December 31st, 1999: The Turn of the Millennium.
Where were you the Day the Earth Stood Still? (Click here for the podcast episode!)
You know that one time when the Internet itself became self aware, civilization collapsed in on itself, the entire world fell into total chaos, the global grid blacked out, and anarchy reigned, as the governments of the Earth fell to their cybernetic overlords, while ‘The Machines’ began harvesting us as human batteries plugged into The Matrix…?
Oh? Don’t remember that? Yeah… me neither.
However, for some of the more gullible citizens of the late 1990’s this was a very real possibility in the not-too-distant future: New Years – January 1st, 2000 (AD / CE) to be exact. Some of whom would probably be surprised (or disappointed?) to find that we weren’t living in a post-apocalyptic Mad-Max/Johnny-Pneumonic-esque landscape of epic cyber punk proportions today.
Well if you step outside you may notice a certain lack of nuclear fallout (hopefully), and the absence of endless stretches of desert rife with zombies, and weaponized dune bungees (unless of course something significant has happened since typing up this blog entry, in which case I do apologize for my lack of foresight).
What happened on the first day of the new millennium?
Is this because some lone hacker defied destiny, and saved us all at the stroke of midnight? Maybe Sarah Conner managed to delay the inevitable Judgement Day by destroying a time-traveling T-800 with a mission to ensure the rise of Skynet? Are we all actually living out our lives in a computerized simulation awaiting Morpheus to free us? Is HAL 9000 going to lock us out of the garage one day?!
So what the hell was everyone freaking out about?!
In the year 1999, the general ‘theory’ was that, because of the way computers had been designed up until that point (and the fact that everyone’s lives had become so reliant on digital technology), there was a computer glitch that would cause every computer in the world to flip the heck out just because of the date change, which would of course mean they’d instantly turn against us.
Most computers (back then) read dates with just the last two digits of the year. Supposedly because the internal clock would essentially be resetting itself from 99 to 00 this would (theoretically) cause the computer to revert back to 1900, or um its initial programming settings at the very least. The primary concern was related to government security, power grids, and nuclear arsenals.
As it turns out though, this ‘Y2K Bug’ was a minor coding issue that wasn’t even an issue with most computer systems at the time, and was an easy fix for those models that did have it.
So how did this infernal bug cause such wide spread panic?
Well, the first thing you have to take into consideration is that this was the late 90’s, not long after Dial-Up Internet, and before the Social Media revolution; smart phones didn’t exist, floppy discs hadn’t gone extinct, and not everyone even had a computer for that matter, so therefore the general population had significantly less knowledge about these new fangled calculators. Some people still used pagers! With the advent of the World Wide Web, the world was connected more then ever before. At the dawn of the Twenty First Century mankind was on the brink of 7 Billion people. It was a new frontier with endless possibilities.
Technology had advanced at such an exponential rate that it had evolved faster than we could have ever anticipated, and we naturally fear that which we don’t understand. Even if Y2K turned out to be a legitimate concern, it certainly wasn’t ever going to be a global catastrophe. In the unlikely event that every piece of digital technology suddenly stopped working, the human race would still endure as it had for most of its long history before the invention of ‘artificial intelligence’.
The real problem in fact may be that we’d become complacent and let the machines do the thinking for us. But there’s no need for alarm… that is until computers start winning at Jeopardy that is… (insert nervous laughter) In all seriousness, if you’re office computer attempts to strangle you with its cord, simply unplug it.
If all else fails you can always just burn the building down (Milton-style), or resort to punting a printer. In my personal experience nothing quite relieves cyber-phobia-induced-anxiety quite like kicking outdated / obsolete technology to death.
The concern over this Y2K scare became so wide spread among the populace that an emergency session between 120 nations was convened in an attempt to plan for the worst: The National Y2K Coordinators Meeting of 1998. FEMA even issued a disaster-ready consumer guide for the public to prepare.
Grocery store shelves were emptied overnight as doomsday preppers stocked up on canned goods, water, batteries, non-perishables, and other essentials. Gas stations ran dry (it was way cheaper back then), phones rang constantly with absurd questions, churches overflowed with praying sinners, suicide rates went up, and some of us went about our normal daily lives.
As the ominous date crawled closer businesses locked up their supplies in preparation for the mass looting that would surely occur. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, many a programmer chuckled at the insanity behind the hysteria, while they raked in their Benjamin’s. An estimated $600 Billion was spent globally to avert catastrophic disaster, which of course turned out to be the biggest ‘non-event’ in history.
Y2K was not without a few glitches, but alas the Year 2000 came and went (with a whimper), and we endured – despite ‘insurmountable odds’ to live through a few more failed end of the world prophecies yet to come… (2012 anyone?)
—— Questions? Comments? Concerns? —————
You can e-mail me at: ErikSlader@gmail.com
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