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Martin Pawley: no time to steal time

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Today is 15 January, 1998. Well, not everywhere it isn't. In the computer suite of the Sydney stock exchange it is five minutes to midnight on 31 December 1999, and a team of computer specialists is waiting to see what horrendous glitches turn up between the first 00 of the new year, and the last twitch of the leap year in February. This is a big-money enterprise. Financial services corporations have about 10,000 programmes supporting their business applications, so about 14 million lines of code have to be checked. Approximately one line in every 50 will have a date reference; that means that something like 280,000 corrections per company are needed to achieve millennium compliance for its own systems, and that won't sort out the gibberish coming in.

Notwithstanding the reassuring messages spokespersons deliver to the media, this is more than just a problem. Big business is desperately projecting itself into the future, and not just because it wants to know what will happen to mortgages, pensions plans, insurance policies, stock, locks and security vaults when a computer system suddenly flips back to 1900, or 1980 (the year the dos operating system was licensed). More importantly (for business), companies want to find out who they can sue to get themselves out of trouble afterwards.

There is a philosophical dimension to all this. Even people who are not being paid huge fees to scour lines of code and issue so-called 'certificates of millennium compliance' can sense that the earth is moving, and time will never seem the same after the year 2000. These people know that, even if they plan to avoid aeroplanes and lifts, keep off the Underground, not visit the Millennium Experience, not go anywhere near the Channel Tunnel on that fated New Year's Eve, they cannot avoid the realisation that this time we have gone too far. Time has been stretched beyond its modulus of elasticity.

The 'bomb' part of the millennium time bomb has blown away once and for all the idea that time is under our control, for just as we have created a society in which, perversely, property values are established by art historians, so have we also created a system of time that is completely controlled by machines. Seen in this light, the whole notion of 'millennium compliance' reveals itself as a counsel of despair. It assumes that we can borrow time back from machines that have none to spare. Corporate computers already work 24 hours a day. They trigger panic when they go down for 20 minutes. For our specialist 'Compliance 2000' teams to defuse the millennium time bomb, they would have to spin centuries of re-coding time out of the bare 23 months that is left before the game is up at the turn of the century. It is an impossible task, even if a million of them were to fast-forward through months and years every night and every weekend between now and then.

The old proverb about procrastination holds more promise. Provided we can procrastinate until the deadline, the lawyers and official receivers will have plenty of time to sort it out afterwards.

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