A Comparison Between Y2K & the Titanic

Students of history marvel at how history is composed of sets of repetitive cycles. One would think that there would exist a greater amount of wisdom gained from past mistakes in history and this wisdom would be applied to current situations, but by and large this does not occur. Usually what is gleaned from history is what the observer wants to see and little more.

One of the greatest disasters in the history of the world is the tragedy of the Titanic. As a result of this disaster, changes were put into place and laws created to ensure that such an event will not occur again. One documentary claims that this was the event that caused the world to sit up, rub its eyes and awaken. Yes, that happened to a degree, but did the world stay awake or did the world over time roll back over and go back to sleep? This is the question that must be answered. In the repetitive cycles of history we see, it appears that we tend to do the latter.

The twentieth century currently faces a situation never encountered in its history: the arrival of a new milennium during an age of technology. Soon to be discovered is whether this technological machine will hold up into the new millenium, or whether, like the Titanic, it will sink to the lowest depths. The answer lies partially in our own actions and reactions to the problem. I would like to explain the amazing similarities between Titanic’s day and the day we live in today. Let us first examine the attitudes that are held in common between the two time periods. These attitudes set the stage, so to speak, for tragedy to occur.

Regarding the Titanic era, many factors come into play, which, when put together, caused the Titanic’s sinking and the great loss of life (two thirds of the passengers). The mindset and attitude circa 1900 was one of arrogance and extravagance; it seemed nothing would sink Britian’s ever expanding empire. Coined “The Gilded Age” by poet and writer Mark Twain, the world was seemingly getting better and better, largely due to the advent of technology. Prince Albert, in 1851, declared that We are living at a period of the most wonderful transition which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end to which indeed all history points: the realization of the unity of mankind.

This attitude was even encouraged by the British clergy. None believed that this floating palace, man’s symbol of progress and invincibility, would end up at the bottom of the ocean and two short years later the world would be engulfed in the flames of war. In this case, arrogance brought a lack of foresight and vision for the future.

The class distinctions on the ship were another example of arrogance; third class passengers were treated like cattle and not allowed to associate with any other class, while first class enjoyed all the luxuries the ship boasted of. No expense was spared; the Titanic contained a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a library, smoking rooms and an exercise room, many items unheard of until then. The ship was completely stocked with every convenience known to man at the time.

This arrogance was also evidenced in the naming of the ship; Titanic was named after the Titans, who in Greek mythology challenged the gods on Mount Olympus for supremacy and were defeated. A popular line that circulated about the Titanic was God Himself could not sink this ship! As history unfolds, we see clearly that the ship was not what the shipbuilders boasted it would be.

Looking back over the past twenty or thirty years, a mindset resembling the Titanic’s day has permeated our modern culture. A quote from December 1998’s Charisma magazine accurately describes the ship that our society is now founded upon: Tens of millions have placed their hope in the stock market, their jobs or retirement accounts. We’ve steamed along on this Titanic of an economy for years. Two little digits might be the equivalent of an economic and social iceberg to our way of life on the verge of a new millenium.

Just like the smooth, calm sea the Titanic was sailing upon just before it hit the iceberg, our economy and stock market appear to be stable but are headed towards an iceberg, which is the new millenium. Many believe our economic ship is unsinkable and are thus unprepared to handle an emergency. Very soon, our “unsinkable” economy will face its greatest test.

Next, I would like to point out the similarities in the design of actual ship Titanic to the modern technological system we have today.

Though the Titanic was stocked with conveniences of every kind as stated before, it lacked one thing, an adequate number of lifeboats. The ship set out on its maiden voyage with twenty lifeboats. The original design of the boat called for 32 lifeboats that would each fit 60 people, but White Star management (the shipbuilder that made the Titanic) felt 32 boats would make the decks look too cluttered, so only twenty were put onto the boat. (After the sinking, however, the laws were changed that required ships to contain enough lifeboats for every passenger on board.) Before the sinking, White Star and other shipbuilders balked at this idea. So the shipbuilders were confident at the time that twenty lifeboats were all they would need, on an unsinkable ship they would never have to be used anyway.

