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Do You Remember The Y2K Bug?

It’s hard to believe that talk of the Y2K bug was TWENTY years ago. Talk about feeling old! Believe it or not, there was a time when this was all that anyone could talk about, as mass fear engulfed modern society. For a re-visit of how this all came to be, let’s go all the way back to the late nineties.

The year was 1998, and┬áTime┬ámagazine had just published a cover story about “Millenium Madness” and “The End of the World”. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember how worried everyone was that all computers would melt down on January 1st, 2000, when their systems’ processors would be unable to recognize the date. The Y2K (short for “year two thousand”) panic was intense, spreading like wildfire, and had people bracing for an apocalyptic-level disaster.

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org/Matthew Hurst

What Was The Problem Anyway?

At the heart of the problem was a short-sighted bug that existed in the bulk of computer code that had been written up until that point. Early coders had set up their systems to record the year as only the last two digits of the year. So in these systems, 1992 was just 92, or 1973 was just 73. These systems essentially had no way of differentiating the year 1900 from the year 2000.

Additionally, many systems made its calculations based on dates. For example, to calculate the life of a loan, a micro-processor had to be able to subtract the start date of the loan from the current date. For example, subtracting 1983 (or in this case, 83) from 1997 (or in this case, 97), would indicate that 14 years have elapsed on someone’s mortgage. So the question became, how would these systems execute calculations using dates from the new millennium, such as 2003 and 1991, as 03-91 = -88. See the issue there?

In simulation models, systems faced with this troublesome calculation would either do the wrong thing, or in some cases simply refuse to work at all. In real life, this could cause widespread outages of any of a number of systems, and in a worst case scenario could result in the crash of the worldwide banking system, electrical grids, and even entire military organizations. Troublesome, to say the least.

At a point, doomsayers went so far as to even predict the failure of any device that used a microchip of any kind. The list of machines that could possibly fail expanded to include everything from elevators, to medical equipment, to climate-control devices.

Photo: defense.gov/Helene C. Stikkel

How Did People Handle This?

Governments, including that of the United States, rushed to pass bills like then-president Bill Clinton’s Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, which demanded cooperation across agencies, businesses, and government organizations to share information and techniques to prepare for this potential nightmare. The UN even held an international conference on Y2K-readiness, and founded the International Y2K Cooperation Center, based in Washington, D.C. So yes, to say that people were freaking out about this would be a gross understatement.

As panic mounted, NBC produced a made-for-TV movie about Y2K called “Countdown to Chaos.” The film featured nuclear meltdowns, plane crashes, and medical crises all as a result of computer failures related to the Y2K bug. Another film, a documentary narrated and produced by the late Leonard Nimoy, was called the “Y2K Family Survival Guide.”

These films, as well as others, had a strong impact on people’s perceptions. Police officers, local governments, and even homeowners built bunkers laden with weapons of all kinds; fallout shelters were also built, where survivalists prepared by stock-piling Spam (not the email variety of spam, but the original Spam, as in the gross, fake-food); attendance at wilderness-survival and military training boot camps skyrocketed; gun sales spiked considerably; and survivalist groups of all kinds began coming together in droves. People prepared their best for the world’s infrastructure to crash, and for civilization as they knew it to crumble.

Photo: flickr.com/Bob

So What Actually Happened on The Big Day?

The United States, among other nations spent north of $300 billion preparing for the big moment. Russia, Italy, and South Korea, on the other hand, spent practically nothing. Yet in every county, no matter how much was spent, nothing really happened on the big day. The only noted effects of the big, scary Y2K bug were truly quite minor in the grand scheme of things. For example, a Japanese nuclear plant had radiation sensors fail, but the backups at the plant resulted in no harm done.

As it turned out, a few people’s printers failed to work, one guy had his local video store (another relic of the past) charge him for 100 years’ worth of late fees (don’t worry, they reversed the charge!), and a bunch of people had a lifetime’s supple of Spam to nauseatingly get through.

Photo: flickr.com / mkorsakov

So It Was All Just a Waste of Money?

One benefit of the Y2K bug episode was that many key systems in the nation’s infrastructure received a much-needed revision, and subsequent upgrade, that almost certainly improved performance and reliability. Many public computer systems also received upgrades as part of the Y2K effort, which helped to prepare the world for future potential crises. As an example, the related upgrades made to the New York City transit system were credited for the prevention of breakdown after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In events such as this one, the balancing act will always be about measuring over-reaction vs being properly prepared for the worst. While tax-payers will complain about their dollars being misused, there will be others who will be glad to be safe rather than sorry.