Y2K: How The 90s Ended With A Whimper, Not A Bang

What Was Y2K?

Essentially, it was poor planning - a tiny flaw in the design of computer systems around the world; specifically, in how these devices tracked time. Known by another name as the “Millenium bug”, Y2K stands for “Year Two Thousand” and refers to the panic that erupted when people realized going into a new decade might throw a major wrench in all things digital.

But wait a minute - how big a deal would it be if computers didn’t know we were in a new millenium? And couldn’t we just reprogram them anyway?

Why The Fuss?

It’s helpful if you think about it like this: Imagine a bank is relying on a computer system to track and calculate interest on millions of user accounts. The computer is programmed to run daily interest algorithms, so going from 12/31/99 to 01/01/00 should allocate one day’s worth of interest.

The only snag?

Computers might not interpret 01/01/00 as January 1, 2000. They might interpret that as January 1st, 1900, and thus DEDUCT 100 YEARS worth of interest in the blink of an eye. It’s easy to see why banks were nervous. And airlines, which rely on computers to schedule takeoffs and landings, had their share of anxiety about Y2K. Would flight systems go haywire, leaving thousands of travelers grounded? Would planes fall out of the sky?

When computers were first developed, we wrote dates in a specific format (dd/mm/yy) and the approach of a new millennium was still too far off to be top of mind. No one thought about the prospect of the year 2000 being misinterpreted in two-digit year notation. Lest we forget, computers may seem all powerful – but they’re based on human programming. When they make mistakes, human error is usually the culprit.

It wasn’t just money and air travel, either. Power plants that rely on computers to run safety programs and other critical diagnostics at regular intervals were unsure whether these systems would be misaligned in the new year. This could result in widespread blackouts and utter chaos. It looked like we could be heading for a literal meltdown.

What Was The Plan?

In order to prepare for this possibility, people began to panic. In earnest. There was a ton of buzz about the possible outcomes of Y2K, and plenty of speculation of what might happen at the stroke of midnight. Doomsday preppers were chomping at the bit to hunker and bunker, and welcome the end of the world as we knew it.

Meanwhile, computer engineers and programmers were recruited to develop preventative action plans that could protect systems and business around the world. This information was disseminated online, and many orgs took heed - particularly government agencies. Solutions ranged from data recovery tips to backup hardware and software solutions.

What Actually Happened?

All in all, not much. A handful of nuclear reactors experienced shutdowns, some credit card systems were unpredictable for a short time, a number of minor power outages occurred, but overall these glitches were singular points of failure rather than sweeping systemic issues. They were solved by manual reprogramming or rebooting devices. Computers for the most part didn’t have the anticipated issues going into the year 2000.

Even though 2017 was a stressful year on many accounts, the last day’s stroke of midnight was far less fraught than that of 1999. Here’s hoping the trend continues as we, computers and people alike, make our way bravely and boldly into another year together.

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