Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
You’re still recovering from your (no doubt responsibly socially distanced) New Year’s Eve party, and everyone still seems cautiously optimistic that this year will be better than the last one, so now seems like a great time to remind you of twenty years ago when we were all convinced that the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight. The computers were all going to spontaneously stop working, and then we were all going to starve, or something. Look, the details were fuzzy, but we were all pretty sure the apocalypse was right around the corner. (Which it was, but it was a big corner. A twenty-year corner.)
I’m talking, obviously, about what we all called the “Y2K bug,” because, at the turn of the millennium, salads of random letters and numbers were on the cutting edge of cool, because, Prince, I think? It stood for “year 2000,” because “k”…“kilo”…thousand…you get it. (Its most improbable legacy is the “2K” series of sports videogames, which you can currently buy in the form of NBA 2K21, which mathematically should actually be NBA 2K+21, and thank you for coming to my TED Talk.) If you’re unfamiliar with what the Y2K bug was, it might take a hot second to explain, but briefly, computer memory was extremely expensive in the twentieth century. These days, you can pick up a PlayStation 5 (well, if you can find one) with a one-terabyte solid state drive and sixteen gigs of RAM for only 400 bucks, but in the early days of computing, memory would run you as much as one dollar a bit. (If you work the math out, that means that the PS5’s flash drive alone would have been worth eight trillion dollars in the 1960s, which coincidentally is also what a scalper will charge you for a PS5 right now.) As recently as the 1970s, computers were still storing data and programs on paper punch cards, which made them roughly as advanced as player pianos.
The upshot was that early computer programmers were looking to save memory any way they could, and most of them weren’t thinking too hard about what their choices would mean decades in the future. So when computers needed to know what date it was (for instance, when said computers received “save the date” cards for other computers’ weddings), designers programmed them to reckon that date with just six digits—“DDMMYY,” or whatever. This was great…until the first two digits of the year changed, several decades later. But obviously these systems wouldn’t be in use then! Right? I mean, have you seen the computers from the seventies? They looked like someone threw a bunch of rejected recording equipment in a giant room. Surely by the nineties we’d have something better.
It turns out that it’s almost always easier to build on existing systems than to start over from scratch, so for decades the basics of computing relied on the foundations set down in the seventies, without really questioning them. By the end of the millennium, we had computers pretty much everywhere—far fewer than now, but also far more than anyone imagined in the seventies—and they were in charge of basically everything: shipping, payments, operating machinery, essentially everything you can imagine a computer doing. And surprisingly, yes, a lot of these systems “needed” to know the date, even if there was no intrinsic reason for them to need it. The software had been bought off-the-shelf, and functions dependent on the date were right there in it, so…yeah, it had the potential to cause some serious issues.
Far too many of us are unable to wrap our heads around the idea that moderate-to-large, but not apocalyptic, problems might exist.
The most pessimistic of predictions for Y2K were bleak indeed. Planes falling from the sky (because the bug apparently made physics stop working?), global supply chains disrupted, resulting in mass starvation (that one was a bit more realistic), the collapse of all currency (because so much of currency exchange was electronic, which…fine). In fairness, most of these predictions were media hype as opposed to sober predictions from actual computer scientists, but the tech sector warned of potentially serious disruptions in day-to-day life as well. Levelheaded types advised people to stock up on a week or two’s worth of water and food, just to be on the safe side, which everyone obviously took as their cue to panic. Preachers—as they are wont to do—thundered from pulpits about the end of the world, people started panic-buying everything, and—eventually—Y2K received the gold star that all potential apocalypses aspire to: a terrible made-for-TV disaster movie.
Then the year 2000 rolled around and basically nothing happened, leading everyone who had been panicking to immediately about-face and say, “See? It was all a big hoax. I told you.” Of course, as overblown as much of the panic was, the it-was-all-a-big-hoax assessment wasn’t really accurate either. The reality was that the IT community had seen Y2K coming for as much as a decade, and billions of dollars and thousands of man-hours had been spent to update systems to ensure they were compliant. Nor did January 1, 2000, come and go with no problems at all. There were slot machines that stopped working. A number of credit card systems went down, forcing stores to accept only cash payments for a number of days. One U.S. Air Force base was locked out of its inventory system for a while, and several safety systems malfunctioned at nuclear power plants in Japan (which thankfully didn’t cause any further problems). In possibly the most tragic case, the British health system misreported 154 fetal Down syndrome tests, resulting the elective abortion of two perfectly healthy children—so in that case, at least, Y2K really was a life-or-death problem.
In any case, what we all should have learned, but didn’t, from the Y2K panic is that every foreseen problem becomes a Catch-22: If attempts to avert it fail, that means the “experts” were incompetent fools, but if those efforts succeed, that means said experts whipped us into a panic over nothing. Nor are we (Americans? people in general?) really able to see gradations of problems: everything, in our minds, is either the literal apocalypse, or it’s nothing at all. Far too many of us are unable to wrap our heads around the idea that moderate-to-large, but not apocalyptic, problems might exist.
But the thing about the word “apocalypse”—in its popular usage, anyway—is that it means the literal end of the world. If a potential disaster were literally apocalyptic, no one at all would be left—not even the preppers or the ones who spend every second daydreaming about fighting off hordes of zombies with a sawed-off shotgun. When we hear “apocalypse,” though, for some reason, we all imagine ourselves as the hero, the survivor—not as part of the mountain of flaming corpses.
What we all have a tendency to lose sight of is that there’s a whole infinite gradient of scenarios between “no problems at all” and “literal apocalypse”—and statistically, all of us are unlikely to live through either. What we’re called to do is to serve those around us now, regardless of whether the problems we’re faced with border on nonexistent or world-destroying.
So, I dunno, maybe start working on the Year 2038 Problem.
Or, at the very least, wear a mask.