While the dawning of Y2K was a severe issue for the entire world around two decades ago, it seems like a joke now. It’s probably hard to understand without answering a few frequently asked questions, though, so let’s do that.
What Is Y2K?
Y2K is short for “the year 2000.” But it wasn’t the coming of the new millennium that scared the living daylights out of everyone; instead, it was the infamous Y2K bug that came with it.
The Y2K bug, also known as the “Y2K problem,” “millennium bug,” “Y2K glitch,” or “Y2K error,” is a computer issue. It had to do with how computing systems read dates. You see, computer programs back then only distinguished one year from another in dates by the last two digits.
So, everyone was worried that applications would fail because they would mistake “2000” for “1900.” If that happened, all industries, from banking to the industrial sector, would cease to operate, potentially bringing the world to a standstill.
How Did the Y2K Bug Affect the World?
For fear of a significant disruption to the then-burgeoning technology-driven world, governments and every organization that relied on computing spent billions of dollars to fund IT software development, specifically creating patches for the Y2K bug.
Banks were significantly affected since many depositors and investors knew they had a penchant for using outdated systems. Naturally, they were worried that the Y2K bug would freeze up computers, preventing them from withdrawing funds or conducting other transactions. And who knows how long banks would take to recover?
People also feared that everything that ran on computers would cease operating. So if power plants shut down, how would they live?
What Caused the Y2K Bug?
We all know by now that computers only gained prominence in the 1970s. By then, the number of users began growing but languidly. So, everyone was pretty skeptical about making the systems more advanced and didn’t spend much on their development.
That skepticism and frugality limited programs’ ability to recognize dates, specifically years, because computers only used the last two digits. We can thus say that lack of foresight on the programmers’ part led to the problem.
What Did Governments Do to Assuage Y2K Fears?
The U.S. government, for its part, crafted and released the “Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act.” It also established a President’s Council, comprising senior administration and agency officials, to monitor private-sector efforts to prepare for the event.
Then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ordered the most important cabinet ministers to remain in Ottawa to watch the clock. Also, 13,000 Canadian troops were put on standby should havoc ensue.
The British government regularly assessed the progress of different business sectors to become Y2K-compliant. It also distributed pamphlets to households to inform people about the bug as early as 1998.
Did the Y2K Bug Bring Down Computers?
Contrary to the world’s fears, very few effects of the Y2K were felt. Here are a few examples:
- Produce Palace filed the first Y2K-related lawsuit in the U.S. against the firm that provided its credit card processors after losing several customers due to the bug.
- People from two states in Australia had transportation-related problems on 1 January 2001 when bus ticket validation machines malfunctioned.
- The first day of the new millennium caused nuclear power plant malfunctions in Japan. The alarms went off just after midnight, though no issues were found.
Twenty years later, many consider the Y2K bug a joke, but it was a serious matter to those behind the scenes. Life (at least aspects that relied on computer use) would have ceased for an indefinite period if the doomsday scenarios unfolded.