Y2K a.k.a. the millennium bug was the first digital doomsday scenario. Not only did it stem from a computer glitch, but programmers, survivalists, and government agencies all had the benefit of digital communication tools to help spread the word, develop solutions, and market products designed to ensure survival once the catastrophe began.
Although modern technology was the source of the millennium bug glitch, the predictions of widespread panic and chaos hit a nerve, and triggered responses rooted in fears and stories much older than the current crisis. Prophets and soothsayers have been predicting the end of the world for about as long as there has been a world. In his “Book of Facts,” Isaac Asimov relates that an Assyrian clay tablet dating from 2800 BC predicted the end of the world, linking it to the degeneracy that its author saw in his own culture. Doomsday myths are part of cultural mythologies ranging from the Native American Pawnee tribe, to the Norse stories of Scandinavia, to the Indian Vedic religions, to the Christian Book of Revelations.
The Y2K Problem
The source of the Year 2000 doomsday scenario was a programming convention that started back before computers were even invented, as stenographers working to store data on punch cards with fields that only left room for 80 characters began abbreviating the year using only the last two digits. This practice first originated in the 1930’s and it was adopted by early computer programmers who either didn’t foresee the complications that would arise once a new century began, or just didn’t believe that anyone would still be using their system long enough for it to become an issue.
This system worked fine as long as all of the dates recorded by computers fell within the same century, but it was clearly going to be a problem once the calendar flipped to the year 2000, and the notation “30” could either refer to “1930” or “2030.” In 1958, a programmer named Rob Bemer was the first to predict that this convention would cause problems down the line. He worked for 20 years to alert his colleagues to the problem, but nobody took him very seriously.
There were a couple of articles about the potential problem during the 1970’s, but folks really began paying attention until the mid 1990’s, when the potential fallout was right around the corner. On one end of the spectrum, software developers and government agencies began facing the possibility that their systems could be disrupted due to confusion stemming from misinterpreted dates. At the other extreme, survivalists, religious zealots, and folks who were generally disenchanted with contemporary society began predicting that the millennium bug glitch could cause a widespread meltdown of financial, government, and infrastructure systems, leading to public panic and even apocalyptic scenarios.
Once it became clear during the mid 1990’s that there was some real cause for concern, the government as well as hardware and software development companies got serious about trying to fix “millennium bug”. They invested hundreds of billions of dollars reprogramming systems. Although it may seem like a relatively simple task to fix a date, it was actually quite complicated because the programming convention happened to be part of the system’s foundation, rather than a peripheral element. It wasn’t just a matter of going in and changing a couple of digits; the solution involved updating the entire way that the system read digits.
The federal government passed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, and governments all over the world invested time and resources in addressing the issue. The American government’s approach to the problem involved taking steps to solve the problem before the date arrived and the real difficulties began, educating the private sector about the issue and encouraging them to be proactive as well, and then developing contingency plans so services and government institutions would not be seriously disrupted if the glitch really did have widespread consequences.
Individuals who took the problem seriously and feared dire consequences made preparations of their own. They stocked up on staples like food and water, and bought generators to provide power in case of infrastructure failure. Some folks left the cities, preferring to spend the transition period in an environment where technology did not play a central role, and disruptions in critical services would not cause major problems.
Entire industries sprang up catering to the needs of people who feared the worst. Manufacturers of canned and dried foods found an enthusiastic new market for their products. Companies designed and marketed Y2K survival kits, and one publisher printed a Y2K survival cookbook. Websites sprang up specifically devoted to Y2K survival offerings, and radio talk shows hosted repeated segments soliciting reader participation sharing preparedness ideas.
In the end, nothing happened, or at least there were no widespread, world changing events. There were some isolated problems, the most serious of which was probably a series of misdiagnoses by a hospital in Sheffield, England, which sent incorrect test results to 154 women. As a result, one woman who believed she would be giving birth to a healthy child birthed a baby with Down Syndrome, and two women aborted normal fetuses because they were erroneously told that their children suffered from birth defects. Slot machines at an American racetrack briefly stopped working, and safety monitoring equipment at a Japanese nuclear facility shut down, although fortunately there happened to be no major problems to monitor during the time it was offline.
In all, the estimated cost of fixing the actual problems arising from Y2K related computer problems was about 13 billion dollars. While that’s certainly not a small sum of money, it is relatively inconsequential when you compare it with the anticipated cost of the disasters that were predicted.
It’s quite possible that all of the time and effort that went into reprogramming computer systems successfully averted a doomsday catastrophe. It’s also possible that the potential consequences of the problem just weren’t as dire as the warnings predicted. After all, even countries and organizations that did little to address the problem came out unscathed.
We’ll never know whether the widespread preparation indeed helped us dodge a bullet, or whether there was never any real threat in the first place. There’s no way to rewind the tape and see a scenario with different circumstances and a different outcome. The most likely explanation is that there is some truth to both of these explanations: the preventative measures were, in fact, effective, and the problem itself was serious, but not serious enough to bring about the end of the world, even if nothing had been fixed.
Despite the fact that the drama of actual events paled in comparison to the predictions, the Y2K phenomenon was hardly a silly incident that can be easily dismissed as mere hysteria and fear mongering. On the technological side, the concerted, coordinated effort to address the problem could serve as a model for handling other situations that are bound to arise. There are idiosyncrasies about the ways computers register leap years as well as several other upcoming dates that could also lead to confusion and disruptions, and it would be unfortunate if the absence of dire consequences from this event bred complacency, causing us to overlook other potentially problematic scenarios.
For the survivalists and religious thinkers who prepared for the end of the world, the most important lesson may be that the the emotions that the Year 2000 scenario evoked are legitimate, frightening, and important even if the details of this specific event didn’t pan out as predicted. The Year 2000 scenario was grafted onto an age old story and archetype, and as long as day-to-day life persists in a relatively ordinary fashion, there will probably be occasions for constructing similar prophesies around upcoming events..