Y is for Y2K

By Ned Donovan

Very few frenzies have gripped the public like the Y2K myth. In the run up to the year 2000, or as people wrongly assert, the Millenium, there was a theory that when the clocks ticked over from 31/12/1999 to 01/01/2000, the world would collapse. The premise was that computers, due to memory limits, were only coded to understand years that began with 19–, and so when it became 2000, every single computer not prepared for Y2K would cease to function. In preparation, corporations spent millions changing their systems, and people feared aeroplanes would fall out of the sky come midnight on the 31st of December.

In the infancy of the World Wide Web, the ‘Millennium Bug’ spread like wildfire across AOL chats, message boards, and early websites. The scaremongering over a simple code change resulted in more than $300m in costs, and the US government passed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act. The US also set up a plan with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, normally responsible for assisting citizens in disasters. Making the most of the scare, survivalist companies selling canned food and guns did extremely well.

Photograph from Wikimedia/Bug de l’an 2000

Photo from Wikimedia/Bug de l’an 2000

What eventually happened come the 1st January was that some slot machines didn’t work and a few French electronic billboards didn’t work. What it did end up teaching a lot of the early netizens, however, is never to trust what you read online. A lesson that is still rarely followed to this day.