Let us now take a look at a ship that much, if not most, of today’s society rests upon, the computer. The general population has little comprehension of to what degree the everyday functions of our economy are controlled by computer, and not many realize that inside our computer controlled “ship” is a fundamental flaw. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when computers were huge and the cost of a megabyte of RAM (random access memory) was a whopping half a million dollars, to save money and memory, computers were programmed with just two digits in their date fields, with 19 the assumed first two digits. Therefore, at the stroke of midnight on December 31,1999, when the numbers roll over to 00, computers will think the year is 1900, not 2000. To see a typical example of how this would apply to you and me, let’s say you opened a savings account at your bank in 1989. When the year 2000 arrives, if your bank’s computer thinks it is 1900, your savings account won’t exist for another 89 years. The same scenario applies for any financial software you would have on your home PC. If one thinks that their Y2K problem will be solved if they get their home or buisness PC compliant, remember, it won’t matter if your computer is compliant if you have no electricity to run it!

This problem is known today as the Y2K problem or the Millenium Bug. Despite some claims to the contrary, there is no silver bullet in existence that will fix the problem. Correcting the Millenium Bug means scanning millions of lines of computer code one by one and changing them, a process that is both expensive and time consuming.

Back in the 1970’s, to the information technology field, it seemed like a good idea to minimize expensive data storage by storing years as two digits rather than four. After all, many young programmers reasoned, these computers will end up in the scrap heap way before any millenium change. A few older and wiser programmers, citing potential problems with this method, made unsuccessful efforts to convince management to program the computers to read the years in four digits. Now the cost of fixing this technological blunder will most likely exceed what it would have costed the programmers to do the job right in the first place. Again we see, like in Titanic’s day, a lack of foresight and planning for the future. So, how do these computers affect me and my little world? Most of the industries that supply essential services to the public such as utilities, water, sanitation, transportation, food supply, medical equiptment, and banking are run by computer. Unless fixed in time, many of these computers will either shut down or begin spewing out spurious data come the year 2000. This could very well affect life as we know it. Besides possible disruptions in our personal lives, Y2K could lead to massive buisness failures and losses of jobs. In an article for Internet Week magazine, Tim Wilson states: Exactly 86 years ago next week, Capt.Edward Smith steered the RMS Titanic at full speed into iceberg-laden waters without enough lifeboats to carry the ship’s 2,200 passengers. So, how’s your year 2000 effort going? Unless your company is on an ice floe, you’re probably getting a sinking feeling. Because even if you have all your applications fixed in time, you still can’t be sure that the embedded micro-chips in your electronics will operate. ...The problem is too big to avoid. So, while you’re working to stop the deluge, it’s also time to start counting the lifeboats.

Let us compare now the reactions of the crew and passengers to the news of the Titanic’s sinking to the reactions of the general public and buisness concerning the Y2K problem. Because they believed the vain boasts of Titanic’s manufacturers, the Titanic’s crew never held a proper lifeboat drill. A plan for the movement of passengers in an orderly fashion into the boats was never discussed. Everything had to be learned while the ship was sinking under their feet. Boats that were meant to contain sixty people were lowered only partially full, one with only twelve people aboard. Since people did not believe the ship could sink, they refused to leave the comfort and warmth of their cabins until it was too late.

The passengers were not the only ones unprepared to handle what was happening; the crew was stunned into complacency, overwhelmed by the size of the boat and the disbelief that the ship could sink. They were also unfamiliar in working with each other and therefore unsure of each other’s responsibilities. When the ship was just about to hit the iceberg the navigational crew took the wrong action; had the ship been ordered full steam ahead while turning the wheel hard over, some of the watertight doors would have flooded, but the flooding would have been contained. The captain had already retired for the night when the ship hit the iceberg and was awakened to hear the news.

