“I came here today because I wanted to stress the urgency of the challenge…Clearly, we must set forth what the government is doing, what business is doing, but also what all of us have yet to do to meet this challenge together. And there is still a pressing need for action.” – President Bill Clinton, in a speech about Y2K at the National Academy of Sciences, July 15,1998
As the approach of the 21st Century loomed in the distance, there was widespread speculation that the date change to the year 2000, as cataloged by computers and other digital technology, would result in worldwide technological failure. Y2K was the first threat of widespread calamity due to technological failure, causing the world to face its vulnerability as a society reliant upon technology in the new digital era. What would happen if all the computers failed to operate at the turn of the clock?
Before 1996, many computer programs stored years with only two decimals, so that 1960 would read 60, and so forth. Therefore, when these programs reached the year 2000, they would not be able to distinguish between 00 as 2000, or 13000000, or 1800, etc. The resulting faulty date logic could cause computer systems to produce incorrect results or fail. Since much of modern societies’ utilities and crucial infrastructures are reliant upon computer systems to function, the result of widespread computer failure would be disastrous on a global scale. As programmers started to become aware of a potential problem, the British Standards Institute developed the “Year 2000 Conformity” standards, stating that “the century must be unambiguous, either specified or calculable by algorithm.” Companies, governments, and organizations all over the world set to fixing and upgrading their computer systems. There was amazing effort and collaboration to quickly make sure that major industries were squared away, as well as an estimated $300 billion spent globally . However, there were still concerns as to whether the precautions would work at the turn of the millennium.
The response to the threat of Y2K from the general populous varied. Some people were not concerned or convinced that Y2K would be an issue, while many were swept up in the media’s sensationalism. For those who were concerned about shut-down, precautions varied. Sales in solar electricity equipment increased 110% in the two-year span from 1998-99. A Scripps and Howard News Service National Survey taken 6 months before January 1, 2000 found that 36% of people would avoid flying a commercial airliner and 34% would stock up on extra food. The more extreme responses, such as underground bunkers, spawned a National Geographic series called “Doomsday Preppers.” However, when the clock counted down to January 1, 2000, there were luckily no devastating results due to the Y2K bug because of the thorough precautionary measures that had been taken.
Though Y2K is often remembered by poking fun at the sensationalism, it is also a great example of how the world rallied quickly and efficiently to prevent global disaster. The Y2K scare was an example of international commitment and collaboration that quickly eradicated a global threat. Let us hope that governments and corporations worldwide will be willing to invest as much money and sense of urgency to fixing our current impending environmental threats and to upgrading the way we view our role as a species on this planet.