‘No planes fell from the sky, but a lot happened to keep them from doing so’.
This is a common view of the Y2K bug among software engineers and IT professionals in Anglo-American societies. For them it may be true that their hard work saved civilization from digitally-challenged-date Armageddon, but everywhere else in the world, they did next to nothing and yet, conspicuously, planes still didn’t fall from the sky.
So what was going on?
The story of Y2K bug is a marvellous example of how our subjective conceptions don’t just shape our view of reality, they shape objective reality itself.
Was the Y2K bug a serious threat or not? You’d think there’d be a straight and clear answer to this question, but it seems impossible to find one. The distinction between subjective and objective truth appears to dissolve before our eyes and if it can do so in relation to a super-expensive, high-stakes, world-wide emergency like Y2K, where else can it similarly dissolve?
The outcome of the Y2K bug has been used as a vindication of the ‘precautionary principle’ but also as a critique of that principle and an argument in favour of the ‘fix on failure’ principle. Most of the positive reporting has focussed on the positive ‘unintended consequences’, the ‘surprising legacy’ of Y2K preparation (especially the structural development of the IT industry) rather than demonstrating that a disaster actually was averted.
Economist John Quiggin has been the single most cogent thinker on Y2K, especially since his measured scepticism predates the benefit of hindsight. Two of the points he makes are especially worth reflecting on: blame-allocation schemes generally produce bad policy; some form of institutionally-sanctioned scepticism is indispensable.
Below is a list of resources, placed in order of increasing depth of coverage/insight.
US Senate Committee final report
Public Radio miniseries – the surprising legacy of Y2K
Phillimore, J and Davison, A (2002) A precautionary tale: Y2K and the politics of foresight. Futures, 34 (2). pp. 147-157.
John Quiggin paper
For a fourcultures take on this kind of thing, see The Dam Bursts.