Strange Americana: Looking Back on the Y2K Scare

By Kate BoveLast Updated Dec 22, 2020 8:53:14 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, folks weren’t just prepping the champagne and confetti for New Year’s Eve. Some people were stocking up on canned food and toilet paper, preparing for disaster to strike at the dawn of the new millennium. And others were doing all they could to prevent the "Y2K Bug" from causing a total meltdown. If you endured the build-up to New Year’s Eve in 1999, you’ll probably remember exactly what happened when the clock struck midnight: not much. So what was all the hoopla about? Join us for a look back on the Y2K scare — the imminent disaster that never happened.

So, What Was the Y2K Bug?

In 1999, Britney Spears songs saturated the airwaves, SpongeBob SquarePants appeared on television for the first time and Apple launched the iBook, a consumer-friendly laptop. The future seemed exciting — full of possibility. At least, it should have felt that way. Some folks — from everyday people to high-powered government officials — feared things might go the way of The Matrix (1999). (And by that we mean the "dystopian wasteland" aspect of The Matrix.) All because of something deemed the "Y2K Bug."

The Matrix
Photo Courtesy: Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

So, why Y2K? It’s shorthand for referring to the year 2000. On the podcast Headlong: Surviving Y2K, the host Dan Taberski interviews Dave Eddy, the person seemingly responsible for the catchy moniker. According to Eddy, we use Y2K "because I’m lazy — because it’s 67% more efficient." And that bug part? Eddy told Taberski it wasn’t a bug at all, but instead a "conscious, correct design compromise," because, in the end, "all designs are compromises." The term "bug" is a misnomer. The issue wasn’t a mistake or an error; it was done with purpose — a sort of shorthand for programmers working with limited real estate.

Programming Shorthand Catches Up

Although the "Y2K Bug" — or any computer bug — evokes something nebulous and complex, the design compromise that spawned the Year 2000 Problem is actually very simple. It boils down to how calendar data is stored and formatted. Most computer programs represented four-digit years with just the last two digits — an easy space-saver, right? The only problem: Programmers feared that when "xx99" rolled over to "xx00," the new millennium would be indistinguishable from another "xx00" — 1900.

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Photo Courtesy: AMC Networks/IMDb

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, computer memory and storage were both rather scarce — and costly. In 1998, Alan Greenspan recounted, "[At the time] I was proud of the fact that I was able to squeeze a few elements of space out of my program by not having to put a 19 before the year." The real fear came from a much deeper problem than wonky dates: A rollover to "xx00" could cause computers to arrange chronologically ordered records incorrectly. Even though this dilemma was noted early on, most programmers didn’t publicly acknowledge it until the late ‘90s.

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According to tech consultant Peter de Jager, the tech industry was happy ignoring the computer-date bug. When he conducted interviews for this "Doomsday 2000" article in 1993, he found these experts to be pretty complacent — 2000 was so far away. In 1996, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan tasked the Congressional Research Service with investigating this fringe issue. In a letter to President Bill Clinton, Moynihan wrote, "You may wish to turn to the military to take command of dealing with the problem." Soon enough, tech experts agreed: The Y2K Bug did pose a threat.

A Supposed Threat to Banks, Transportation & Power Plants

The Millennium Bug posed a threat to a number of institutions. Chief among them were insurance companies, hospitals, government agencies and — perhaps most memorably to those who lived through the scare — banks. This date glitch snowballed into an even greater fear — that computer systems would actually stop working once January 1, 2000, hit. And banks? Software programs help calculate things like interest. Predictably, banking institutions’ stock prices plummeted, and anxious customers withdrew massive amounts of cash — so much that banks had a record-breaking $21 billion on hand to meet demands.

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Photo Courtesy: Federal Aviation Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Those born before the new millennium may also remember the panic surrounding transportation. Because transit operations rely so heavily on accurate times and dates, rumors that planes would drop from the sky led to folks avoiding airports on New Year’s Eve. But even those rumors don’t stand up to the biggest collective fear spawned by the scare. It was thought that power plants, nuclear facilities and computer-controlled missile systems would all fail, leading to wayward nukes, contaminated water, power outages, Chernobyl-like disasters and — pause for dramatic effect — the potential end of the world.

