Wired commemorates New Year’s Eve with this look back at the Y2K panic of the late 1990s.
Here’s a recap for those too young to remember Y2K, like Father Scott and new superstar commenter Fallen Angel, who were both probably too wrapped up in Pokemon and Aaron Carter to notice what was going on:
The problem, as some saw it, was that older computers still being used for critical functions might break down when the date switched from 99 to 00, since the numeric progression convention, programmed to store data using only the last two digits of any given year, wouldn’t recognize the logic of a century change.
As far as these computers were concerned, it would be 1900, not 2000. How much data might be lost as the result of this 100-year miscalculation was the great, unanswered question.
What started as a simple concern over business logic quickly escalated into full-blown panic once the national TV media got hold of the story. Suddenly we were in danger of falling airplanes and exploding dirt devils. No doubt about it, we were told, the lights will go out at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 and all of humanity will be shipped back to its hunter/gatherer roots.
None of that happened, of course. Most large companies and federal agencies were able to upgrade their critical applications in plenty of time, and computers in smaller businesses (and airplanes) just kept humming along.
The computers, it turns out, were smarter than we thought they were. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.