again for the first time since September 11, 2017. Today as the 1 train pulled up to the Cortlandt World Trade Center Station, a Tuesday like that fateful day, I held up my ever-powerful iPhone to record a one-minute video that would have broken those old mainframes that once lived here. As a new American economy booms with record unemployment, it feels the doors are also opening to a new post-dotcom crash, 9/11 and 2007-2008 financial crisis world.

I thought how strange it is that technology such as planes and skyscrapers can cause such unfathomable human suffering, and that computers can cause a societal meltdown. As I see the Tribute in Light shining into the sky tonight remembering two ghostly towers in the distance, I see what a privilege it is to know that calamity is coming for us. It is a blessing to know that people can come together two stop two digits from ending the world. If only we could have stopped two towers from falling and four planes from changing our world forever.

The coding bug of Y2K38, the Unix Millennium bug, is coming for us, but I’m sure we’ll be well-prepared for it. Margaret is off enjoying her retirement and artistic pursuits, while I unexpectedly become the software engineer. Meanwhile at the World Trade Center, memorials remember and state-of-the-art technology and architecture reigns. A new tower also stands to keep company with those solemn beams during the night of 9/11, and it persists into the dawn.

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