Y2K: The end that never came

While most people bought in the turn of the millennium in a haze of alcohol and loud music; there were others staying in their homes waiting for the world to end. Of course I wouldn’t be here writing this article if it had; but why were so many people convinced the world was going to end? In the end it all boiled down to a missing string of ones and zeros.

Y2K as it was a potential software flaw in some computing systems where when a computers clock hit the date 1st January 2000, they would crash. The initial flaw was born in the 60s, when due to limited space, a two digit code was used to represent the year. This meant that the year ‘1963’ would be represented in the code as ‘63’. As innocuous as this may sounds, the worry was that computers would interpret the 00 as 1900 and not the 2000 that it should be.

This presented a problem as nearly all governmental and banking systems globally were based on the archaic system and in theory this could cause major problems. Not only were this there fears that a lot of the everyday software in things such as elevators and security systems could be at risk. All of this combined made some people believe that, if there were widespread system issues, the entire planets infrastructure could collapse leading to mass anarchy and supply shortages.

One of the main factors in why ‘Y2K’ caused such widespread panic was that people really had very little idea about what was going to happen. Theoretically, if there were significant worldwide system failures, it could lead to all of the issues mentioned above, but in reality nobody really knew what was going to happen. The uncertainty was ultimately the catalytic factor that caused widespread panic; although a lot of this panic would be focused in the US.

In 1998, then President Bill Clinton passed an act called the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Act, which in essence offered businesses limited liability protection in exchange for offering ideas and solutions to the potential problem. In total, it’s estimated that $300 billion was spent worldwide in order to preemptively tackle the issue (over half of this it is estimated was spent by the USA).  Also computing companies and magazines were sending out CD based patches that would hypothetically help alleviate any effects that Y2K could have (at least on their own PC’s anyway.

Clinton calms the fears about Y2K in public address.

Ultimately, the world didn’t end, however that doesn’t mean that the Y2K bug had no effect at all. The biggest consequence of the glitch was seen in Japan when at the turn of the millennium a nuclear energy facility in Ishikawa had some radiation equipment failures; however these issues were resolved by back up equipment and ultimately there were no consequences to the public.

Y2K shows us the power that computing and software has on our global economy and also the massive level of integration in our everyday lives. Although Y2K was ultimately not the global issue some thought it was, that doesn’t mean that technology has no potential pitfalls for humanity in the future.

By Ryan Pointon

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