What Y2K Can Teach Us About The Pandemic
A Story of Fearing the Unknown, and Trusting Experts
As an anxious person living through a time in which the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ is used at an unprecedented pace… I often feel like I am looking anywhere for an explanation or an inkling of understanding. For months, I searched for dots to connect to make myself feel more comfortable with our current setting. I was trying desperately to understand the pandemic, and the confusion and anger that came along with it.
Of course, I failed at becoming a sudden expert capable of predicting the months to come. So naturally, I moved into distraction territory. Anything to distance my mind from the pandemic, and the cloud of unknowing that accompanies it.
To fill this void, I spent an evening drafting Ideas for various podcasts I wanted to create – none of which came to fruition. – However, within the myriad of ideas, I stumbled across a dot from the past that connected seamlessly with our here and now.
I started reading about Y2K, and found myself looking into a fun-house mirror of today’s pandemic coverage.
Immediately, I fell into a rabbit hole reading about Y2K, and even though I abandoned the podcast idea – the notes for the Y2K episode stuck with me. There was so much to learn from the few bits and pieces I had taken note of.
Predicting the future is a practice of reflecting mindfully on the past.
Looking back to January 1st, 2000 we can see a world that was earmarked for apocalypse, left with an uneasy feeling of “what was all the hubbub about?”. With multi-billion dollar “Told yas so’s” to Expensive library books – There was a lot happening, and a lot to talk about before I translate it to help understand the pandemic.
Y2K | The Backstory
Long before the year 2000, computer software was compiled through punch cards. Yes, out of paper. Measuring in at 3 x 7 inches, and needing stacks upon stacks for a single calculation — the digital world of ‘code’ actually took up a lot of physical space.
Rooms upon rooms were filled wall to wall with filing cabinets and boxes of these punch cards. Storage was cumbersome, and expensive.
The cumbersome physical size of ‘code’ weighed down the software development and computing industry. Any small change or ‘trick’ to save space or storage was helpful. Only the most important information was going to be stored and used, and every programmer tried to find easier ways to build bigger programs with less storage.
Thus, a decision was made somewhere along the lines to store Years as a 2 digit value instead of 4. Hence 1993 would be “93” and 1984 would have been “84” and we save the space that a whole 2 other digits would have been taking up. A considerable space saver considering the factors at play.
This solution was quietly saving storage space for years as common practice. Until around 1984 when an employee at an insurance company tried to enter a payment due date into the early 2000’s. The computer interpreted this value as the year 1900 – simply just two zeros –
If you’re keeping score at home, this is a due date that was in the past, which isn’t a great way to be paid your money and the software regurgitated nonsensical results.
The woman who entered this data was Marilyn J Murray. She and her husband went on to publish the first book on the topic of Y2K (Before it was known as Y2K of course.) Computers in Crisis: How to Avert the Coming Worldwide Computer Systems Collapse. Though, it largely went unnoticed due to being supremely ‘technical’ in nature.
This issue, coined at first as the “Year 2000 Problem”, was replicated in various levels of computing professionals, and started to get noticed and talked about. From office employees, right up to the Defense Department. When a software bug starts crawling higher up the computing totem pole, it starts being treated like a real pest.
Several Federal agencies started digging into and scrolling through their multi-million line software code to correct the future problem.
In 1998, American President Bill Clinton formed the Year 2000 Conversion Council, and began warning business across the country to prepare properly and thoroughly. The first ever ‘update your sht or it will break.’*
The Race Is On
Essentially, companies had to spent incredible amounts of money fixing software and updating their processes. The IT industry boomed as companies expanded their software departments exponentially.
Nobody was going to be immune from this looming apocalyptic threat. It was heavily theorized that computers worldwide would fail. Banks would lose all account information. Plane systems would fail, dropping them from the sky as the millennium turned. Survival kits were sold by and large, and fear was settled in across many people’s mind.
At the same time, there were many skeptics. Calling out the media for fear mongering, and exaggerating to scare people. Many had the understanding that this problem was entirely manufactured for the sake of economic gain.
These skeptic critiques seem familiar when we look through today’s lens.
Needless to say, anticipation was high as January 1 2000 came closer.
January 1 2000
Politicians who were bunkered up all night emerge from their concrete caves. Armed forces breathe heavy sighs of relief. Planes miraculously land safely at their destinations. Elevators continued running, and life as we knew it did not end.
