Exe0.1 Linda Hilfling
BUGS IN THE WAR ROOM : economies and/of execution
Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter, November 2015
Chennai, South India. I am sitting in the office of a senior engineer of one of India's largest IT-companies. It is autumn 2014, but our conversation brings us to the years prior to the turn of the Millennium. She recalls her experiences of working within one of the many teams busy fixing the Y2K bug. The senior engineer describes the 'war room' a space in which she together with her colleagues over a duration of twenty-four hours observed the world making the transition from the 31st of December 1999 to the 1st of January 2000. “Well, they thought that on January 1st 12 AM in the morning all planes will stop, all towers will stop, all trains will stop, all the clocks would stop, and all systems will come to a stand still ...”, she says.
In this short text I wish to open up for an understanding of execution as a continuous, incomplete process - a flow that connects/runs across technological and economical systems always on the verge of breakdown. This is illustrated through a close reading of the Y2K Bug, where a supposed technical error stirred up the global economy.
Towards the turn of the Millennium attention was directed towards the so called Y2K problem, or Y2K bug, as it was dubbed primarily in the Western world. Since the early days of computation it had been a routine to indicate year dates with two digits instead of four, leaving out the numbers specifying the millennium in order to save costly computer memory. But awareness of the implications of such practice suddenly arouse: When reaching the year 2000, the computer would not be able to distinguish the 00 of 2000 from the 00 of 1900. Thus it was assumed that “[u]nless reprogrammed, bypassed or replaced these systems will malfunction at the turn of the century, if not before, with wide ranging consequences” [Downing, 1998:i]. The Y2K bug was presumed to lead to failures within major financial institutions like banks or stock exchanges, payroll systems, telecommunications and power systems [Koskinen, 2000].
The senior programmer explains: “We had set up something called the war room to monitor the systems' change overs. Because we were working across all the verticals like banking, critical transaction, transportation i. e. where the planes have to land – they thought that some planes might not even land because of the Y2K problem.”
The basic influential theorem of Heidegger on technology states that technology only appears to us in breaking down, when it goes from “readiness-to-hand”, being at our disposal (Heidegger, 1962:98) to announcing itself (Ibid:52) through the break-down and thus becoming “present-at-hand”. In the same line Bruno Latour describes his notion of reverse black-boxing in “On technical Meditation – Philosophy, Sociology, Geneology” as how a bug by making a system fail, is reverse-black-boxing it by pointing the user's attention from the system as an enclosed object to the different parts of which the system is made [Latour, 1994:36]. Latour points to the example of an overhead projector, which appears as an integrated closed black boxed object, but upon breakdown it's network of interconnected objects and actors: lens, lamp, cooler, cables etc are made visible. In a similar way, the bug that terminates a running process – a process of execution - thus draw the attention to the relations which the execution-process is part of.
At its core the Y2K Bug can be said to be caused due to a practice of executing as economically as possible. ”Leon A. Kappelman, co-chairman of the year 2000 working group for the Society for Information Management, estimates that use of two-digit years in a program written in the 1960's would have saved more than $1 million per billion bytes of data stored over the following 30 years.” [Feder & Pollack, 1998]. The Y2K bug thus reflects the socio-economical development of three of the computer's core components: processor, memory and storage. The economic aspects of these three parts evolved over different time and scale. The processor was quickly made capable of performing faster in relation to its price i. e. it became cheaper to produce faster processors. The same was not true for memory, which stayed expensive. (Storage became cheaper, but not reliable). Because memory was very expensive it became a praxis to reduce the four digits of a given year into two digits or one byte, the so called “pack decimal”, which at the turn of the Millennium would be labeled “Y2K bug”.
Consequently the Y2K bug highlights hardware as well as socio-economic relations entangled with the process of execution. The likely interrupted execution process reveals a dependency on external relations: objects and actors (and not just execution as enacted code).
The senior programmer goes on to state: “The war room was a 360 degree room were everybody was having a terminal to monitor the systems, talk to the clients. Then there were Maya phones, they thought even the phones would fail, even the phone companies, so there were alternative communication methodologies. There was a back up link. There was a fiber optic link” and she notes: “There were not many people in the room. Only the key people, about 50 of us”
The engineer's description of the Y2K war room of the Indian IT corporation bear a resemblance to Ken Adam's set-design for the war room scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. It strikes me that Dr. Strangelove's war room equally was equipped with a 360 degree table. It also had around 50 people gathered in the room - all equipped with a terminal and a phone. In “Lessons Learned from War Room Designs and Implementations” Steven M. Shaker describes how war rooms have been playing an important role in 'developing tactics and grand strategies' within the US military. Shaker traces the transformation of the war room from “rooms concentrated on maps, and on game tables with miniature flags and models representing force disposition and movement” [Shaker, 2002:3] to how “[w]ith the advent of modern communications and near real-time reconnaissance and intelligence these rooms have refocused to concentrate on command and control rather than long range planning and strategy formulation” [Ibid]. War rooms are spaces of concentrated power: the site from which orders are given to be executed. The story goes that when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, he asked his “chief of staff to be shown the war room of Dr. Strangelove” [Adams, 2009]. Reagan assumed that this was a real room, placed within the Pentagon. This anecdote might tell more about Ronald Reagan's skewed relationship with war and reality . But no doubt, Adam's war room design is iconic: The 360 degree table in the center of the triangular concrete bunker, manifests an imaginary image of the epicenter of power in the Cold War era. Despite the fact that the film was shot in black and white, Kubrick insisted that the table should be covered with green felt, as he wanted to give an impression of how the powerful men gathered around the table “were playing for the faith of the earth like a poker game” [Ibid].
