Anyone over 25 will no doubt remember the consternation over the ‘Year 2000’ problem, or ‘millennium bug’ as it became more colloquially known. The issue arose due to the fact that many older computers and programmes had been built to process dates with only two digit spaces for the year (e.g. 12/07/86), meaning that on the 1st January 2000 the year date would revert to 00.

Y2K
Image attribution J Marty

What sort of implications this held varied depending on whom you were talking to. They ranged from the apocalyptic and hysterical (hospitals shutting down, planes falling from the sky) through to the notion that it would all turn out to be a damp squib. In the event in turned out to be the latter, but why?This is an interesting prediction in that it could well be an example of a self-negating prediction. Predicting (accurately) that something bad will happen can have an effect on its own likelihood – it can galvanise efforts to find a solution or otherwise abate the incoming disaster. No-one would say early 20th Century predictions of increased flooding in London turned out to be nonsense simply because we built the Thames Barrier. Was Y2K an example of this sort of prediction?

Tremendous amounts of money and man-hours were indeed thrown at the problem, as engineers and IT folk worked to replace legacy systems in time. And some odd events did take place where systems hadn’t been upgraded. Slot machines stopped working in Delaware, and incorrect Down-Syndrome results tests were sent to pregnant women in Sheffield, to name two examples. Was it overblown, as some claim, or did we actually divert a disaster?

It’s worth thinking about, as it looks like a similar situation has reared its head – the ‘year 2038 problem’. Due to a technical issue, again to do with the processing of dates, some systems will encounter problems early in the morning of January 1st 2038. Twenty-three years is a long time, and experts suggest there’s a good chance that most of the affected systems will be upgraded and replaced by then. But, are they right, and should we do anything more proactive in the meantime?

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