Boris Johnson and the “pure millennium bug stuff”

I’m really glad Boris Johnson, in private remarks, chose to draw a comparison between the Brexit process and the Millennium Bug. I’ve often thought this comparison was apt and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs’ comments have given me a great excuse to write about my own short experiences dealing with the bug.

I was working at the HQ of a large Irish financial institution between the summers of 1999 and 2000 as part of my placement year/internship prior to graduating in the summer of 2001. Like many major institutions, it had implemented an elaborate programme of testing to ensure there were no issues that could disrupt its business following the changeover. Also, like many institutions in the worlds of finance and government, it had a mature IBM mainframe installation whose workload included bespoke business applications that, in some cases, dated back to the 1960s.

The idea that someone might have a computer program still running 30 or 40 years after it was first written might seem odd to people more familiar with the simple PCs they use at home or at work which often have a three or four year lifecycle. But these mainframe systems are almost unrecognisable as computers in comparison to those we normally use. IBM, even at that point, were the only serious player in that market, and their designs were intended to be indestructible, highly scalable, and capable of dealing with heavy workloads. These systems are designed the way a civil engineer would design a bridge; to remain in service for decades, rather than being heavily reworked, or discarded and replaced, every few years.

Of course, people writing programs in the 1960s, and even up through the 1990s, did not think about the switch to the millennium, especially as storage space was so expensive, so they stored and managed dates with two digits to represent the year. The older the application, the more likely that it would have this issue. Anything that used the year to perform a calculation could behave in an unintended, and potentially catastrophic, way. Not all of the potential bugs were obvious.

During the course of said institution’s Year 2000 mitigation programme, scores of programs and systems were examined in an on-site test facility set up and isolated for that purpose, where the clock would be rolled forward to the changeover point and the correct behaviour of each system confirmed. Bugs were found, fixed and retested until there was confidence that every system worked correctly. Based on what I saw, had this work not been done, and had these kinds of bugs been replicated across other large business and government bodies, the entire financial system along with major government services, especially those to do with taxation and welfare distribution, could quite easily have ground to a halt.

Since that time, ignorant people have suggested that there was really no serious Year 2000 bug and that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. This is a problem not necessarily with the understanding of technology, but with human psychology. It’s simply very difficult to persuade people about something that works out of sight, ensuring that everything runs as it is supposed to, when they can’t see it or directly experience what life would be like without it. Of course, exaggeration of the Year 2000 bug did occur, with some people predicting that planes would fall out of skies, and that kind of exaggeration never helps. But when people hear about issues that are more obviously exaggeration, they are inclined to believe that the issues they don’t directly understand are also exaggeration.

That is where the parallel with brexit lies. Remainers believe that the European Union, with its numerous faults, is instrumental to preserving the prosperity and economic stability that the UK now has, and their argument is based on an understanding of how the EU works. Brexit supporters believe that the EU’s institutions can simply be removed from the equation without doing any harm to the UK at all – in fact they argue that it would be stronger. Unlike Remainers, their argument is generally not based on an understanding of how the EU works, or at least an appreciation of why it works as it does. Not only are they are not able to point to precedent or learned experience, but they openly dismiss the validity of such experience, highlighting that people have “had enough of experts” and so on. When the complete meltdown predicted by the Remain camp following the Brexit vote did not significantly materialise, they felt their distrust of expert opinion was validated.

In one of his other reported remarks, Johnson contradicts himself somewhat, switching from dismissing the threat of Brexit to talking of the impending “Brexit meltdown”, adding that it would be “all right in the end”. That is also true of the Year 2000 bug – had it been ignored, it could have lead to a serious catyclism and financial and societal collapse, but eventually we would have rebuilt things. In fact it is true of everything about our current world order and its complex mechanisms that are designed to avoid wide-scale deprivation and war, built by a generation who had seen that deprivation and war but who appear to have failed to educate their offspring about the imperative to avoid it at all costs.

But the point is that this is not what Boris promised during the campaign. The idea of bringing about a national meltdown in the hope of creating prosperity on the other side is more akin to something that might be found in the writings of Mao Tse Tung. If that is truly what Boris is offering, it stands as evidence that his entire approach to the referendum – where we could simply collect the £350m per week and walk away – was fundamentally fraudulent. If anything justifies asking the UK electorate for a second opinion, this is surely it.