Many times in recorded history, there have been individuals or groups who have claimed to be able to predict the date of an apocalyptic event that would bring the end of the world as we know it. While some recent events such as the predictions made by Harold Camping in 2011 and the “Mayan Apocalypse” of 2012 have gotten mainstream coverage, they were just as unfounded and incorrect as every other prediction in the past.
With the world’s continuing reliance on technology, there has always been a fear that a large-scale bug or virus could bring about the end of the world. As arguably the most realistic end times scenario in our lifetime, the phenomenon of The Y2K Problem of January 1, 2000 went well beyond a small cult-like group of believers; governments, businesses and the general population all lived in fear of what the Y2K bug would bring about.
First talked about in 1985, the Y2K problem was a known issue for nearly all of my life. However, as humans have a history of predicting the end of the world and have a tendency to look for patterns and prefer nice round numbers (Christians also predicted the end of the world in the year 1000), it could have been that the year 2000 just seemed like a good year for it all to end. The late Prince even sung about the 2000 apocalypse with his 1982 single, 1999. The world coming to an end in the year 2000 was something discussed in many churches in the 1990s and despite never attending church regularly as a child, I still grew up with the belief that it was true.
While the prediction of an apocalypse at the turn of the millennium was made with rather specious reasoning, it became increasingly more credible and plausible as the Year 2000 approached. With the increase of personal computers and the mainstream use of the internet in the 90s, the impact of what was referred to as The Y2K Problem became more widespread and more well-known.
In the early days of computing, memory was at a premium and to save space, a lot of software was programmed with dates only using two numeric digits for the year instead of four. For example, the year 1980 would only be stored as 80. It was a necessary, but as the Year 2000 approached, it became a big problem. It was feared that once the year went from 99 to 00 in the system that it would cause glitches and/or crashes. Being that we lived in a society that was heavily computerized by 1999, it was feared that such glitches could wipe out bank accounts, cause planes to fall out of the sky or even set off nuclear bombs.
Besides being frequently followed on various newscasts, the issue of The Y2K Problem was also the focus of a variety of television shows and movies. Professional wrestler, Chris Jericho even debuted in the WWF in 1999 with a “Countdown to the Millennium”, referring to himself as “The Y2J Problem”. The WWF also aired a special on December 31, 1999 called “Eve of Destruction” that looked back on the Attitude Era and as I recall, even played up the world possibly ending.
Many families took it upon themselves to stock up on food, water and other materials in anticipation of the world ending on New Year’s Day 2000 and special government committees were created to monitor contingency planning by utilities. On the contrary, some saw the reaction to the Y2K bug as nothing more than scaremongering, claiming that it’s impact was overblown.
Alongside the hysteria surrounding the “impending doom” of the Y2K bug, there was also the craze of becoming Y2K compliant. To accomplish this, many programmers had to spend an exorbitant amount of time combing through lines of software code, making minor changes where necessary in order to prevent the Y2K bug from taking effect. In the end, the consequences of the Y2K bug were not as disastrous as predicted and most software was rewritten prior to the start of the new year.
Unfortunately, not everything went off without a hitch. There were still a number of glitches that occurred as the result of the Y2K bug. One such example occurred in Sheffield, United Kingdom where errors in Down syndrome tests resulted in two abortions being carried out, with four babies with Down syndrome being born to mothers who had been told they were in the low-risk group.
While the hysteria surrounding The Y2K Problem is largely mocked today, with the continued dependence on technology, it should be looked back on as a preview of things to come. In 2016, we are finding more establishments being hacked on a regular basis and it could only be a matter of time before a bug, glitch or hack shuts down major services and we learn how fragile technology can be.