The Apocalypse That Wasn’t
December 29, 2020
By the spring and summer of 1999, the world had turned their full attention to the impending turn of the calendar to the year 2000. Or, as it was familiarly known, Y2K.
It was truly a global phenomenon and there was no shortage of doomsday predictions as to what would occur when at midnight, on December 31, 1999, the digits all changed.
As it turned out, it was a nothing burger. The year 2020, however, was a whole lot closer to what people expected the year 2000 to be.
Y2K was originally an abbreviation assigned to a problem dubbed the Millennium Bug. The challenge they envisioned was that computers everywhere would not be up to the task of functioning properly when the year 2000 started. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The acronym Y2K has been attributed to Massachusetts programmer David Eddy in an e-mail sent on 12 June 1995. He later said, ‘People were calling it CDC (Century Date Change), FADL (Faulty Date Logic). There were other contenders. Y2K just came off my fingertips.’
The problem started because on both mainframe computers and later personal computers, storage was expensive, from as low as $10 per kilobyte, to in many cases as much as or even more than US$100 per kilobyte. It was therefore very important for programmers to reduce usage. Since programs could simply prefix ‘19’ to the year of a date, most programs internally used, or stored on disc or tape, data files where the date format was six digits, in the form DDMMYY, DD as two digits for the day, MM as two digits for the month, and YY as two digits for the year. As space on disc and tape was also expensive, this also saved money by reducing the size of stored data files and data bases. (snip)
Special committees were set up by governments to monitor remedial work and contingency planning, particularly by crucial infrastructures such as telecommunications, utilities and the like, to ensure that the most critical services had fixed their own problems and were prepared for problems with others. While some commentators and experts argued that the coverage of the problem largely amounted to scaremongering, it was only the safe passing of the main ‘event horizon’ itself, 1 January 2000, that fully quelled public fears.”
Newspaper and magazine articles on the topic bombarded readers; books were written; the nightly news was full of stories which promoted fear in the public mind. Doomsday preppers encouraged people to keep months of supplies in their pantry since at 12:01 on January 1, 2000, the world, as we knew it, was going to end.
The Infallible Wikipedia continues:
“Y2K was also exploited by some fundamentalist and charismatic Christian leaders throughout the Western world, particularly in North America and Australia. Their promotion of the perceived risks of Y2K was combined with end times thinking and apocalyptic prophecies in an attempt to influence followers. The New York Times reported in late 1999, ‘The Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that Y2K would be the confirmation of Christian prophecy — God’s instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation. (snip) Along with many survivalists, Mr. Falwell advised stocking up on food and guns’. Adherents in these movements were encouraged to engage in food hoarding, take lessons in self-sufficiency, and the more extreme elements planned for a total collapse of modern society.”
Of course we all know what happened: nothing. The resources which were poured into fixing the bug were enormous and the switch was mostly seamless. A whole lot of people no doubt had enough food and TP to survive for a year. My own parents eventually donated a case of green beans purchased ‘just in case’ to the food bank.
I personally never bought in to all the hype, instead believing that human ingenuity would find a way. In fact, my sister and I hatched a plan to spend New Year’s Eve 1999 in Leavenworth, Washington. We booked several rooms nearly a year in advance and arrived to a winter wonderland a day before the big event. Despite their trepidation, even our parents joined the party. Our two sets of kids – ages 10, 9, 7, and 6 – had a blast. We went sledding, indoor swimming, shopping, eating and explored the town. We all eagerly anticipated staying up to welcome in the new Millennium. About 10 minutes before midnight we bundled up in our coats and hats and walked to the corner of a nearby intersection, noise makers in our mittened hands. It was snowing lightly and all the Christmas lights cast an enchanted glow of red, blue, green, and gold over the entire scene.
As the moment ticked closer my six year old daughter became distraught.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“Is the world going to end?” she said, her lower lip quivering.
“No, of course not,” I tried to reassure her.
Even so she snuggled close to me as the final countdown began… ten, nine, eight…
When it reached Zero we all shouted Happy New Year and blew our horns.
And then it happened. Off to the right a red glowing orb appeared in the dark sky and was headed our direction. My daughter started to cry, certain that some bad thing was going to happen. Turns out it was a hot air balloon of some sort and when she was brave enough to look began to understand that it was just part of the celebration.
The next week the kids were back in school and her first grade teacher assigned the class the typical ‘draw a picture and write a sentence describing your winter break’ project.
My daughter drew a picture of stick people drinking out of gigantic wine glasses and wrote that we drank ‘champan’. I got asked about it. I explained that we really had sparkling cider. I think the teacher thought we had a problem. I looked for that paper but it appears it was kept by the teacher so as to keep an eye on me.
Soon the anxiety over Y2K was forgotten. Then one day about a year and half ago I made a random comment to my daughter about Y2K . She got a funny look on her face and there was dead silence before she said, “Wait. Does Y2K stand for the Year 2000?” I might have burst out laughing.
It’s all true. She didn’t know until she was 26 years old what Y2K stood for. But to make the story even funnier is that when she asked her fiancé (now husband who is the same age) if he KNEW what Y2K stood for, he didn’t either.
I’m thankful that Y2K turned out to be a joyous occasion and that the world was able to celebrate such a momentous once in a thousand years event in grand fashion. I am positive that ringing in 2021 will be more somber and that people everywhere will be eager to say ‘get lost’ to 2020.