The U.S. Prepares for the Worst

The U.S.’s then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said, "The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe." With this looming fear in mind, both software and hardware companies — and special committees — hurried to find solutions. Although there were a number of "Y2K compliant" potential solutions, the most straightforward was generally the most popular: Dates were expanded to include four digits instead of two. While this solution was obvious, it also proved costly and required a large workforce for conversion and testing.

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Photo Courtesy: y2k.gov/Internet Archive

Tech prognosticators assured the general public that fixes would be in place before the new year, but fear persisted. While some countries did little to prepare for the alleged threat, others — like the U.S., Australia and Uganda — spent millions. In 1998, the U.S. government passed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act: By working with the private sector, the government created continuity between measures being taken and held software companies liable. In the end, the U.S. put forth a three-fold plan that included "outreach advocacy, monitoring and assessment, and contingency planning and regulation."

To help with the outreach portion of the plan, the U.S. government set up a site called Y2K.gov. The site — and several agency-specific offshoots — made press releases more accessible and allowed users to access detailed FAQs on everything from how the Millenium Bug would potentially impact utilities to what items were best to stock up on in preparation. Other features included a glossary of terms — everything from "debugging" to "event horizon" — and some kid-friendly Y2K lesson plans. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, you can still find out how to be Year 2000-ready.

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Survivalists Emerge, Bunkers Are Built

At the time, the U.S. government didn’t have a federal agency in place that had authority over the internet. To mitigate this issue, the White House held an Internet Y2K Roundtable on July 30, 1999. (Nothing like a last-minute solve.) And those fears of nuclear winter? They weren’t entirely unfounded. The U.S. government created the Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability, a joint operation with the Russian Federation. In layman’s terms, the operation was meant to lower the possibility of "false positive readings in each nation’s nuclear attack early warning systems," according to the Chicago Tribune.

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Photo Courtesy: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

As chatter surrounding the "Y2K scare" increased, folks prepared by withdrawing large sums of cash from at-risk banks and stockpiling canned goods and emergency supplies. According to National Geographic, Y2K prep was not unlike hurricane prep for most Americans. However, in addition to stocking up on water and propane tanks, some "survivalists" readied weaponry as well. In 1999, one of Walmart’s biggest sellers was ammunition, and arms dealers across the country saw a near-20% rise in sales. Why? Well, some folks felt that failing computers would mean the demise of all social order.

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When even the Red Cross is hawking "Y2K: What You Should Know" pamphlets and FEMA is telling you to stock up on essentials, it’s difficult to tell just how prepared you should be. For some, being Y2K-ready went beyond crank radios, flashlights and beans. Being prepared meant leaving cities and technology. And it meant hunkering down. While the U.S. government spent $9 billion bringing computers up to speed and an alleged $50 million on a White House Y2K "command center," survivalists like Ed Yourdon raised the alarms. (Yourdon set an example by fleeing New York City for the desert.)

The Atlanta Business Chronicle perhaps captured the bunker craze best with its eye-catching headline "Cold War chills revisited: Y2K brings back bunker mentality." And nothing screams "Cold War bunker" more than the country’s most robust contingency plan — Mount Weather, located just 50 miles from D.C. The underground bunker for high-level government officials is equipped with its own hospital as well as a television studio for post-emergency government broadcasts. Not a terrible place to ring in the evening, right? President Clinton didn’t celebrate in a bunker, but many everyday Americans with their own storm shelters and basements certainly did.

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In December 1999, traffic to the U.S. government’s Y2K website increased 25-fold compared to the month prior, registering about 150,000 hits per day. Even Y2K doubters couldn’t be 100% sure about the post-midnight world. Doubters speculated this uncertainty led to a "scare campaign" of sorts; after all, the scramble to buy Y2K-compliant products benefited a variety of businesses, from your local hardware store to Costco. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical and food suppliers feared this encouragement of "Y2K preparedness" could lead to folks stockpiling massive amounts of food and drugs, thus causing devastating shortages.