I start wondering about the materials of the table of the Indian Y2K war room: This table is not assembling top leaders, but rather gathering what could be labeled an emergency-brigade, or the caretakers of our information architectures. Also these people are not in a position to gamble with earth, but instead standing by, monitoring existing processes of execution – and in case of break down , ready to immediately step in and fix the problems in order for the execution to go on; thus they are maintaining the, otherwise incomplete, flow of our information architectures. In this way, the Y2K war room might prove to be a crucial site for the understanding of execution's entanglement with global economy: not, because the Y2K war room is a focused center of power and command, but rather on the contrary, because it is the site from which information architectures are being maintained and made flowing.
“If you think your company will be okay because all your systems are Y2K compliant, guess again... Just because you've worked out your Y2K bugs doesn't mean your suppliers have. If 5% of your suppliers go out on you, can your company survive?" , April, 1999 issue of The Futurist as quoted in Fishman and Fosket, 1999.
In "Revisiting the Y2K Bug : Language Wars over Networking the Global Order", 2003, Kirsty Best points out how the Y2K bug “illustrated the way in which the primacy of the individual within a global order is under threat from the contamination of others, the inability to seal one’s borders” [Best, 2003:301]. Such presumed omnipresence corresponds to Ulrich Beck's notion of boomerang effect within the Risk Society. Beck writes “The multiplication of risks causes world society to contract into a community of danger” [Beck, 1992:44 – my emphasize]. However, in March 1999, The Financial Time reported: “Federal officials have said that if they are not satisfied with other countries' plans for air traffic control, the Department of Transportation could ban flights between specified airports and the US or prevent US airlines and code sharers from flying over certain countries” [Fishman & Fosket, 1998]. In November the same year, the semi-official private sector body of UK, the so called Taskforce 2000, “advised travelers to avoid Italy, Germany and a number of other countries  for a five-week period around 1 January 2000.” [Quiggin, 2005:49] Such divisions between “us” and “them” played out on macro as well as micro levels: Kevin Quigley quotes a civil servant remarking on the process of correcting the Y2K bug within the British Government saying that “Given the consensus that ‘it had to be done,’ any opposition from within would have been the work of a troublemaker, not a team player [...] becoming ‘Y2K-compliant’ was a badge of honour; it meant good corporate citizenship.” [Quigley, 2004:818 ]. This leads to a gap between those who are doing their duty, being 'good citizens' and not asking any question in opposition to a “few ‘cynical’ civil servants” reflecting critically on how the Y2K-compliancy is being carried out [Ibid].
The 'us' will by all means attempt to continue the execution, whereas the 'they' might not care about, be critical towards or not be capable of correcting the Y2K bug, and thus with different means have to be controlled or symbolically excluded from the network. Thus the “risk” surrounding the Y2K bug takes form as a discourse of “othering” [Best, 2003:302 ;Fishman & Fosket, 1998] rather than the 'community of danger' as envisioned by Beck.
Economizing execution / executing economy
Back in the office in Chennai, the engineer ends her account: “We had to manage the entire 24 hours. Just follow the sun on that day [...] Very few critical problems were there. It had nothing to do with the date – the usual production support problems.”.
I keep thinking of the senior engineer's final remark: “Very few critical problems were there. It had nothing to do with the date – the usual production support problems.” There is a tendency to think of execution as an ongoing flow of running processes, but as Nathan Ensmenger notes “Software is not an end-product, but should rather be understood as a “heterogeneous system” consisting of social as well as technological components” [Ensmenger, 2009:88]. This means that since the world around the executed code is continuously being altered, the software itself has to be maintained and updated in order to be kept alive, i. e. to be executable at all. Thus the war room of the Y2K bug was not just a one off happening, conversely it is taking place all the time: the bugs in the war rooms - the usual production support problems - are found, corrected, enhanced, in order for the networked global economy to continue executing.
Maintenance is about efficiency - thus a matter of economy and economizing and the Y2K problem could be said to manifest this as a problem of execution. Not as a relation between source code and executed object code, but in this case of execution as matter of an economy of the hardware. Meanwhile the scare of the potential breakdown, opened up, not only, for an understanding of the internal relations between hardware and execution, but also for an understanding of the external role of execution as the main drive behind a networked global economy as well as the inherent divides within such a drive.
1 : Or maybe even the other way around, DARPA's skewed relation with reality and war. After Operation Desert Storm, means were taken to hire Herman Zimmerman, the set-designer of Star Trek, to develop a mobile War room called 'The Enterprise' based on his design for the USS Enterprise NCC 1701 Bridge [Shaker, 2002:3].
2 : The full list of countries which should be avoided included: Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain as well as Switzerland.
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Feder, Barnaby J. & Pollack, Andrew (1998) . “Trillion-dollar digits: a special report.; Computers and 2000: race for security ” in NY Times , December 27, 1998. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/27/us/trillion-dollar-digits-a-special-report-computers-and-2000-race-for-security.html?pagewanted=all visited November 20, 2015.
Fishman , Jennifer & Fosket, Jennifer Ruth (1999). “Constructing The Millennium Bug : Trust, Risk, And Technological Uncertainty”. CTheory 10/13/1999. Online: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=216 visited November 20, 2015.
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