Y2K: The Hoax of the Century?

by Ming Fearon and Jacqueline Wang

It’s hard to believe that the 21st century started a decade ago, but we vividly remember the chaos that accompanied the year 2000.  The problem lay in the fact that with digital software, dates were often stored only as the last two digits of a year (in the MM/DD/YY format).  With a change into the new century, it was possible that computers that stored important information, such as financial or security statements could confuse or lose data, or even stop working entirely.

Due to the panic, many companies responded by extensively updating and checking their software.  Some experts contributed to the panic by making incendiary comments about Y2K.  The Deputy Secretary of Defense of the United States at the time even went as far as to say “The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe.”  Others countered that the situation would not be as dire as rumors would have it, especially if the right precautions were taken.

It seemed that the majority of the public seemed almost determined to ignore experts’ attempts to placate their fears.  This sort of fear mongering relates back to our past couple of blog entries, where we’ve concluded that the media both creates and manipulates public fear.  The Y2K bug was a valid source of worry to be sure, but the media was an obsessive rumor mill and constantly churned out new stories about Y2K that were based almost solely on “expert opinions.” These opinions consisted often of little more than speculation, but because Y2K was such a hot topic, the public ate these stories up.

We were only eleven years old at the time, and we watched as adults around us panicked about a possible technological collapse.  In response to these rumors, we heard of people buying numerous packs of batteries, gallons of bottled water, and even canned food.  Some even went as far as to set up shelters in their basements, in the inexplicable fear that all electrical technology would suddenly fail the second the clock struck midnight.  While our families worried about the possibility of such an event, we mostly disregarded the panic and took none of those precautions.  It seemed as if there were two extremes: those who went out of their way to prepare for catastrophe, however illogical the measures were, and then there were those who barely even acknowledged that a new century was approaching.

Obviously, nothing happened at the turn of the century.  Perhaps it was due to the obsessive checking of companies, spurred by the panic.  It is likely that nothing major would have happened at all; perhaps a few glitches at most.  Ludicrous Y2K fears and speculations, such as planes falling out of the sky, never came to fruition. The only true effect the Y2K rumor and ensuing panic had on the new century was to spur a technological bubble that grew momentously for the first few years of the century and continues to grow today. 





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