13 Dec 2018

'Are You Y2K OK?

From Eyewitness, 7:00 am on 13 December 2018

For those of us that remember it, Y2K is now looked back on as a bit of a laugh. It’s a funny story about the world dealing with technology, but at the time, it was serious business. So how did it become such a memorable moment in history?

The Chatham Islands sunrise on the first morning of the year 2000. Sourced from Te Ara.

The Chatham Islands sunrise on the first morning of the year 2000. Sourced from Te Ara. Photo: Don Merton.

Image by Don Merton.

The internet arrived in New Zealand in 1989, but it was six years later that the World Wide Web’s popularity caught on with the general public. Kiwi’s finally had a connection to the rest of the world, but the web we knew then, wasn’t anything like it is now.

“I don’t even think Google was a search engine in those days.”

Maurice Williamson was New Zealand’s Communications and Information Technology Minister at the time. Unusually for an MP, he came from a coding background, and so had previously heard people in the computer industry talking about date-based operating systems and a possible problem at the end of 1999.

Back then the computers were large and their memory space was small, so programmers, trying to save space, had shortened the year format from four digits to two. This meant that instead of a date reading 1999 it would instead read as 99. When 1999 clocked over to the year 2000, computers would actually read it as 00.

With only 2 digits, 00 could potentially mean any date at all. This fault became known as the Y2K bug - ‘Y’ for year and ‘2K’ for 2000. A ‘bug’ is an engineering term for a fault or flaw.

This flaw meant that computer dates might reset or even go back in time, and because of this, the systems running hospitals, power and other essential services could fail. The fear was that if we didn't fix this flaw, the world as we knew it might shut down.

Andrew McKie was working for Wellington Red Cross in 1999 and had heard the Y2K whispers.

“We had i386 computers back then so it was all pretty basic.

“We have a global Red Cross movement and I was talking to countries like Canada and the United Kingdom and they were really interested in what was happening in New Zealand, because we would be the first country affected.”

Because of our proximity to the International Date Line, New Zealand would be the first developed country to see in the New Year - and by default be the early warning system for the rest of the world.

National Party MP Maurice Williamson.

National Party MP Maurice Williamson. Photo: NZ GOVERNMENT

The preparations began: businesses and services are encouraged to declare Y2K compliance, and most set about testing and upgrading their systems. Ads play on the radio, Y2K preparation checklists are mailed out, and articles run in the newspapers. There are fridge magnets, pamphlets, and Y2K OK stickers. Maurice Williamson is given a new title: Minister for Y2K.

There was even a song. RNZ’s Ali Ventura remembers singing “Y2K 2000” in Primary School.
“The reason I remember it, is because it’s an ear worm, it gets stuck in my head to this day.”

For Ali, as a kid, Y2K seemed more like a spooky story than a worldwide concern.

“I was 9, I didn't even know about computers, we didn't even have one at home, but we knew there was something that might go wrong.

“They were all trying to scare us basically.

“Y2K was coming and you better be ready.”

Maurice Williamson remembers some wild rumours from the time.

“There were people saying the electrical grid will no longer work, and we’ll have no electricity, the aviation system will come undone, because the control towers won’t work... I read stories where there’d be planes just falling out of the sky left right and centre, and of course every briefing we got back said no, that’s not the case.”

But the rumours kept coming.

“We were told some of the cars wouldn't work because they had date dependant chips,” says Williamson. “There were things like the traffic lights weren’t going to work. I remember someone advocating that at midnight all the traffic lights would all go to red.”

Andrew McKie from the Red Cross.

Andrew McKie. Photo: Andrew McKie.

People worried that older missile systems in Russia and America might crash, causing a nuclear disaster. There was a fear that the banks would freeze and people wouldn’t have access to their money. Fake telemarketers tried to convince people to transfer their money into ‘Y2K safe’ accounts. There were also hopeful rumours that ATMs would spit out cash at midnight.

As the millennium crept closer, rumours grew that foreign cults were coming to Gisborne to hold mass millennium suicides. Gisborne hospital was forced to take this rumour into account when preparing for the New Year.

Williamson has a theory about why all this panic appeared. “What was run in the media and what was run in the public was ‘this could be the end of us all, were all doomed’ it didn't seem to have that much of a basis behind it. But you couldn't just ignore it… Until the actual date occurs, you can't tell who’s right and wrong.

“You can't argue against a hypothetical future.”

Ken the Cockroach was created as part of an ad campaign to encourage preparation and appeared on TV’s across New Zealand, reminding people “Don’t panic, prepare” - Image sourced from Emergency Management Canterbury

Andrew McKie agrees. “There were people who didn’t do anything, and people who went into a bunker mentality and really went serious on it. Getting standard emergency supplies, getting food in, supply for petrol, which could be quite dangerous sitting around the house… even withdrawing money out of the bank.”

