Panicked buying and hoarding. A crisis looming. Government and corporate action. Quiet work behind the scenes to solve the problem. Massive disbelief about the severity of the crisis. Pointing of fingers toward those creating mass hysteria. I’m talking, of course, about the millennium, or Year 2000 — or as most people called it, Y2K. People feared the computer bug might bring down all of society at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2000. There are parallels for today’s COVID-19 crisis.
Numerous individuals sought to make hay on the perceived crisis. Many religious leaders noted the possibility that Y2K confirmed God’s prophecies and evidenced either the nation’s sins or man’s hubris. Movements in preparation for society’s downfall accelerated.
An industry of Y2K prepping handbooks appeared. Titles included “The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos,” “Y2K: It’s Already Too Late,” “Time Bomb 2000,” “Y2K Survival Guide and Cookbook,” “Y2K for Women,” and “Year 2000 Solutions for Dummies.” Many of the books simply repackaged basic preparedness Utahns would recognize for any disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood or pandemic.
A run on emergency supplies such as batteries, flashlights, water and canned food occurred in the final days of 1999. News organizations related stories of people who had stockpiled for months in preparation. Many people stayed home that New Year’s Eve anticipating, despite assurances, the disruption of utilities at midnight.
Newspapers appeared mostly measured in their descriptions of the potential crisis. They reported on the work of experts. However, even experts didn’t know exactly what might happen. While mostly confident, the potential for problems existed. Companies underreported their efforts thinking, “Better to be an anonymous success than a public failure.”
Many programmers also stayed home that night, confident but still babysitting the software applications they had often spent years fixing. President Clinton had addressed the criticality of the potential crisis two years earlier, but many companies had been working on fixes already.
Scientist Bob Bemer first recognized the Y2K bug in 1958, and the software community more broadly discussed it by the 1980s. To save space in what was expensive memory, programmers had used two digits to store years: 99 instead of 1999. When programs needed to use dates past 1999, they showed ’00, a date potentially recognized by the computer as 1900.
Little did the programmers think their shortcuts would still exist decades later. But the underlying software proved impressively resilient. The airline reservation used today, for example, traces back to 1960. That system had been based on the national air-defense system, designed in the early ’50s. With the advent of microcomputers in the ’70s and ’80s, memory remained precious but now became the concern of millions of computer users and billions with the advent of the internet.
A concerted effort in the hardware and software industries strove to resolve the problem by 2000, with a price tag of $300 billion worldwide. In the United States alone, it cost $100 billion, approximately 10% of that from the government. Yet, some problems remain. Programmers continue to fix date bugs for years like 2020 and 2038.
Despite the effort, small problems did occur in 2000. A Japanese reactor had an error. Individuals saw Microsoft Excel use the wrong dates. The U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock showed the year as 19100. Programmers worked to fix those and others as quickly as they occurred. However, the crisis was mostly averted through a decade of effort.
Y2K has become a disputed event in the collective consciousness of America. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Banks didn’t lose people’s money. ICBMs didn’t accidentally launch and cause nuclear war. Unseen programmers had worked for years to make sure that didn’t happen. For many naysayers, however, the hype leading up to Jan. 1, 2000, didn’t match the reality and, thus, believe Y2K was a hoax.
Fixing the Y2K bug proved the capacity of humans to imagine and plan for the future. The current COVID-19 crisis asks us to repeat the effort and, yet, it has its naysayers as well. Brave people on the frontlines of the virus are putting themselves at risk. Meanwhile, not since WWII have Americans been asked, for themselves and the community, to sacrifice at home like this. Wouldn’t it be great if a year from now, the naysayers are proven “right” as they criticize the ultimately successful current efforts because nothing much happened — because all of us worked to make sure nothing much happened?