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Y2K: An American Crisis

Times Square on New Years' Eve 1999-2000, New York, USA. By Paul Mannix, via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0.

Times Square on New Years’ Eve 1999-2000, New York, USA. By Paul Mannix, via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0.

As clocks reached 12:00 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1999, in a cascade beginning in the Pacific, people all over the world held their breath—and then sighed in relief. The “Y2K bug” failed to crash airplanes, destabilize nuclear power plants, or bring down electrical grids. Despite the predictions that Y2K would end the world as we know it, the first day of year 2000 was uneventful. Y2K proved to be a training ground for how Americans would face threats from terrorism, economic crisis, and climate change in the 2000s.

The origin of the bug lay in the decision of computer programmers to code years in a 2-digit format rather than in a 4-year format during the 1950s. That decade marked the beginning of the computing age, as computers capable of storing programs hit the market. These first commercial computers took up the space of a small room, around 1000 square feet, and had little memory compared to contemporary devices, only storing 12000 characters total.

The 1950s was a heady time for technological innovation, with the development of the hydrogen bomb, rockets to carry them, and satellites. Programmers who decided to code a 2-digit year assumed that by the end of the millennium computers would have changed to the extent that it wouldn’t matter if computer code interpreted all years as occurring in the same century. But instead, future computer and software designs built on the past rather than replacing fifties’ technology wholesale.

Programmers discussed these issues among themselves, and the media picked up on it by the late 1990s. Moreover, problems began cropping up as businesses inputted future 21st century dates. Calculations involving years became began to produce errors. As an example, a credit card with an expiration date of January 1, 2000, would register as expiring in 1900. There were hardware problems as well—no one knew how embedded microchips with dates would react on the first day of the year 2000. Such issues appeared in all industries dependent on computers. The worst-case scenario included banks losing their computing power, telephone and other utility services experiencing outages, and transportation systems failing.

These computer programming challenges heightened the apocalyptic tone of American culture in the late 1990s, but the fin de siècle might have produced apocalyptic narratives on its own. Some people were already pre-disposed to seeing signs of the End, such as premillennialist Christians, members of the growing militia movement or adherents to Mayan prophecies surrounding 2012. But as 2000 approached, survivalism spread throughout the rest of American culture. The media spotlighted people who were moving to isolated areas or stockpiling food and water in their basements to escape the coming chaos.[1]

The doomsday nature of Y2K predictions may have actually prevented a disaster. By the opening days of January, major businesses and industries had adopted the upgrades and patches necessary to prevent disruption. But some people felt that Americans were making too much out of Y2K even before the date passed. A made-for-TV movie about Y2K aired on NBC in November 1999, featuring a programmer trying to save the world on Y2K eve. The societal upheavals shown in the movie prompted businesses to ask their local NBC stations not to air the film out of fear of stoking panic. NBC aired the film anyway, and they were hardly alone in capitalizing off the millennium bug. A host of Y2K guides were published, ranging from a religious handbook geared towards women to a survival guide from Prentice Hall, the latter of which was a New York Times bestseller. In contrast to the American media, the European media largely ignored the Y2K crisis.[2]

For Americans, Y2K was big business. Firms aimed at fixing Y2K problems popped up. Consultants offered their services in Y2K preparedness. One estimate placed the amount spent on Y2K in the US alone at 122 billion dollars in the last 5 years of the 1990s. Some postmortem analyses criticized the amount that was spent, but many other commentators praised the Y2K conversion campaign’s success, lauding the improvements made to software and hardware.[3]

Twenty years later, Y2K may be remembered as a non-event, but it set the stage for how Americans would talk about threats such as climate change and terrorism. Observers of Y2K bemoaned the short-sightedness of humanity, a criticism that has become louder since. The chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation argued in 2011 that short-termism contributed to the Great Recession. And it has become de rigueur for the environmentally aware to point to the human incapacity for long-term planning as a cause for climate change (and inaction).[4]

Though Y2K didn’t spawn any religious movements, some Y2K doomsayers merely concluded that the apocalypse had been postponed. A number of Y2K diehards insisted in the early days of January that the danger hadn’t passed, while others with pre-existing apocalyptic belief contended that Y2K had been a dress rehearsal for the real thing.  The latter group included conservative evangelicals who subscribed to premillennialist beliefs. Conservative evangelicals Jerry Falwell, Chuck Missler, and Grant Jeffrey argued that Y2K would set the stage for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. When that didn’t happen, no one abandoned their beliefs. When an apocalyptic prophecy fails to materialize, many believers in that prophecy actually find their faith strengthened, as observed in the classic When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956). Disconfirmation can cause members of a group to renew their faith and try to expand their membership as a way of coping with the cognitive dissonance. The tension between expecting the apocalypse and going on with everyday life has been present in Christianity since its inception, and, in that sense, the threat of Y2K was more important than its failure to incite disaster.[5]

Since Y2K, in the wake of 9/11, recession, and global warming, the apocalypse has similarly become an everyday experience for secular Americans. Y2K helped establish a persistent expectation that the End is nigh. Apocalyptic films, TV shows, and books have multiplied. The apocalypse continues to be big business, but it has also become a tactic to convince people of the seriousness of environmental threats like climate change and declining biodiversity. But the lesson of Y2K can cut both ways in terms of the efficacy of apocalyptic language. Was it overblown, leading to wasted money and resources, or did the dire warnings prevent a disaster?

Americans debated that issue right after Y2K and continue to debate it in the context of climate change. There are currently proponents of both views. Farhad Manjoo has argued that the dire warnings about Y2K should serve as model for scientists who want Americans to take action on climate change. Meanwhile, Warren Buffet has expressed skepticism about climate change, comparing the alarms raised about Y2K to those raised by climate scientists. Far from inspiring confidence in government’s and industry’s ability to tackle a seemingly intractable problem, Y2K inaugurated a period of cynicism about American institutions and a widespread concern that civilization won’t endure in the wake of mounting manmade problems and human shortcomings.

Lisa Vox is the author of Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era (Penn Press, 2017). She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

For more on significant anniversaries in American history, click here.

[1] Kerin Poulsen, “Apocalypse Field Guide . . .” in The Ottawa Citizen, 3 January 1999, pg. C4.

[2] Karen S. Anderson, Y2K for Women: How to Protect Your Home and Family in the Coming Crisis (Nashville, 1999). Edward Yourdon and Jennifer Yourdon, Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You! (Upper Saddle River, 1998). Angela Doland, “Western Europe Calm,” Associated Press, Dec. 12, 1999.

[3] Martin J. Moylan, “A Whole Lot of Money,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 28, 2000, p. 1C. “Millennium 2000,” CNN Live Event/Special, Jan. 3, 2000.

[4] David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Carlton North, 2008).

[5] Sam Vincent Meddis, “A Different Kind of Y2K Apocalypse,” USA Today, Jan. 4, 2000. Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Day: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (New York, 2000), 222. Henry Riecken, Leon Festinger, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (Minneapolis, 1956).