From Doomsday Cults to Conspiracy Theorists: The “Religion” of Y2K

Needless to say, the Y2K problem inspired a great deal of conspiracy theories (and attracted theorists). Apart from survivalists, other fringe groups, from fundamentalist religious organizations to communes and cults, cropped up, emphasizing the apocalyptic themes associated with Y2K. In 1999, The New York Times reported on Reverend Jerry Falwell, who "suggested that Y2K would be the confirmation of Christian prophecy — God’s instrument to shake [America], to humble." Like other self-sufficient survivalists, Falwell stocked up on food and guns. Of course, a "worldwide Christian revival" didn’t happen — but the scare-mongering certainly generated profits for these false prophets.

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According to National Geographic, evangelical Christian religious leaders went so far as to say that the problems stemming from Y2K — the death of computers, the general collapse of society and so forth — would "trigger the coming of the Antichrist." And 1993, CNN reported that 1 in 5 Americans felt the second coming of Christ would happen in the year 2000. So with more than 20% of Americans willing to believe, it’s no wonder the threat of Y2K-caused nuclear fallout or blackouts caused so much fervor.

While some took the doomsday vibes as a sign to repent for their sins or join off-the-grid communes, others took this message as a sign of hope. As reported by the Headlong: Surviving Y2K podcast, Adair LaVan believed the End of Days would occur in Jerusalem — and saw the nearing millennium as an opportunity. LaVan and her family wanted to help "move things along" by seeking out the Ark of the Covenant — the Biblical artifact that supposedly carried the original 10 Commandments. The looming Y2K events — and Revelations — helped reaffirm the family’s dedication to their faith.

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But why did this "Millennium Madness" take such a hold? Well, news about the Y2K bug — and its potential ramifications — was everywhere, from radio talk shows to infomercials. And then, on January 18, 1999, Time published the now-iconic apocalypse cover (pictured), perhaps inadvertently adding credence to the scare. Though doubtful anything bad would happen, the then-assistant managing editor of Time, Howard Chua-Eoan, recalled that the company’s IT staff "set up a generator-powered ‘war room’ in the basement… filled with computers and equipment ready to produce the magazine." The result? A totally normal commemorative 1/1/00 issue.

In addition to a bevy of Y2K "disaster" books, two movies capitalized on the daily Y2K water-cooler talk. Y2K: Year to Kill (1999) centered on the premise "when the world's computers crash, a group of thugs go on a crime and murder spree." Think ‘90s The Purge (2013). NBC also debuted a made-for-TV movie called Y2K (1999) in which the eponymous bug shuts down computer systems worldwide, a power plant has a meltdown and the automated doors of a prison all unlock. Fearing Y2K would incite War of the Worlds-level panic, utility companies and banks asked NBC to pull it.

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So, What Happened at Midnight?

An article from SFGate published in June of 1999 voiced a very real concern: "No one knows how severe Y2K disruptions may be — computers operate everything from cash registers to financial markets." According to the publication, damages — if the unimaginable happened — could reach the $1 trillion mark. To prepare, Silicon Valley sought government protection from potential lawsuits: If widespread computer failures happened, tech companies like Microsoft and IBM could have gone bankrupt if held 100% accountable. Nonetheless, attorneys prepped Y2K class-action lawsuits and insurance companies sold policies to cover business failures due to Y2K-related issues.

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Photo Courtesy: y2knews/Internet Archive; Aaron Goodman/Time via Wikimedia Commons

Even before the January 1, 2000, deadline, another date loomed large over the tech industry. And, understandably, it was kept much more hush-hush than the Y2K problem. That other looming date was September 9, 1999 — better known by computers as 9/9/99. The date value "9999" is often used to specify unknown (or future) dates. In a database that uses this method, a program might act on (or delete) the records containing these unknown dates, thinking that they’re related to September 9. In the end, the occurrence confused more people than computers.

