Y all the fuss?

by Cantor Eric Schulmiller

Two little digits. Twenty-five years ago, that’s all that stood between us and a worldwide apocalypse. When 1999 arrived, governments and businesses scrambled to finish their preparations for the arrival of the dreaded Y2K bug. We found ourselves in this predicament because of the shortsighted behavior of corporations and governments who adapted revolutionary modern technology without factoring in the long-term consequences of their choices. Sound familiar? In this case, it wasn’t anything as dramatic as an over-reliance on fossil fuels. It was the decision to base their computer systems around software that only used two numbers for the year, instead of four. That was perfectly fine when it was ’68, or ’87, or even ’99. But when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, would computer systems around the world suddenly think they were back in 1900? Would markets (or planes??) crash? Would there be a run on banks as people panicked about their accounts reverting to a time before the gold standard?

Many of you probably remember counting down the New Year with some amount of trepidation. Would the world as we know it cease to exist? What would take its place? And how old is Dick Clark anyway? The U.S. Treasury printed an extra $250 billion in cash, in case there was a run on banks. Italy stopped their trains right before midnight. The Pentagon told the U.S. military to be prepared to raise their alert level to, “Y2K Posture Level One,” in case defense systems went down, or a missile was accidentally launched, or there were widespread riots in the streets. And then…the ball dropped, and nothing happened. Actual Y2k-related snafus were almost nonexistent. A few satellites had to momentarily reboot, and some folks were temporarily saddled with 100 years’ worth of late fees at their local video rental store. That was about it. The post-January 1, 2000 state of affairs was so normal that the Y2K scare became something of a joke, like a bad winter storm that never materialized.

Except… Y2K was actually much closer to the Cuban Missile Crisis than the false panic of War of the Worlds. Most people don’t realize how close we actually came to the worldwide disaster that we were warned could occur. So why did things turn out as well as they did? Because government officials and big businesses actually listened to the experts’ warning bells that began sounding as early as the late 1980’s. President Clinton exhorted the government to “get our house in order,” and appointed a Y2K Czar. By the late 1990’s, there were behind-the-scenes efforts at the highest levels to address the issue head-on, and billions of dollars were invested by corporations and dedicated by world governments to work around the clock to assure that the worst would not come to pass. In the United States, there were no “Y2K denialists” trying to paint the looming crisis as a partisan hoax. The United Nations set up an International Y2K Cooperation Center, and the United States and Russia opened a joint Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability to avoid any errant missile launches. And thousands upon thousands of IT professionals did the unheralded labor that fixed the problem before it could cause any real damage.

As we head into 2024, a year filled with potential global crises that we are well aware of, we could learn a lesson from our response to Y2K. Listen to experts. Head the warnings. Stop the partisan bickering. Do the work. Invest in our future. May we find the courage and the wisdom to learn not only from our worst mistakes but also from our greatest triumphs.

With best wishes for a hopeful 2024,

Cantor Eric