Caught in the grip of the Y2K bug

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 1999, 12:00am

One essential element of news is that it is, just that, new. But one of the biggest stories of the year falls outside that definition.

With just over five months to go, we know precisely when 1999 will turn into 2000. Although it will fill acres of newsprint and hundreds of hours of broadcast time, although the men and women of the millennium are already being selected (Li Ka-shing heading one poll of top entrepreneurs of the past thousand years), the change of date in itself signifies nothing.

Go to bed early on the night of December 31, get up for breakfast on January 1 and the world will be the same - except, maybe, for one thing, the Y2K bug.

The bug is just what is needed to give real spice to the change of millennium. The prospect of the world grinding to an electronic halt at the stroke of midnight is meat and drink to a generation weaned on mega-disaster movies.

As seers and prophets have always known, there is nothing like the threat of a really good disaster to grab the imaginations. A thousand years ago, doomsters in Europe attracted flocks of followers by foreseeing the destruction of the world, or, at least, the spread of plagues not seen the days when the Almighty wreaked vengeance on the Egyptians.

How much better, though, the Y2K bug, with nuclear missiles shooting off at random, the world financial system seizing up, airliners crashing out of the sky, telecommunications failing and all the other portents of the ultimate revenge of the computer chip on humanity.

The real popular hook of the millennium bug is that, however much we are reassured of the precautions taken against it, we can never be entirely sure.

Ask any company if it can guarantee that there will be no trouble at midnight on December 31 - or other potential problem dates before and after then - and you will get a reply which usually falls short of the categorical.

Yes, of course, all steps are being taken. Yes, dedicated teams are at work. Yes, huge sums are being spent. And yes, airline executives will either be in the air to show their confidence, or on the ground to show that there is no need to be in the air at all because nobody need have any worries.

An international monitoring group has given Hong Kong top ratings for Y2K readiness.

Hongkong Telecom has achieved complete compliance and three other leading telecommunications firms as well as utilities aim to be ready by the end of this month. Our major banks and institutions belonging to the Stock Exchange are either already compliant or say they will be shortly. Here at the South China Morning Post we have been doing all we can to ensure that you get your newspaper when you get up on January 1.

The SAR Government has spent $530 million on reprogramming and expects to achieve more than 99 per cent shortly.

Being human, you stop for a second on that 99 per cent figure. What about the other one per cent? After all, the most sophisticated military force the world has ever seen is blaming the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on old-fashioned human error.

That is what gives the Y2K bug its fascination. Governments, institutions and companies can take every precaution. But the possibility of a mistake, of an unforeseen error, of a rogue hacker somewhere out there who will sabotage billions of dollars worth of work can never be ruled out.

So one thing is certain: it may be the most trailed story of the year, but the millennium bug is not going to go away. It may not cause a single hiccup, but there will be no way of knowing that until well after the event. And we have no way of knowing if that could be too late.