Was Y2K an Unfixable Problem, Hysteria, or an Easy Fix?

“You never get credit for the disasters you avert,” Technology forecaster Paul Saffo told the New York Times in 2013. 

The greatest fear of the Y2K (Year 2000) bug was the fear of the unknown. In 1999, we thought the unfixable” Y2K bug was a first step in our dystopian future. We can all have a laugh about it now, but very few of us were laughing in December 1999. We didn’t know, and that’s what scared us.    

If it was fixed, did it require a collective effort from private companies, government expenditures that some estimate in the range of $300 billion, and independent engineers, or was this largely exaggerated problem a relatively easy fix? Was the problem greatly exaggerated and overhyped?   

Some of us had our own, internalized doomsday clock in December of 1999, because we feared the unknown. Did we fear it in the comfort of our own home, because we were told to fear it? We were told it would affect every human’s daily life in one way or another. Large or small, we thought life wouldn’t be as great as it once was in December 1999. Some of us thought the electricity grid would go down, we heard planes would fall from the sky, our cars and unprepared computers would become inoperable, and our bank’s automatic teller machines (ATMs) would not dispense money. We all laugh about it now, but some maintain that tragedy was averted, and when tragedy is averted without a noteworthy event, we quickly forget how tragic it could’ve and probably should’ve been.

If any problem solver fixes a problem before it ever becomes a problem, they receive no credit for it. If they’re concerned with receiving some form of credit, the most advantageous route is to forestall a solution to allow noteworthy events to occur, and then fix it and save the world. As we all know, this did not happen in the Y2K scare.   

I knew people who stocked their pantries with bottled water and grain pellets, I knew others withdrew extra cash from their bank’s ATM, and I knew a number of people who bought Y2K software updates for their computers. No one knew everything, but we all knew something, and everyone knew that we had to be prepared for anything. Our reaction to the scare defined us in 1999, but it further defined us on January 1, 2000. What people to avoid becoming a victim of something that never happened, became the subject of their ridicule.  

The theoretical question we asked one another in 1999 was not when it would affect us, because we all knew that. The question was how much would it affect our lives? Few reasonable and rational adults asked the question if it would affect us. Due to the fact that computers were still relatively new to us, we considered it a fait accompli that it would affect us. We grew up with science fiction movies that revolved around a plot that that which can help man today could one day, and in some way, ruin man in a dystopian manner that no one saw coming.  

In those movies, the proverbial, street corner bell ringer was always the best-looking actor in the movie (which lends their character more gravitas) warning the less attractive (and thus less aware) side characters of impending doom. None of the average-to-ugly actors recognized the true, impending threat of what the attractive actor warned, until it was too late. We didn’t want anyone to consider us average-to-ugly, so we mentally prepared for the day when an attractive person lofted a preposterous notion to us.  

In 1985, Someone posed a theoretical question about how Y2K might affect computers when the century switched, but the problem for us was we didn’t know how attractive that theoretician was, so we didn’t know how serious to take it. Their theoretical notion hinged on the idea that for decades computer programmers wrote the year in shorthand. They didn’t write out the year 1985, they wrote 85. Some claimed the shorthand was done to save memory space. Thus, when the year flipped from 99 to 00, we feared that all of our computers would believe the year was 1900, 1800, or even year 00? Most of us didn’t believe that computers could transport us to year 00, alongside the baby Jesus, but we feared that our computers would fail to recognize the logic of the switch, and that the bug it created might introduce such internal confusion in the computer’s mainframe that they would simply shutdown. We feared any input we introduced to combat this  inconsistency would prove insufficient, and our computers would be unable to sort it out? The theoretical question reached hysterical proportions in the fourteen years between 1985 and 1999, as America grew more and more reliant on computers for everything from its most important activities (travel) to its most basic (ATMs and the electrical grid).   

My guess is that the recipient of that first theoretical question brought it to a closed-door boardroom, and some of those board members took that question out to other parties, until someone in the media heard the question and thought it might prove to be an excellent ongoing question to ask an audience in ongoing features every week. They could start a Tuesday Tech story of the week in which they asked the informed and uninformed what they thought of a problem that wasn’t a problem yet, but could be a problem when the calendar flipped.  

Media figures have two roles in our lives, they tell us what we need to hear, read, and see, and they tell us what we want to hear. We don’t want to hear eggheads talk 1s and 0s, unless they can make it apply to our lives. We don’t want to hear about hard science, in other words, but we love science fiction.   

“Nobody cares about computer programming,” we can guess a competing network executive informed their reporter who wanted to do their own feature story to mirror the first network’s reportage. “Why should I care about this?”   

“The angle we’re proposing is more granular,” this reporter said in his proposal. “The first network focused on the larger question of computer technology in their Tech Tuesday reports. In our Tech Thursday features, we’ll explore how much of our lives are now dependent on computers. Our energy grid, the tanks at the gas station, and the ATMs. We plan on bringing this problem home where people live. We will say this Y2K bug is not just going to affect just Silicon Valley and New York City, but it could have far-reaching implications for citizens from Pocatello, Idaho to Destin, Florida, and here’s how …” 

As usual with hysterical premises of this sort, the one component most news agencies, and the word-of-mouth hysteria that follows, fail to address is human ingenuity. Rarely, do we hear a reporter say, “We’ve all heard the problem called the Y2K bug, but we rarely hear about proposed solutions. Today, our guest Derrick Aspergren will talk about proposed solutions to comfort the audience at home.” The problem for news agencies is that the Derrick Apergrens of the world speak in ones and zeroes. Even though most computer problems and solutions involve a lexicon of ones and zeroes, no one wants to hear it, and few will remember it. As a result, news agencies rarely give Derrick Aspergrens airtime, as they’re usually not very charismatic or as dramatic as the proverbial bell ringers standing on a street corner.   

