historical stuff by Gareth Millward
1 January 1900 – Earth
Technology can become obselete. That in itself doesn’t seem to be too contentious a statement. Just ask coopers, smiths and thatchers about how business has been going lately. But the furore over the “millennium bug” or “Y2K” showed just how dangerous this can be when every major administrative system in the world relies on an outmoded date format.
In early computing, both memory and processing power were at a premium. It is estimated that one bit cost one dollar in the 1960s.1 There are 8 bits to a byte. Storing a four digit number requires two bytes; a two digit number only needs one. That’s an $8 per date. Since most calculations would be for dates within the 20th century, adding the “19” to the beginning of the date seemed redundant. It became convention in a lot of software to simply write my birthday as 10/10/85. Which is fine.
However, software used by air traffic control, international banking and national security took these dates to calculate a number of things. Something simple such as the day of the week become complicated once you move over the century boundary. 12 June 1914, for example, was a Friday. 12 June 2014 was a Thursday. And in 1814, it fell on a Sunday.
There are other things that could go wrong, too. Say I wanted to book an appointment with someone seven days after Friday 25 February 2000. No problem – I’ll see them on Friday 4 March. But what if the computer sees that I want to book an appointment seven days after 25/02/00, and thinks it’s 1900? Well, that’s a problem. Because it will want me to be there on Monday 5th March. 1900, unlike 2000, wasn’t a leap year.
Retrofitting old software and data to include the correct date formats and calculations was not a trivial exercise. We spent an estimated $300 billion to fix the problem. In the end, it may not have even been that big a deal.2 But it shows how decisions made out of convenience or financial necessity could come to create problems for future generations who get locked into a particular format.
The most famous example of this theory has come from Paul David, who described how the QWERTY keyboard came to dominate the Anglophonic world. First, it was used for mass produced typewriters. As typists became trained to work quickly on these machines, any potential benefits from a more ergonomic layout were negated by the massive short-term costs of retraining everybody to use the new system.3
If you’ve ever tried typing an e-mail back to your parents using your French exchange family’s AZERTY monstrosity, you’ll know just how this feels.
Historiographically, the idea of path dependence is an interesting one. Certainly, you could apply it to bureaucratic and operational decisions made by businesses, government or the collective action of societies.4 The recent furore over Universal Credit, for example, shows that while there may have been the political will to produce a more rational and consistent benefits system, the existing web of payments and tax credits is unfathomably costly to untangle.5
The current social security system is an accident of history. After being overhauled in the 1940s, new schemes have been added as society has changed and holes in the safety net have been identified. No doubt, a single benefit, administered using a overarching computer system and bureaucratic machinery, would be more efficient that what we have now. But if the cost of change – to both the government in terms of infrastructure and claimants in terms of lost income – is higher than the potential gain, it can cause a political crisis. One might argue there is a reason why no other government has been so… “brave”… in their overhaul of the Department of Work and Pensions.
Despite being a massive part of the late 1990s news cycle, Y2K never really caused that many problems. Like much else with the dawning of the new millennium, the really exciting part was that Western society was approaching a nice round number. It’s like watching your odometer tick over to 100,000, or getting 100 lines in Tetris. Objectively, it means little. But there’s something nice about hitting a milestone.
Still. It’s a helpful reminder. However you design any system, eventually it will start to creak and groan under its own contradictions. But fixing it properly may end up being more costly than patching it up with string and sticky back plastic.