Y2K with 2020 Hindsight

Computer systems operator for a New Jersey utility company consults with field agents during a drill in April 1999, in the leadup to Y2K.

To put it mildly, there was a bit of a panic about “Y2K”—which stands for Year Two Thousand. It’s been two decades since THE WORLD AS WE KNEW IT ended. As computers everywhere updated to the new millennium—like a car’s odometer turning over from 99,999 miles to 100,000—the year 1999 became 2000. (Oh, back then, when an odometer “turned over,” the moment didn’t just pass in a digital blink; you could watch it turn.) The problem had to do with an artifact of early computer coding: most programs used just the last two digits to represent a four-digit year—“99” for 1999, or “00” for 2000. However, “00” might also be read as “1900,” and therein lay the rub.

In the face of dire predictions of widespread civilizational collapse, some people adopted a “party like it’s 1999” attitude—literally. A few actually argued it might be good if everyone were forced to learn to live without computers. Among those who took the scare seriously, survivalists stockpiled goods and prepared to hunker down for a Mad Max postapocalyptic scenario. Then came midnight January 1, 2000—and most computer systems kept right on processing ones and zeros. The electric grid didn’t catch fire. ATMs kept dispensing cash. VCRs kept blinking “12:00.” No nuclear missiles got accidentally launched! But what really happened?

The absence of severe consequences was not because the predictions of computer glitches were wrong. In fact, thanks to an unsung army of code-correcting nerds—at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars spent by governments and businesses—a potential major disaster was avoided. Although some were calling Y2K a hoax at worst, or blown out of proportion at best, IT professionals mobilized. With the passage of twenty years, has our society learned a technological lesson? Today, is there any reason actually to panic about the “breaking” of the Internet?

Image credit: AP Photo/Mike Derer

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