In 1999, we rarely heard the question, can hardware engineers and electrical engineers fix a problem they created? The learned fear we’re conditioned to believe, based on the plot lines of so many science fiction movies, is that if we dig deep enough, we’ll discover that this isn’t a human problem at all, but a problem generated by a scary conglomeration of ones and zeroes we call AI (artificial intelligence). We knew nothing about the potential of AI in 1999, but we feared it, and its potential, because we feared the unknown. “AI is here, and there’s nothing we can do about it!” was (and is) the battle cry of conspiracy theorists on radio, in our neighborhoods, and in our work place. The truth was much less dramatic.   

The truth, we now know, was somewhere far south of the hype. The truth lived somewhere in the question of whether the Y2K fear was real. If it required a big, worldwide fix, as some suggest happened, how come there were no Nobel Prizes that resulted? “That’s because it required a collective effort from so many minds, around the world that there was no individual to accord credit.” Or, was the fix so easy that any hardware engineer, worth about half of his college tuition payments, able to do it?  

Was the Y2K scare a tragedy averted by hardware engineers enduring mind-numbing hours of editing, or was the entire affair hyped up through media mis, dis, or mal-information? I don’t remember the reports from every media outlet, but how much focus did the round robin hysteria generated by the media place on possible and probable fixes? Some suggest if there was a need for a fix, it could be easily accomplished by hardware programmers, and others suggest it was never this world-shaking threat we thought it was.   

The problem for us was that the problem was so much more interesting than the fix. Take a step back to December 1999, and imagine this news report, “Here we have a man named Geoffrey James, who says, “If Y2K experts (some of whom had a software background but none a hardware background) ask some electrical engineers about date checking in embedded systems, they will learn that only a complete idiot would do anything resembling the conversion and comparison of calendar dates inside a chip. We use elapsed time, which is a simple, single counter; it takes ten seconds to add to a circuit.  

“I may oversimplifying but ultimately the reasoning doesn’t matter,” Geoffrey continues, “the unfixable system problem either isn’t real or isn’t significant enough to spawn a disaster. Because there aren’t any.” That rational and reasonable explanation from someone purportedly in the know would’ve gone in one ear and out the other, because for some of us there are no absolutes, and there are no quick fixes. When someone dangles the prospect of a simple solution to the simplest problems, we swat them away: 

“You mean to tell me that all they have to do is add to a circuit. I ain’t buying it brother, and if I were you, I wouldn’t buy it either. I wouldn’t go out into the world naked with the beliefs of some egghead. We all have to prepare for this, in one way or another, we must prepare.”  

Some of us thought the Y2K bug would force us to back to the primal life of the cavemen, or at least to the latest and greatest technology of the McKinley administration of 1900. Friends of mine thought those of us who knew how to hunt and forage for food would once again take their rightful place atop the kingdom of those who grew so accustomed to the comfy life of going to the grocery store. More than one person I knew thought our appliances might explode, and that Americans might start living like the poorest third-world nations in the world. We thought the primal life would return, and our TV shows and movies reflected that fear and (some say) desire to return to our roots.  

News reports stated that hardware engineers and other electrical engineers were working on the problem, but they’re not sure they’ll have a workable in time. We knew the line: “For every problem there is a solution,” but when you’re in the midst of hysteria, lines like, “This was a man-made problem that requires a man-made solution” provide no comfort. We all know that tangled within mankind is a ratio of geniuses who not only know how to propose solutions, but they know how to apply and implement them. We know this, but humans suffer from an ever-present inferiority complex that suggests no mere mortal can resolve the crisis like this one. We know this because no self-respecting science fiction writer would ever be so lazy as to suggest that a mortal, whether they be a military leader with a blood lust who wants to detonate a warhead on the monster, a policeman who believes that a bullet can kill him, or an egotistical scientist can resolve this particular dystopian dilemma.  

Even though this was a man-made problem, few outside the halls of hardware engineer offices believed man could solve the problem. We heard about geniuses who brought us incredible leaps of technology so often that it was old hat to us. We knew they could build it, but there was this fear, borne in the human inferiority complex, and propagated by the sci-fi movies we loved, that this problem had spiraled so out of control that it was now beyond human comprehension. 

Was Y2K overhyped as an unfixable problem, or was the solution so elementary that it simply took a mind-numbing number of man hours to implement it? I don’t know if the numerous media outlets who ran their Tech Tuesday features ever focused on the idea that the Y2K problem of two digits vs. four was generated by a theoretical question someone asked someone else. As a Y2K survivor, who had many of his theoretical questions shouted down by group thought to the point where I developed my own fears, I will forever ask the question, “If this whole thing is based on a theoretical question, what is the theoretical answer?” If we use the Y2K hysteria for Y2K hysterica’s fears as a precedent, we should always be asking these types of questions. The alternative might result in us shutting the world down over an hysterical fear of the unknown.