There were oddball events, like in Pennsylvania, a school library charged students for their sudden 100 Year old borrowed books. Some U.S. spy satellites reportedly stopped working for a few days, until some coding issues were fixed. Luckily the issue with the satellites was ground based, because I’m not sure how they go about software updates in space…
At various Nuclear Plants, alarms rang and some monitor systems went offline. However this was quickly contained and was no threat to the safety precautions in place. Only the alarm systems got jumbled momentarily. Just enough for a solid scare.
The apocalyptic story that was told did not come true, and it left people feeling uncomfortable to say the least. Those who were calling hoax felt validated. Overworked IT Professionals felt as though their hard work paid off, and saved the world. The folks that hired the IT Professionals called them con-men for over exaggerating the threat.
So, What Happened?
There is a lot of debate on the topic, of course. But the truth I’ve landed on is that Billions of dollars were spent in updating critical software. Code bases, which were the foundation for many programs, updated entirely to accommodate the “Y2K Bug”, and support was offered to businesses of all sizes to evaluate and contain the threat.
These wide-reaching fixes and programs were helpful, and got the most systems on board and prepared by the time we reached January 1 2000.
The IT industry was pulled from the ashes, and saved the day in a sense. The value of the IT industry was brought to new heights, and the important of technology in the workplace was given the foundation it needed.
However, something about worldwide threats and humanitarian issues, it drags a lot more out of the ashes with it. The looming threat was of course exaggerated in various ways. Some of that exaggeration was for the purpose of discrediting it as nonsense, others for the purpose of making people scared in order to sell them a product to placate that fear, and even some due to just pure confusion and misinformation.
On January 1 2000, millions of people suddenly had shelves full of ‘survival kits’ that weren’t immediately needed. Their New Years Eve were spent encumbered with anxiety that seemed to compound on itself as the clocks lurched towards midnight. With every emergency, there is someone willing to spin it for their gain. Y2K offered the perfect opportunity for morally absent entrepreneurs to flourish. And when the dust – or lack thereof – settled, people felt robbed
Looking beyond the distraction headlines, hype, and hoax claims, we can see that money was invested in the proper industries and avenues to handle the threat. It was dealt with before the day arrived.
The leaders and experts got ahead of the problem, and tackled it before it was tackling them. The ones that saved these systems will never receive proper credit – because they succeeded.
The warnings were heard and enacted, so when the day finally came there was no danger… There was no ‘visual’ representation of disaster. No monster revealed in the 3rd act to make us feel rewarded for the efforts put in to stop the threat along the way.
Life doesn’t always play out like a movie. Sometimes, the answer is a simple solution of hard work over time instead of awaiting the climax final boss fight with a single hero. With all of that background behind us, we can use it to help us understand the pandemic today.
Using Y2K to Understand the Pandemic | The Year 2021 Problem
The date of January 1 2000 will be remembered forever… Though I fear that the lessons learned are lost to time. We should have emerged from that crisis proud. Proud that we invested in Expertise. Proud that we took the precautions those experts offered. Especially proud that we got ahead of the problem before it knocked us down too far. These are all traits I wish we had employed while trying to understand the pandemic.
We should have learned the danger of hyperbolizing a crisis. By taking a world wide, serious crisis and only talking about it in terms of “Apocalypse” or “Armageddon” – we expand the conversation too far and allow wiggle room for fiction to fill the gaps between the facts. When both sides of the coin are two extremes of Hoax vs The End of The World, the value of that coin remains unclear.
Humans have an astounding capacity for crisis. When lives are in danger, an altruistic hero will inevitably rise. When grounded, we invent flight. However, when we allow ourselves to be lifted away from the reality of the crisis, and only focus on the idea of the crisis – we lose the rationale necessary to deal with it handily.
Listen to this excerpt from the Final Report from the Year 2000 Conversion Council:
“The United States and the rest of the world made a successful transition into the Year 2000. This did not happen by accident. The positive outcome was the result of a tremendous, world-wide mobilization of people and resources to meet the common challenge presented by the date change.”
When I look at January 1 2000, I see a lot of reminders of the past. Yet, it served as a reflection of our current trajectory. Like a screenshot in time faded to a black screen – leaving us staring back at ourselves. If we can’t understand the pandemic that plagues ‘information’, we’ll never understand the pandemic that plagues ourselves.