This was captain E.J. Smith’s last sea voyage before retirement. About his sailing adventures, Smith responds: When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say ‘Uneventful.’ I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good for a story. His experience cause him to vastly underestimate the severity of the situation.

The press was in widespread denial about the sinking until confirmed reports arrived that the Titanic had indeed sunk. An article in the Wall Street Journal on April 16,1912 states: The gravity of the damage to the Titanic is apparent, but the important point is that she did not sink!...Man is the weakest and most formidable creature on earth, his brain has within it the spirit of the Divine and he overcomes natural obstacles by thought which is uncomparably the greatest force in the universe.

The responses of those involved in Titanic’s sinking closely mirror the attitudes of today regarding the Millenium Bug. There exists a sheer disbelief, founded in arrogance, that any disruptions in our lifestyles could possibly occur, after all, our ship is unsinkable. As stated earlier, very few are prepared for emergency scenarios. Here is a quote from Sherry Burns, director of Year 2000 Office of the Central Intellegence Agency (CIA): There is very little realization that there will be a disruption. As you start getting out into the population, I think most people are again assuming that things are going to operate the way they always have. That is not going to be the case.

Most local governments are only beginning to address the issue. Here is a clip from the Ithaca Journal last September: With less than 16 months to go, most small towns in New York have still done nothing to eradicate the “millenium bug in their local government computers. They’ll need to get started right away if they want to keep their traffic lights, elevators, payrolls, 911 calls and other computer-guided services from going haywire, state Comptroller H.Carl McCall warned. ...Unless local governments begin right now taking steps, many of them will not make it, McCall said. The clock is running but there is time if they now move aggressively.

The United States Government is not faring much better. According to the U.S. Government Report Card, only three government agencies received a grade of ”A”, meaning their year 2000 reprogramming efforts are on schedule.

Ironically, our country leads the pack, compared to other nations as far as readiness for Y2K. According to Margaret Beckett, a government minister in the UK: I have come late and somewhat relucantly to the view that we cannot be confident we can deal with all the problems... it is important to prioritise the areas of greatest concern and draw up contingency plans... "

With any disaster, the media and public will always look for scapegoats, someone on whom to place blame. This was true for the Titanic’s sinking, and will also be true for the Y2K situation. First, we will look at Titanic’s scapegoats. One was Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line; he was accused of encouraging Smith to break a record and have the ship arrive in New York on Tuesday when the ship was scheduled to arrive Wednesday. Ismay denied this accusation at the Titanic hearings that followed.

Captain Stanley Lord, the captain of the Californian, was another person accused during the hearings. The Californian was close enough to see eight rockets fired and then, according to Lord and his crew, the ship sailed off from sight. Lord defended himself by stating there was a mystery ship that passed between the Titanic and his ship just before the sinking, so it was unclear to him exactly what state the Titanic was in. These reports of a mystery ship remained speculation and were never verified. Nevertheless, these accusations remained with Lord the rest of his life.

The complexity of finding those to blame for the Y2K problem is sure to exceed the magnitude and scope of the Titanic hearings. Companies that fail to deliver on contracted goods because of a Y2K related computer failure will very likely be one of the targets of Y2K litigation. The projected cost of Y2K related lawsuits is estimated at about one trillion dollars. Companies may sue Y2K contractors if they fail to deliver Y2K readiness as promised, Social Security receipients may sue the government for lost benefits, buisnesses may be sued for not delivering goods and services, and the general population may sue for failed utilities and traffic lights, and the list could go on and on.

The one bright spot about all this is the fact that the year 2000 still lies in the future. Just like the iceberg that loomed in front of the Titanic, this “iceberg” civilization is about to hit is now unavoidable. Everything now depends of how we will maneuver towards it. Will the year 2000 be a fatal hit, or will our system limp along for awhile, and later be salvaged and eventually mended? Will history repeat itself once again? Time is about to tell us the answer.