Flashback to December 31, 1999. Waiting for the clock to count down to a shiny new millennium. Should have been exciting, right? But that New Year’s Eve, the world was particularly on edge — and not even a few cocktails and Prince’s party classic could take away that nagging worry that maybe, just maybe, the world as everyone knew it was about to descend into total chaos.
Maybe, just maybe, the world as everyone knew it was about to descend into total chaos.
Why? Because of a possible worldwide computer system meltdown known as Y2K, also affectionately dubbed “Doomsday 2000.”
It’s easy to forget just how anxious people were about that looming date — from nail-biting business execs fraught over potential mass system failures to the average person wondering whether his or her bank accounts would be wiped out. And all because of some cost-saving measures put into place in the middle of the century.
Back in the 1960s, computer memory was very expensive. To save money and valuable space, computer programs often shortened four-digit dates to two digits. Seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, programmers did not conceive that the code they were writing in the ’60s and ’70s would still be in used at the end of the century.
But it was. And in the 1990s, the dire situation became clear: The year 1900 (shortened to ’00) was about to become indistinguishable from 2000. The Millennium Bug was born. And that was a mighty big tech-support problem. To make matters trickier, the year 2000 was also a leap year. Which meant factoring in an extra day. Damn.
With the security and safety of utilities grids, hospitals, transportation and financial institutions at stake … this was much more than a computer problem with a futuristic name.
Y2K soon became a matter of global importance. Why was it such a big deal? With the security and safety of key systems at stake — like utilities grids, hospitals, transportation, financial institutions, government networks — this was much more than a computer problem with a futuristic name. And it wasn’t just about software; any device with a computer chip reliant on calendar dates, such as an elevator, could also be affected by the Millennium Bug.
But how to tackle such a big problem affecting the whole world? Y2K preparedness teams were formed and the smarty-pants from around the globe were encouraged to pool their brainpower. In 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, where U.S. companies could share data and best practices in return for “limited liability protection.” Later that year, the U.N. held its first international conference on Y2K and established the International Y2K Cooperation Center in Washington, D.C.
And the price tag to thwart potential global crisis? An estimated $300 billion, half of which was spent in the United States.
But despite all that geek magic at work, not everyone thought that all would be fine when the clock struck midnight on that final day of the 1900s. Some feared massive blackouts and nuclear meltdowns. Others drained their bank accounts and stockpiled food and guns. Survivalists prepared for the potential apocalypse by building bunkers in their backyards.
Recently, a satirical Canadian radio program interviewed a man who had supposedly emerged from his Y2K bunker after spending almost 14 years underground. News of a guy who opted to hunker down and wait out the effects of Doomsday 2000 spread like wildfire online. When the story turned out to be a joke, many were rather disappointed. Why? Well, it was a great, sharable story. But also, it reminded those of us who fell under that looming shadow of Y2K just how freaked out we actually were back in the day — when heading underground to wait out Armageddon didn’t sound like such a crazy idea at all.