Back to the Future

The Computer-Generated Apocalypse That Never Happened

The Y2K scare prompted Americans to stockpile food and stash cash. Twenty years later, a global pandemic has us doing much of the same.

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 poised to be a computer-generated apocalypse.

That never happened.

Fearmongering did, however, send us into overdrive. There were reports of people running to the bank to withdraw money and stash it under the mattress, like great-grandma used to do during the Great Depression, and stocking up on canned food and water. There was a spike in gun sales and sheltering in place before we knew how imperative it would be 20 years later.

Little did we know that some of the scenes and feelings of uncertainty from the Y2K scare would repeat in 2020 during the pandemic.

I followed some of these precautions and felt the fears. I went to the bank and made sure I had cash on hand, just in case. My friends and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to get our college degrees later in the year because we were worried the computer system would delete our records, which would then jeopardize our ability to start our post-college jobs. The panic of not being able to control things that you’ve worked for, strived for, and what that meant for basic survival was palpable, real, and all-consuming.

Similar to what’s happening this year.

Little did we know that the lessons of 2000 and the Y2K scare would come back to bite us for the lessons that we should have employed 20 years later. Little did we know that some of the scenes and feelings of uncertainty from the Y2K scare would repeat in 2020 during the pandemic. Paramount among them was people preparing like it was the end of days this past spring. People prepped with survival gear and hoarding basic goods, leaving store shelves barren. Good luck if you can find a can of Lysol.

The larger dichotomy is the leadership between the Y2K scare and the Covid-19 crisis, exhibited by the government officials in charge. The leadership and steering of the Clinton administration during Y2K made companies start to prepare, quietly, two years beforehand, fixing the problem in the background and avoiding disaster. This year, we learned that the Trump administration’s Covid-19 preparation, paired with evasive communication tactics and false information, was basically the governmental equivalent of a kid sticking fingers in their ears and yelling “la la la” in an attempt to make it go away.

There are three key lessons we should have learned and implemented from the Y2K scare: rely on data, foster public trust through transparency, and realize that economies take huge hits when we fail to plan for a crisis.

Y2K didn’t have the negative global ramifications people were afraid of because sufficient planning and reliance on actual data and regulations were put in place by the federal government. There was a ban on banks and other financial institutions from incorporating new systems between September 1999 and April 2000 which forced companies to use that time to fix software bugs. Reliance on data is what allowed federal regulators to know what it would take and how long.

The same can be said of the federal government’s ability to openly and regularly communicate about what was going on. By being transparent and giving people well-sourced, transparent information in real time, individuals could plan, or not plan, as they deemed fit. We have seen a failure in our current administration to do that, with everything from bleach to lupus drugs falsely advertised as quick fixes to combat COVID-19.

Officials need to use the same kind of transparency around the communication of data about safety as our pandemic-riddled 2020 transitions into flu season and the pressure of reopening “outside” becomes crushing. No need to encourage a spike in resurgence by lifting safety measures before we know the data calls for it and giving accurate information to the public. This is what experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, are telling us now, as computer scientists warned us in 1998 and 1999. Unfortunately, the federal credibility and response like the ones seen during Y2K are only being replicated by a handful of brave governors in the current crisis.

Lastly, a failure to plan is planning to fail. Without a nationwide mandate for how to attack the virus, individual states could determine how and when to handle the business repercussions of Covid-19. For some states, that was closing late and opening early, like Georgia and Florida. What we learned during Y2K is that markets don’t just bounce back effortlessly once the crisis is over. That is likely to be exacerbated with Covid-19, with everything from live events to restaurants feeling the lasting effects. In addition to the blow to businesses, the nearly 50 million Americans out of work, furloughed, or underemployed will need additional assistance well into 2021 to avoid evictions, debt collection, and inability to provide their family with basic necessities.

The true lasting lesson on Y2K is what happens when leadership is exhibited and provides a transparent plan with adequate communication to the citizenry grounded in facts, data, and science. No alternative facts, wishful thinking, or miracles necessary. As the old folks used to say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But some folks want to learn the hard way and are forcing us to do it with them now.

Tech attorney, privacy aficionado, and operations advisor. Advocate of inclusion and ethics to build better products. Created supplier diversity @ Facebook.

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