The year was 1998. Time magazine published a cover story about “Millenium Madness” and “The End of the World”- and the panic just steamrolled from there.
If you’re old enough, you may remember how worried everyone was that all computers would melt down on January 1st, 2000 when their systems couldn’t recognize the date.
The Y2K (short for “year two thousand”) panic was intense and worldwide, and had many prepping for an apocalypse. Ultimately, however, it was a non-disaster.
What Was the Problem?
The root of the problem was a short-sighted bug in much computer code. Early coders had set up their systems to only record the year with two digits: the last two of the year. In these systems, 1988 was just 88, or 1902 was just 02. These systems had no way of differentiating the year 1920 from 2020. Chaos was expected.
Additionally, many systems needed to work with calculations based on dates. They might need to calculate the life of a loan, for example, and be able to subtract 1970 (or in this case, 70) from 1985 (or in this case, 85). 85 – 70 = 15 and that’s a 15-year mortgage.
The problem expected was when those systems tried to do calculations with new dates, like 2005 and 1990. 05 – 90 = negative 85. So it’s a negative 85-year mortgage? That clearly didn’t make any sense at all.
When faced with this nonsensical and illogical calculation, many systems would do the wrong thing, make the wrong choices, or simply refuse to work at all. This could cause widespread outages of any number of systems, and (in the worst case scenarios) the crash of the worldwide banking system, electric grids, or military organizations.
Doomsayers even predicted the failure of any device that used an internal microchip or computer chip. This list of machines that could possibly fail included everything from elevators and medical equipment to temperature-controlled systems and cars.
How Did People React?
People went crazy. Perhaps the momentous number, and change were partly to blame, but citizens around the world went overboard.
Governments, including the United States, hurriedly signed orders like Bill Clinton’s Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, which ordered cooperation across agencies, businesses, and government organizations to share information and techniques for getting ready. The UN even held an international conference on Y2K and founded the International Y2K Cooperation Center, based in Washington, D.C.
As the panic built, NBC produced a made-for-tv movie about Y2K, subtitled “Countdown to Chaos.” The film featured nuclear meltdowns, plane crashes, and medical crises all tied to failures when computers couldn’t manage the year 2000. Even better, Leonard Nimoy narrated and produced a truly terrible documentary called the “Y2K Family Survival Guide.”
This film and other attention to the computer bug did have an effect on regular folks. Attendance at wilderness-survival and military training boot camps skyrocketed. Gun sales spiked. Generally, people tried to get ready for the world’s infrastructure to crash, and civilization to fall.
Police officers and local governments built bunkers, and laid in weapons. So did homeowners. New fallout shelters were built and survivalists laid in lots of Spam. Yes, the original, pretty gross kind of Spam.
But What Happened?
Not much. The United States, and other nations like Australia spent more than $300 billion getting ready for the big changeover. Russia, Italy, and South Korea spent practically nothing. And in every county, nothing happened, no matter how much the country had spent.
The only recordable effects of the big, scary Y2K bug were minor, like the Japanese nuclear plant had radiation sensors fail- but the backups at the plant meant that nothing bad happened.
Bill Gates, who during the hype shrugged the potential of the Y2K bug off as a “minor inconvenience” turned out to be right. A few printers didn’t work, and one guy had his video store charge him 100 years’ worth of overdue fines (before they fixed it). And people were stuck with a lot of dehydrated food… and Spam.
So Was it Just All a Waste of Money?
Probably not entirely. Many key systems in the nation’s infrastructure received a good hard look and revision that almost certainly improved their performance and efficiency. Many public computer systems also received upgrades as part of the Y2K effort, with positive effects for future crises.
As an example, the modernization efforts and updates that the New York City transit system received as part of the Y2K effort were generally credited for the level of service and lack of breakdown after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
With that said, should we remember this considerable overreaction for the next time, or play it super-safe all over again? Can never be TOO safe, right?