Where Were You in Y2K? The Time the World (Almost) Ended
By Elizabeth Kotz
| Posted January 14, 2020
Twenty years ago, we couldn’t stop talking about Y2K - the infamous “Millennium Bug.” An acronym for the year 2000, it encapsulated both a technical computer problem and the social dread that emerged in the run-up to the ball drop. The new millennium was full of promise and panic in equal measure. Let’s go back to the year 1999. Only the birds were tweeting, and the “Cloud” usually came with a forecast of rain. Mark Zuckerberg was a high school freshman; thefacebook.com was further away in time than his Star Wars-themed Bar Mitzvah party. We were living amid a technological renaissance. High profile innovations such as the mobile phone, personal computer, and Internet were available to the public for the very first time. “Move fast and break stuff” was the mantra of many pioneering tech startups. In 1991, the first website went live - by 1999, 150 million people were online “surfing” from site to site. Coined in the ’90s, the term information superhighway described how it felt to start speeding through pages of digital content. The excitement of visiting new pages online was bigger than the pain of waiting for everything at a snail’s pace. We left our old, analog existence in the rearview mirror and never looked back. Beyond the pearly gates of cyberspace was a new world with untold possibilities. The Y2K era was defined by the arrival of digital technology, even the creative pursuits of music, art, fashion, and design. Musicians like Bjork embraced computer-generated sounds and high-energy electronic music genres, like trance and techno, became widely popular. In the late 90’s we saw the emergence of a particular cyberpunk fashion aesthetic, exemplified by the hacker-chic looks in The Matrix. Sleek hairstyles, minimal color, trench coats, and boots were trends adopted by dance music lovers and early Internet enthusiasts. Technical garments (featuring zippers, hoods, and water-resistant fabric) were emblematic of a culture prepared for the coming cyber apocalypse—or at least the next rave. But 2000 held a sense of looming danger, especially for those who were aware of the implications. It was a “single point of failure” in that numerous systems could potentially break at the same time. Previously, programs had been written using a two-digit year (assuming “19” for the century). This made sense, as long as all dates were in the same century. But when the new millennium arrived and December 31, 1999, rolled over into January 1, 2000, some computer systems would have read that the year was 1900 instead. This could potentially cause processing errors of unknown proportions. To prepare, programmers across the world spent countless hours upgrading software and databases to handle four-digit years instead of only two, listing dates with the full 20- prefix. As New Year’s Eve drew closer, fears around the impact of the “Y2K bug” were still ramping up. Everyone wondered: would civilization crumble and chaos reign? Was the digital world as we were beginning to know it about to collapse? Some people actually thought so. In fact, some went as far as building log cabins in the woods and filling them with enough provisions to ride out the apocalypse. Those who worked in the field of IT were under pressure to develop “Y2K compliant” programs before the January 1 deadline. The United States government set up a website devoted to debunking Y2K rumors (archived here). Y2K jokes entered the cultural zeitgeist (a sign you’re not Y2K ready? You’ve backed up your computer by pushing it against the wall)! Everyone held their breath on New Year’s Eve 1999, wondering if the world would end when the clock struck midnight. But cyberspace did not disintegrate, and aside from some minor glitches, preventive efforts to repair and replace existing programs were successful. While expensive (and impactful in the long run), it was an issue that quickly faded from the news. Thrilling and ultramodern technology products - mp3 players, cellular phones, digital cameras, GPS systems, and a variety of others - had taken over the spotlight. We feasted our eyes on ever brighter screens and better graphics. Everything was changing, fast.
Y2K did not stop the proliferation of instant messaging services, social media sites, blogs, and other online forums for communication. Chat rooms and message boards allowed people access to a breadth of connections they would not have found through former means. Search engines and web browsers gave users the sense that they were traversing a space without limits. There was a new sense of openness and optimism. Boundaries between the “cyber” and the real began to blur; our digital tools acting as portals to a universe with an infinite number of possibilities. The Sims - a life simulation game that debuted in the year 2000 - was one of the first games that gave users the ability to create a whole new identity on the computer. Creating an Internet persona, and portraying an idealized version of oneself online, would become more and more important in coming years. Dramatic advances in technology since Y2K have disrupted every aspect of our lives, from personal health and wellness to economics and finance. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 kickstarted the mobile phone revolution. In 2020, smartphones are indispensable to the way people communicate, work, date, shop and play. Access to real-time information is available to almost everyone at all times, changing how people spend both their time and attention. Older users make up the primary base of Facebook’s social network. At the same time, children and teenagers are more proficient with digital technology than any generation in history. Y2K revealed just how integral computers were becoming to our daily lives. It was a technological problem that showed governments, companies, and everyday individuals the level to which our lives could be impacted if all screens suddenly went dark. When few systems were actually affected on the eve of December 31, 1999, it was because of the quick work of computer-savvy professionals. After defeating the “Millennium Bug”, we entered the year 2000 armed with the confidence to continue building larger networked systems. This could be the most important legacy of the Y2K era: what happens online doesn’t occur in a vacuum; our digital exploits have an impact on the physical, offline world. With more and more users connecting to the Internet every day, the scope of what is possible for our society continues to expand beyond anyone’s expectations.
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