Science  /  Film Review

Heritage 2000

Some years wield such power that you must comply with them.

The contours of the story are familiar. Programmers had engineered the demise of humankind. Back in the ’70s, sipping Tab or whatever, they’d taught the computers to remember years with two digits instead of four. To your average idiot computer—the one that controlled, say, your local nuclear reactor—The Year 2000 would look like 1900 or ERROR. Early programmers had done this to save money—computer memory was pricey—which made them sympathetic to Americans, who understood wanting to save money. The computers themselves were not sympathetic, though. They were going to fuck shit up and had to be reindoctrinated posthaste.

If it had been viable to set up internment camps for the computers, I believe the US would have done this. It might have consoled the uneasy public: An assembly line of machines, going in dumb and coming out smart, with an army of American knowledge workers doing the fixing. The next best thing was the Information Coordination Center, or ICC—a federally funded clearinghouse headed by John Koskinen, whom the Clinton administration had tapped as its Y2K Czar, or chairman of the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion. Koskinen, who would later lead the IRS, was thought to have the technocratic nous necessary to calm an anxious nation. He was bald and from Ohio. You weren’t going to do better than that. He appears often in Time Bomb, presiding over the intricacies of what became known as Y2K compliance—because some years wield such power that you must comply with them. You must convert.

Starting in September ’99, the ICC occupied an enormous former secret-service facility mere steps from the White House. Its backup generators ran on jet fuel. In this forty-million-dollar “crisis-management bunker,” Koskinen sat enclosed in a glass office, surrounded by two hundred staffers working twelve-hour shifts. They wore color-coded cardigans with a Y2K seal on the left breast. (Today these must be coveted, but I haven’t found one on eBay.) Senior officials in white. Experts in royal blue.

At the ICC, information—an abstraction even in the best of times—attained effervescent purity. Koskinen and his deputies talked about it as if it were the luminiferous aether. “We grouped the information flow according to the kind of places it will be coming from,” one of them said. “The intent of this is that there is one single point of contact.” Koskinen later recalled that

it was clear from the start that there was no place in the government with the capacity to absorb information from everywhere, in effect, all at one time. . . . To collect all that information, we’d need to have a new information center. . . . Our general operating philosophy was that we would collect, coordinate, and analyze the information, but that emergencies would be managed by the normal emergency centers.