It's always the end of the world as we know it


It seems so distant, 1999. Bill Clinton had survived impeachment, his popularity hardly dented, Sept 11 was just another date and music fans were enjoying a young singer named Britney Spears.

But there was a particular unease in the air. The so-called Y2K problem, the inability of computers to read dates beyond 1999 threatened to turn Jan 1, 2000, into a nightmare. The issue had first been noticed by programmers in the 1950s, but had been ignored. As the turn of the century loomed, though, it seemed that humankind faced a litany of horrors.

Haywire navigation controls might cause aircraft to fall from the skies. Electricity grids, water systems and telephone networks would be knocked out, while nuclear power plants would be subject to meltdown. Savings and pension accounts would be wiped out in a general bank failure. A cascade of breakdowns in communication and commerce would create vast shortages of food and medicine, which would, in turn, produce riots, lawlessness and social collapse. Even worse, ICBMs might rise from their silos unbidden, spreading death across the globe.

Y2K problems would not be limited to mainframe computers that governed the information systems of the modern world, but were going to affect millions of tiny computer chips found everywhere. Thanks to these wonky microprocessors, elevators would die, GPS devices would stop working and dishwashers would dry the food onto the plates before trying to rinse it off. Even ordinary cars might spontaneously accelerate to fatal, uncontrollable speeds, with brakes failing to respond.

The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century’s end: headlines proclaimed a ‘computer time bomb’ or ‘a date with disaster’.  Among the most reviled of the Y2K deniers was Bill Gates, who not only declared that Microsoft’s PCs would take the date turnover in stride, but had the audacity to blame those who ‘love to tell tales of fear’ for the worldwide anxiety.

The Rev Jerry Falwell suggested that Y2K would be the confirmation of Christian prophecy, “God’s instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation.” The Y2K crisis might incite a worldwide revival that would lead to “the rapture of the church.” Along with many survivalists, Falwell advised stocking up on food and guns.

So the scene was set in New Zealand for midnight on Dec 31, 1999. We are just west of the dateline, and thus would be the first to experience not only popping Champagne corks and fireworks, but the Y2K catastrophe, if any. As clocks hit midnight, Champagne and skyrockets were the only explosions of interest, since telephones, ATMs, cars, computers and airplanes worked just fine. The head of the government’s Y2K Readiness Commission declared victory: “New Zealand’s investment in planning and preparation has paid off.”

Confident that our millions were well spent, we waited for news of the calamities sure to hit countries that had ignored Y2K. Asia, a Deutsche Bank official had predicted, was going to be ‘burnt toast’ on New Year’s Day — not just the lesser-developed areas of Vietnam and China, but South Korea, which by 1999 was a highly computer-dependent society. South Korea, one computer expert told me, had a national telephone system similar to British Telecom’s. But where the British had wisely sunk millions of pounds into Y2K remediation, South Korea had done next to nothing.

No change

However, exactly 10 years ago, as the date change moved on through the Far East, India, Russia, West Asia and Europe, it became apparent that it made little difference whether you lived in Britain, which at great expense had revamped many of its computer systems, or the lackadaisical Ukraine, which had ignored the issue. With minor glitches that would have gone unnoticed any other day of the week, the world kept ticking on.

By the time midnight reached the United States, where upward of $100 billion had been spent on Y2K fixes, there was little anxiety. Indeed, the general health of American information systems, fixed and not, became clearer in the new year. The Small Business Administration calculated that 1.5 million businesses had undertaken no Y2K remediation. On Jan 3, it received about 40 phone calls from businesses that had experienced minor faults, like cash registers that misread the year ‘2000’ as ‘1900’.

Knowing our computers is difficult enough. Harder still is to know ourselves, including our inner demons. From today’s perspective, the Y2K fiasco seems to be less about technology than about a morbid fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios. This ought to strike us as strange. The cold war was fading in 1999, we were witnessing a worldwide growth in wealth and standards of living, and Islamic terrorism was not yet seen as a serious global threat. It should have been a year of golden weather, a time for the human race to relax and look toward a brighter, more peaceful future. Instead, with computers as a flimsy pretext, many seemed to take pleasure in frightening themselves to death over a coming calamity.

Religions from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to UFO cults have been built around notions of sin and the world’s end. The Y2K threat resonated with those ideas. Suppose it turned out that a couple of zeros inadvertently left off old computer codes brought crashing down the very civilisation computers helped to create. Cosmic justice!

Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems — poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems — needing intelligent attention. Even something as down-to-earth as the swine-flu scare has seemed at moments to be less about testing our health care system and its emergency readiness than about the fate of a diseased civilisation drowning in its own fluids. We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St Paul put it, the ‘twinkling of an eye’ — that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. But turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.

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