Thursday, December 31, 2009

Y2K Scare Ten Year Anniversary

I've seen all sorts of "Best of the Decade" features over the last couple of weeks. But I haven't seen any mention of the fact that tonight is the 10 year anniversary of the infamous "Y2K problem" scare. Remember that? The irrational fear which swept the (developed) world in 1999 that because all sorts of computers and electronics abbreviated years with only two digits rather than four (i.e. "1999" was just "99"), digital and electronic pandemonium would break loose on New Years Eve 1999 as the year turned to 2000. Planes might fall out of the sky, banks could lose all their records, nuclear plants could explode.

Millions and millions of dollars were spent in panicky computer retrofits during 1999, particularly in the United States and Britain. And yet no real problems ever emerged anywhere as the year 2000 rolled in, even in countries that had "cavalierly" taken little or no remedial action.

I remember getting on a flight to San Francisco on New Years Eve 1999, to meet friends there for a big party. I left after work, so my flight departed in the evening and was scheduled to land less than 3 hours from the turn of the Millenium. And you know what, there were only about a dozen passengers on a plane that could hold over 125. Of course, nothing happened.

Ah, the power of the threatened Armageddon (and the risk aversion of corporate bosses) to stifle rational, critical thought, thereby resulting, on hindsight, in a terrible misallocation of capital. Why is that lesson still so resonant today?

On a lighter note, below is a 2 minute piece about preparations for Y2K and its more dire potential consequences that is unintentionally humorous on hindsight. It's hosted by a much younger Leonard Nimoy. Near the end, it advises everyone to store plenty of water in advance of pending disaster on January 1, 2000. ("Fill every container that you use," advises an expert, "milk, juice, soda pop. Fill them with tap water. Store containers in a cool, dark place. I have containers all over my house, all over my yard. I have them in the bedroom. The linen closet...")


  1. Great blog on Y2K. It shows how the media can reinforce a mass hysteria.