  • January 1, 2000: On December 31, 1999, New Year’s Eve carried on as normal. Crowds swarmed on Times Square in New York City. Folks wearing donned (ridiculous) "2000"-shaped eyeglasses and bedazzled party hats. At midnight, the ball dropped — and people clinked champagne glasses. Instead of the end of the world, it was the dawn of a new millennium. Of course, every new beginning isn’t without its quirks: The U.S. Naval Observatory, which is responsible for running the master clock that keeps the U.S.’s official time, had a website glitch that displayed the date as "1 Jan 19100."
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While power plant failures or blackouts didn’t shutter the entire United States as doomsday prognosticators predicted, a few oddities happened overseas.

  • Japan’s Nuclear Facilities: In Japan, a series of minor issues hit the Ishikawa Prefecture Monitoring System, which monitors radiation in the area surrounding the Shiga nuclear power plant. According to CNN, the power plant "stopped being received at local government monitoring stations shortly after midnight." However, the data collection went uninterrupted. Elsewhere, an alarm sounded at the Onagawa nuclear power plant at 12:02 a.m. — again, a faulty transmission, not any sort of meltdown near-miss.
  • Russian Missiles: When asked about the possibility of Y2K-related computer failure launching nuclear missiles, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Colonel Alexander Somov simply said, "We’re confident there’ll be no danger when our systems make the transition into the year 2000." However, the U.S. government wasn’t taking any chances with Y2K. According to CBS News, the U.S. "arranged with the Russians to post officers in each other's missile command centers to make sure there were no accidental launches." Very reassuring. In the end, the most newsworthy story to come out of Russia on New Year’s Eve was the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin.

The Cost of Y2K

Whether or not Y2K was overblown or an actual averted crisis remains an issue of debate for some to this day. Was it just great prep work? If the U.S. and other governments hadn’t solved the two-digit date issue, would things really have gone south? We’ll never know what the other costs might have been without the prep, but we do know quite a bit about the actual financial cost of the solutions. The U.S. alone spent roughly $134 billion making the country Y2K-compliant. It’s estimated that in total $300 billion — well, $436 billion by today’s standards — worldwide was spent.

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Photo Courtesy: Wolter Peeters/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Despite the cost of Y2K, the event proved to companies just how critical IT professionals are to business operations. Computerworld notes that "there was no way they could not understand how important IT [is] to the company. That was the positive side [of Y2K]." In a lot of ways, the billion-dollar remediation project presented a unique opportunity for IT to modernize — globally. With a common end goal and essentially a blank check, companies could take steps to prepare our world to become the computer-reliant place it is today.

Now, the night on which nothing happened is more fondly remembered as a comic moment in history rather than a deftly averted crisis. Satirical news program CBC Radio presented a story that imagined a man named Norman Feller emerging from his underground, Y2K-compliant bunker in 2013. While this sounds like fodder for a great HBO drama, rest assured that the folks at CBC added quite a bit of humor. The caption below the satire’s feature image reads: "[Feller] is most impressed with KFC's Double Down sandwich."

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It’s Over, Right? Well, There’s the 2038 Problem…

Long story short, Y2K stopped looming large rather quickly. People moved on and forgot about the threat. Banks and hospitals were fine. And people who felt they’d been wrongly convinced of the (allegedly) impending Y2K disaster tried to return all those survival supplies and canned goods they’d amassed. But ten years later, some systems experienced the "Y2K+10" or Y2.01K" problem. The source of the problem? Confusion between hexadecimal number encoding and binary-coded decimal encodings of numbers. Long story short, dates got all wonky again, with some text messages sent on January 1, 2010, reading "2016" instead. The worst problem? Twenty million bank cards in Germany became unusable.

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Photo Courtesy: @nixcraft/Twitter

So, everything is fine now, right? Well, we’re safe from these non-bugs until at least 2038, which marks the end of Unix time. Okay, so what’s Unix time? It’s a system used to describe a particular point in time by recording the number of seconds that have elapsed since the Unix epoch (aka 00:00:00 on January 1, 1970). The issue stems from storing these seconds as a signed 32-bit binary integer. In simpler terms, any times after 03:14:07 on January 19, 2038, can’t be encoded. As with the Y2K Bug, the 2038 debacle is the result of capacity issues. And while there’s no quick-fix, universal solution for this one, we can only hope the necessary precautions are taken well in advance this time.

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