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Separating Hype from Reality


By Catherine Winter

Host: How soon we forget.

Five years ago, some of us woke up on New Year's Day feeling a little sheepish. It was January 1, Y2K, and the world hadn't ended.

Did you squirrel away a little extra cash in case banks failed? Did you decide not to fly that day in case planes crashed?

Or did you figure nothing would happen, and laugh at your neighbor with the cache of fuel and ammunition?

Mention Y2K today, and a lot of people will tell you nothing happened. The whole thing was a hoax. Right?

Maybe not.

For the fifth anniversary of Y2K, this week Marketplace is looking at the history and the legacy of the millennium bug. Tonight, we'll try to separate hype from reality.

Catherine Winter of American RadioWorks has our report.


Listen

[Music: "Hooray Y2K Song"]

Catherine Winter: It's probably been awhile since you heard a Y2K song - but there were a lot of them in the late 90s.

[Music: "Hooray Y2K Song" chorus]

Winter: 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.

[Announcer clip fades: "From ABC News ..."]

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

Forrest Sawyer: 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.

Winter: 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 0-0 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. Nuclear weapons.

Jerry Falwell: Could this be God's way to bring revival to America?

Winter: Some Christians saw the Y2K bug as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies about the end of the world. Televangelist Jerry Falwell released a video called A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug.

Falwell: 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.

Winter: 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 dollars in cash into circulation in case people withdrew their savings. The US government spent nearly nine billion dollars to fix its computers. Businesses spent many times more. All told, businesses and government spent more than a hundred billion dollars 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?

Paul Saffo: This was not hype. This was not software consultants trying to create a full employment act for themselves.

Winter: Paul Saffo directs the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park. In the 90s, he worked to persuade businesses that they would have to do something about the Y2K bug.

Saffo: This really could have screwed up our lives, and you know, a whole bunch of little geeks saved us.

Winter: 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. One of the programmers who worked on the fix was David Eddy. He's widely regarded as the guy who coined the term Y2K. Eddy is still sore that people think there wasn't really a problem.

David Eddy: I'd love to do a poll, and eliminate anybody that actually worked on year 2000 work and just talk to what I would call civilians, and if you ask them, I bet you hard money that most civilians would say 'oh, y2k, whole thing was a hoax. Bodies didn't fall from the sky at the stroke of midnight, I knew the thing was a hoax.' But the reason nothing bad happened was that so many people put so much hard work into it.

Winter: Eddy would like a little gratitude for the people who raced to fix the Y2K bug, But doing a good job made them invisible. Just ask John Koskinen. He was appointed by President Clinton to oversee Y2K fixes.

John Koskinen: The only way to be a hero would be for half the world to stop and then somehow get it started again which was not one of our goals. Like a lot of things in government, if it works well nobody cares much.

Winter: Koskinen points to evidence that the fix was needed. Some computers that didn't get fixed stopped working on New Year's Day. Koskinen says some of those glitches would normally have been big news, but since people were expecting the end of the world, they didn't seem like that big a deal. Koskinen was in the Y2K nerve center in Washington that night, monitoring systems all over the world. He says the public doesn't realize how many things went wrong:

Koskinen: The low level wind shear detectors at every major airport go out at 7:00 on Friday night, the defense intelligence satellite system goes down, the French intelligence satellite goes down, the Japanese lose the ability to monitor a couple of their nuclear power plants, and come Monday morning, there are thousands of businesses that when you buy something with your credit card charge you every day of the week.

Winter: But in the end, most major business and government computers did get fixed. In fact, so few things went wrong that after Y2K, some businesspeople complained that the money they spent was wasted. But Business Week chief economist Michael Mandel disagrees. He says Y2K forced business to make upgrades that they're still using:

Michael Mandel: If you look at the Y2K, you can sort of say maybe we didn't have to be so wired up about it, but the fact is, it may have been the right thing to do from a social and economic point of view.

Winter: Mandel worries that Y2K may have lured people into a false sense of security. Next time there's a big disaster looming, people may think it's just hype and ignore the warnings. But some people are still prepared for the end of the world as we know it. Ben Levi built a house in the foothills of Boulder Colorado designed to survive Y2K. It's a bright, airy place, with three computers in the office and a fountain trickling in the living room. And if the utilities had shut down on New Year's Day, Levi could have kept the computers humming and the fountain flowing with his solar panels and his generator.

[Sound of fountain flowing]

Ben Levi: In a way I was kind of looking forward to it. Wouldn't this be fun, because I really felt that I could meet the challenge.

Winter: Levi's not a survivalist; he's a computer consultant. He believed Y2K might be a real catastrophe. But the end of the world as we know it also offered an opportunity to build a better world.

Levi: We would be coming more into balance, less obsessed with technology and materialism. ... The opportunity was that it would basically turn the volume down on civilization for awhile.

Winter: But if anything, civilization is even noisier - more interconnected, more dependent on technology. So Levi figures, who knows? A crisis could still happen -- like the massive east coast power failure in 2003. And if it does, he's still got the year's supply of dried food he stashed.

For Marketplace and American RadioWorks, I'm Catherine Winter.

Back to The Surprising Legacy of Y2K.