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Separating Hype from Reality


By Catherine Winter

Listen or Read the transcript.

Part 1 2

Y2K inspired songs and novels and disaster movies. There was even a Y2K cookbook with recipes for all that freeze-dried food you might have stockpiled. Now they're historical curiosities on e-Bay. But in the 1990s, Y2K was on everyone's mind.

News shows talked about the threat of a major computer malfunction that might hit in the year 2000.

On ABC News, Forrest Sawyer introduced a Y2K segment this way:

"Surf through the Internet these days and you keep coming across a strange word, TEOTWAWKI. It stands for 'the end of the world as we know it,' and it refers to the effects of a tiny, seemingly innocuous computer glitch, a tiny glitch a lot of people say could literally blow the lights out on civilization."

The glitch was this: in the early days of programming, computer code used two-digit numbers for dates, like '70' for 1970. That let computers work faster. No one thought the software would still be in use decades later, but it was. As the year 2000 approached, programmers started warning that computers could misread the '00' as the year 1900. That might cause breakdowns. No one knew how widespread computer malfunctions might be, but people started thinking about all the things that are run by computers.

Things like hospital equipment, air traffic control, and nuclear weapons.

Some Christians saw the Y2K bug as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies about the end of the world.

"Could this be God's way to bring revival to America?" asked televangelist Jerry Falwell in a video called A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug. "Stop and think about it: when water, food, electricity, gas, oil, money, none of them are available and nowhere to get them, the people who have those things will be in mortal danger of attack from those who don't have them."

Gun sales spiked. Doomsayers hawked things like gas masks and radiation kits. Worried people stashed batteries and food. The Federal Reserve pumped an extra $50 billion in cash into circulation in case people withdrew their savings. The U.S. government spent nearly $9 billion to fix its computers. Businesses spent many times more. All told, businesses and government spent more than a $100 billion to fix software.

And then, Friday night turned to Saturday morning, and the apocalypse was a no-show.

So what happened? Were we sold a bill of goods by people who could make a buck hyping Y2K? Was all the money we spent really necessary?

"This was not hype," says Paul Saffo Director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California. "This was not software consultants trying to create a full employment act for themselves."

In the 90s, Saffo worked to persuade businesses that they would have to do something about the Y2K bug. "This really could have screwed up our lives, and you know, a whole bunch of little geeks saved us."

Saffo says some businesses under-reacted to the problem at first, and then spent more money than they should have scrambling to fix their software. But it did have to be fixed. Before Y2K hit, many businesses ran tests. They advanced their computer clocks to 2000 and the computers didn't work.

Continue to Part 2.