Thursday, August 16, 2012
Let's Look Back at Y2K
I do. And I am having a lot of trouble believing - as I sit here and think about it now - that all that jazz went down 12 years ago. Almost 13 years ago. For those of you who are a little young, or maybe those of you who smoked a lot of reefer and lost a decade or something, Y2K was a little bit of a conundrum and a little bit of a hysteria that swept much of the world in the late 90s, culminating in 1999.
One hundred years is a long time, and there was a lot of technology that developed in the 100 years between 1900 and 2000. While the impending end of the century held many of the normal style problems - forms printed with 19- for the first two years of the date, etc. - there was a unique problem. Computers had been developed during the century and when programming begin in earnest in the 1970s no one was really looking ahead towards the end of the century. The guys who were making computer magic in their garages and basements had been born in the 1900s, grown up in the 1900s, and their thinking was firmly rooted in the 1900s. So when they went out and programmed, and to save space and because of how they thought, they wrote all the computer programs to use two numbers for dates. So instead of 1979 they would just say 79. It saved space, and that was just how things were done.
The problem with that was that no one knew what would happen at midnight on January 1, 2000 when all the dates in the computers flipped over to say 1/1/00. Would they think it was 1900? Would they think it was 2000? No one had any idea. To their credit, the computer scientists of the world were on this problem pretty early, and they made using four-digit dates standard practice well before it became a problem. They were pretty on the ball about updating code for the change well ahead of time too. The problem is that somewhere along the way the press put out a story about the situation and people ran with it. And as we know, people are stupid. In face, there are more posts tagged with "stupid people" on this blog than any other tag.
Nobody knew. At least not in the general public. And since there was already a lot of lore and superstition surrounding the end of the century and millennium, etc., and because fear and ignorance usually leads to ridiculousness, the world went nuts. People had the world ending because of Y2K. Bunker sales went through the roof. Computers were going to think that it was 1900 and immediately launch every nuclear missile in the entire world. I am not kidding...people really thought that. Because the default action for most missile programs would be to fire them. Yes, that makes sense. Planes were going to fall from the sky. Because the laws of aerodynamics care what year it is, and wings won't work in the year 2000. Everyone was going to lose their savings, because the computers at the bank would just wipe out everyone's saving when the clock ticked over. Then there would be a run on the places that actually had cash money or precious metals and there would be riots, and so on. The power grid was going to fail, because the computers that controlled the power grid would think it was 1900 and the power grid as we know it wasn't around in 1900. Sure, because the people who wrote the power station software took the time to include the fact that there wasn't widespread electrification in 1900. The computer doesn't care; it doesn't know everything. It is an awesome portal to all knowledge and a fantastic tool, but it doesn't know everything. Idiots.
So people did what they do when they are scared - they took to the earth. They dug in - literally. Like I said bunkers were being built all over the place, old bunkers were be reopened, there were runs on ammunition, bottled water, meals read to eat (MRE's) and there were people who - in lieu of enjoying en event that would never happen to them again, or their children, or children's children - went down into basements or bunkers and huddled while everyone else partied.
Nothing happened. A lot of people had hangovers the next day. There was confetti everywhere. I am sure there were some software glitches here and there, but most things went on as normal. No missiles launched unless instructed to. Delta flight 125 left on time to Newark and made it there safely. You could still get money out of an ATM on January 1, and you were just as rich or poor as you were the day before. So it was much ado about nothing. But it was really real at the time. I know that looking backward one always has 20/20 vision, but at the time it was so real. And such a non-event. I wonder what it will be like 988 years from now when the millennium turns again...