This story is a part of our Back to the Future series on how key moments in the year 2000 influenced similar events in 2020.
The first global catastrophe of the 21st century started with a computer bug, not an actual viral bug, which is currently causing chaos on a massive scale. Though it wasn’t a pandemic, Y2K, a computer bug born out of trying to ensure cost savings for companies, ushered in panic-inflicting predictions that left many of us wondering what 2000 and beyond would look like. The alarm stemmed from the anticipation that complicated computer programs initially written from the 1960s through the 1980s would all malfunction at the stroke of midnight.
The forecast was bleak, with reverberating consequences for every digitally managed system. From banking, power plants, and nuclear reactors to transportation, government systems, and all points in between, we would be screwed. Computer engineers had used a two-digit code for the year, and the programs were pre-programmed to assume that every year started with “19” and therefore only bothered filling in the last two numbers. Instead of a date reading 1980, it read 80. Engineers shortened the date because data storage in computers was costly and took up a lot of space before cloud computing and excessive server storage, on which we are all dependent and hooked now. Just ask Amazon Web Services and Google.
As the year 2000 approached, computer programmers realized that computers might not read “00” as 2000 but as 1900. The fear was that when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, every computer would create global havoc with corrupted air traffic control systems sending planes falling out of the sky, destroying the banking system and the ability to pull money out of ATMs (though, many were hopeful that debts would be wiped out), and erasing documents that could ruin filing systems for government agencies to school records. Activities that were programmed on a daily or yearly basis would be damaged or flawed. It was…