There’s a 10-year-old bottle of candy sitting on my shelf, a testament to our unending capacity to panic over the unlikely while we blithely ignore the real threats in our lives.
I had one dropped on every employee’s desk when they returned from New Year’s weekend in 2000. The bright gold label says, “I survived the Y2K hype at FRB.”
Hard to believe it’s 10 years since the Y2K debacle, when programmers extorted corporate America for billions of dollars to make sure computers wouldn’t click over at midnight on 12/31/1999 and suddenly decide it was now 01/01/1900 or, worse, 01/01/1000.
Just about everyone with a PC took a deep breath, reset the calendars on their computers for 11:59 on 12/31 and waited for the machines to melt down, or blow up, or spit blood and cackle like Shakespearean hags. Didn’t happen. The computers kept working, the one-way chronometers kept moving forward and the world didn’t end.
But the tech guys warned that it wasn’t our personal computers that were going to kill us. Instead, it was all the legacy systems, developed in the 1950s and 60s and 70s, when nobody ever thought about the idea of 2000. Those systems only had two digits to note the year, so a calendar turning past 99 would essentially reset at zero, losing 100 or maybe 1,000 years in the process. And these were the systems managing the banks, the stock exchanges and our nuclear arsenal.
Software patches were installed everywhere, but the great seers of geekdom insisted that any one computer could bring down a thousand more if the Y2K bug attacked even a single network.
Soon, litigators were lining up to recruit clients for the class action suits that would yield the next gold rush, if and when the computers went down. Companies insisted that their vendors indemnify them against any losses if the vendors’ systems crashed and took down the customer computers.
And then midnight came, first in the Pacific Ocean and then through Asia, Europe, the East Coast….and nothing happened. Planes didn’t fall from the sky, bank accounts didn’t vanish, nuclear plants didn’t melt into the Earth’s core.
I guess you just had to be there.
Happy New Year, 2010. May all your fears dissolve like the threat of Y2K.