Year 2000 and secrets

Year 2000 and secrets: New problem, or a symptom of an old problem?

In the last few months many warnings have been given and conversations started about the year 2000 (Y2K) problem, the Millenium Bug, or some other related topic. Some of the stories about the millennium bug would have you believe that it will cause airplanes to fall from the sky, ATMs to shut down, power grids to fail, and welfare checks to bounce.

I am an Open Systems Internet consultant and I have come to a different conclusion: That the Y2K 'issue' is no different than any other misuse of technology issues, and will not represent a crumbling of the global economy any more than all the past misuses of information and technology have done so. Yes there will be glitches, but if we fail to understand the roots of these glitches we will be doomed to forever repeat these mistakes, and to work counter-productively in the next few months leading up to Jan 1, 2000.

Computer Software is like any other information used by humans or machines and needs to be:

  • periodically updated as conditions change
  • thoroughly tested (peer-reviewed, verified, tested in many environments, etc)
  • not be relied upon unless the last two conditions are met.

In much of the Computer Software and Technology world, information restriction in the form of copyright, patents and secret-source environments (keeping the blueprints to software, otherwise known as the Source Code, secret from the users of that software) have made the updates costly and the testing/peer-review almost impossible. Update and maintenance costs are higher as one needs to hire someone to update each instance of a specific type of program, rather than the update being done once and shared. Often a problem cannot be directly solved as only those with the blueprints are in a position to be able to make updates. Keeping the blueprints secret essentially removes the possibility of proper peer-review, and the fewer people able to share and make use of the same software the less tested it will be.

People in decision making positions over the years have continued to make the decisions that have caused the Y2K problem. As an example, if one makes the choice to use software in a secret-source software environment, then they must by definition understand that this will mean higher maintenance costs for that software. If they decide to both work in a secret-source environment and do not create the budget for the appropriate level of maintenance, then they are creating the very problems we are now discussing with Y2K.

If a landlord never does any maintenance or repairs to a building on a property, they are not surprised if the building falls down or is otherwise condemned. If automobile owners never do a checkup they should not be surprised when their chosen mode of transportation fails, possibly with fatal results. The high-tech industry is no different in this regard, and we will soon find out who the "slumlords" are, and who has not been trying to externalize their maintenance costs.

The other aspect is the reliance on the unmaintained and untested information. A good business-person would never invest millions of dollars in a given investment based on a whimsical idea from some unknown person off the street. They might use the ideas to then go to experts to try to verify the information, but they would not trust this information alone. This analogy is very similar to what is happening with much of their technological decisions - they are risking huge amounts of their business on unverified information. Just like the gambler who just happens to be lucky most of the time, people who rely on unverified information will eventually have these poor decisions catch up on them.

As progressive thinkers we must look critically at the technology we use in our lives. Are the blueprints to the creation and maintenance of the information available to us? How reliant are we on the technology for our survival? If you find there are things that you rely on that have been kept secret from you, then the time before Jan 1, 2000 is as good as any to try to change or at least minimize this.

It is unfortunate that our lives are put at risk by other decision makers who do not understand these problems, but we should still make all the appropriate changes to our own lives to minimize our own contributions to the problem.

As with everything else in life, there are always alternatives. There are two approaches to take with this type of problem:

  1. Move from secretive information systems to open systems. I am involved in a branch of the computer science industry that does exactly that : Computer software in an Free Software (also known as Open Source) environment where the blueprints to all the information that makes the computer work is made publicly available. The extensive levels of peer review have made these software systems more reliable than secrets based systems. The same concepts exist for other types of content, and a whole movement called Opencontent is starting to gain popularity.
  2. Move away from reliance on inappropriate technology. Many progressive people already do this, whether this is the avoidance of unsustainable non-Human Powered Vehicles, or the keeping of generators and/or alternative heat sources for when the power grid is not available.

    Worrying about computers calulating 99+1=0 is silly when we consider how few people are currently aware of or are "End of Oil Compliant". Not all computing systems were improperly tested when they were designed to handle dates well into the future, but we do know the level at which our current society is inappropriately dependent on fossil-fuels for transportation, heat, electricity and conversion to other forms of energy.

After the January Ice Storm one of the more progressive thinking people I know, Frank de Jong (Leader of the Green party of Ontario), wrote a press release that started with the quote, "Ice-storms would cause only minimal damage were it not for our over-dependence on a centralized electrical system." ( Jan 17, 1998 press release). This is essentially a reiteration of the same principles we are discussing here : reliance on an inherently unreliable system. I hope that others will follow that lead and look at the Y2K problem with the same critical eyes that Frank did for the Ice Storm.

Relevant Links: