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Stephen Fry's In the Beginning was the Nerd

Tuesday 29 September 2009, 10:00

Nick Baker Nick Baker

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The Western world, with a few notable exceptions, poured billions of dollars into electronic pesticides to defeat the Y2K bug. Only to find that for the most part it could have been defeated by turning the systems off then on again. Shades of the hit C4 comedy The IT Crowd. In reality it's the solution put forward in Stephen Fry's Archive on Four next Saturday by Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University, a world authority. Here - exclusive to the blog - is the full interview Stephen conducted with Ross on the crisis that fizzled out and the prospects of a real future digital Armageddon:

So, why the silence when the bug didn't bite? The answer's in the programme. Politicians, experts and businessmen all profited in status or cash from the threat. In the media - to paraphrase the crime reporters - it bled so it led. In the USA, government brazenly claimed victory for its defeat. In reality, the enemy was almost totally imaginary. But it's useless blaming the great and the good. It was inevitable. We'd been told repeatedly that this brilliant new technology would change the world. Then we were told it could all stop on the stroke of one spookily special midnight. We were the newly addicted, suddenly faced with the prospect that our supply was fatally endangered. There was only one thing we could do. Panic. Then spend millions fixing it. Sorry, that's two things.

Nick Baker is Producer of In the Beginning was the Nerd.

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    Comment number 1.

    I understand your idea well.I will be back to read more interesting topics as one in this post.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The 'problem' wasn't the Y2K bug, as we now know, but the fact that those dealing with the issue didn't know if there was a problem (at an individual machine/computer level) or what the problems would be if there was a problem. Yes, perhaps the Y2K bug was hyped but the "I told you that nothing would happen" response has been well and truly over-hyped, but heck it makes good radio - hindsight is a wonderful thing...

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 4.

    As someone who spent three years, on and off, fixing the computer systems of a major British bank to MAKE SURE that it didn't fail after the Y2K switchover, I resent the suggestion that the work was unnecessary. The bug failed to have any major impact because people like me spent a lot of time fixing it. I can assure you that major banking systems, notably those which calculated interest payments, would have failed catastrophically if nothing had been done. We first encountered the problem when a charity with a 125-year peppercorn mortgage slipped into it's 100th year of payment around 1996. That caused total loans systems failure for a whole week and gave us a heads up about just how serious Y2K would be if we didn't hunker down and fix it. To have several years of work dismissed as "unnecessary" because WE FIXED THE PROBLEM and therefore the problem was never encountered by the common journalist, will encourage a dreadful culture of neglect. Stephen Fry should be ashamed to have his name attached to any suggestion that Y2K bugfix work was unnecessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    aoakley is right. I too worked on Y2K projects and can testify to the fact that major chaos would have occurred if time and money had not been invested to avert the problem. Maybe not planes falling from the skies and nuclear missiles being launched in error, but certainly substantial disruption to the economy.

    This whole issue is an example of mankind's tendency to swing from one extreme to the other with these issues. The problem was never as severe as some pople made out (end of civilisation etc.), but now, after the event, having successfully avoided 99.9% of the trouble that could have occurred through concerted effort and ingenuity, we're inclined to believe it was all a conspiracy and the problem never existed in the first place .

    The trouble with this is that the next time there is a pending crisis (global warming? species extinction?) people will pooh-pooh it as just another Y2K. That could be very dangerous.

    It's a kind of variation on the crying wolf story, only in this instance, the wolf did exist, but was successfully repulsed. Should we therefore ignore the next wolf?


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