 “A lot of ridiculous things really.”

On the 9th of September 1999 a ‘dry run’ was held for all major businesses and services. It went smoothly. But the Y2K Readiness Commission revealed deadlines had been slipping for a lot of other businesses, and the focus shifted from fixing systems to contingency planning.

Business owners were torn about whether they need to prepare. Some refused to upgrade, insisting they could turn their PC’s back to 1993 and just reset them every year.

Insurance companies announced they wouldn’t cover air travel or problems caused by Y2K, and Lawyers prepared for post Y2K litigation.

Ken the Cockroach was created as part of an ad campaign to encourage preparation and appeared on TV’s across New Zealand, reminding people “Don’t panic, prepare” - Image sourced from Emergency Management Canterbury.

Ken the Cockroach was created as part of an ad campaign to encourage preparation and appeared on TV’s across New Zealand, reminding people “Don’t panic, prepare” - Image sourced from Emergency Management Canterbury. Photo: Supplied

In the last month of 1999 Auckland businesses hired generators, lift operators hired extra staff, and because of that money rumour, banks stocked extra cash to assure their users trust.

Telco’s asked customers to avoid making calls around midnight for fear of overloading the phone lines.

Basil Logan the chair of the Y2K Commission, told RNZ that all reasonable preparations had been made, but “No one can be absolutely sure, nothing’s being taken for granted.”

New Year’s Eve, 1999. Rain drizzled across the country but regardless, crowds gathered in city centres, fireworks were prepared and TV networks began broadcasting. The world and New Zealand waited in anticipation.

Ali Ventura was watching it all from home. “All my cousins and all the aunties sitting on this one couch, watching our small TV and we were all staying up way past our bedtime… I remember sitting there getting really excited because if something does happen, when you’re a kid you think that’s exciting.”

And there were a few scares. RNZ’s John Macdonald was reporting live from the Chatham Islands which are 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand. As 11:59 clocked over there, John’s voice cuts out and his phone goes dead. A few moments later John is back on the radio saying “I’m not sure if we can say if that was Y2K or not… Because I would hate to start the New Year by giving them a fright.”

Soon after it was mainland New Zealand’s turn. The world watched as the countdown begins. What would happen?

The answer was not a lot. Computers ticked over to the 1st of January 2000 - and kept on ticking. While most people celebrated, some were still kept an eye out.

“I stayed awake right through that night waiting for reports of what might happen,” says Maurice Williamson. “In politics if everything goes well, no one gets any credit, it just carries on. But if it goes wrong, you’ll just get all the blame.”

For Williamson Y2K was a catch 22. Despite everything going smoothly, there were people who were disappointed that nothing had happened. A popular opinion then and now is that the Millennium was nothing but a money making scheme, a hoax and the biggest non-event of all time. Was this a bug that was never going to bite?

Maurice Williamson knows what he thinks. “I guess the only criticism is maybe we did more than we needed to and posed too much cost on people. I don’t think we did. I think we had to make sure those things were, to the best of our knowledge working fine, and I think we did that.”

Andrew Mckie says it’s a warning for the future. “I think it highlights that after an event like Kaikoura or Christchurch, everyone goes out and buys supplies. But people have very short memories and they switch off emergency preparedness until something happens.”

Andrew McKie with a getaway kit - Photo Supplied by Andrew Mckie

In 1999, there was a flaw in the computer systems and it did need to be fixed. Twenty years from now, we’re scheduled to hit Y2K38, a similar issue. We thought we were reliant on technology in 1999. Today, we’re nearly completely dependent.

So will we be prepared for the next big bug?

Maurice Williamson is confident. “Most people involved in the tech world who are developing systems, they know about what those issues could be. They’ll make sure that anything is written in a way that if anything does start to give a bit of a hiccup the other bits of code will take over and fix it up.”

Andrew Mckie is less convinced. “People rely on technology so much, if they couldn't go online or their smart phones weren't working, or couldn't get into the cloud, where all their documents are stored, it’d be a huge issue.”

There were some Y2K issues around the world: Pakistan’s stock exchange failed; in the US, seven nuclear plants had problems with their access and monitoring systems and there were power cuts and system failures in Gambia. But people just got on with living.

New Zealand’s biggest Y2K issue? A video shop in Onehunga decided a VHS tape that was 94 years overdue. When January 1, 2000 rolled over, the shop’s computer convinced itself that the real date was 2094 and had to be reset each morning in order to process the dates correctly. This wasn’t exactly planes falling from the sky or even free money spewing from an ATM.

Ali Ventura reminds us that, at the end of the day, Y2k and the Millennium Bug were for most people just another moment in history.

“The fact there was a millennium was pretty cool, and we lived through it, that was pretty great.”

This story was produced using archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

 Logo of Nga Taonga Sound & Vision

Photo: Nga Taonga Sound & Vision