Why Look At Y2K?

By Ochen Kaylan

Back in the middle of 2004, the American RadioWorks staff was in a meeting discussing upcoming projects. We were talking about one project that had, as part of its reporting, predictions of possible future calamity. We were discussing how to handle that when one person said, "What if nothing happens? Then it will be just another Y2K - all hype."

My background is in computers, and I knew that in terms of the actual computer problem, Y2K was very real, and began arguing so. Chris Farrell, ARW's Chief Economics Correspondent, joined in arguing that from the economic standpoint, considering productivity and outsourcing, Y2K had a huge impact. Those around the table who were reporters at the time argued that from the news perspective, nothing happened.

Well, yes and no. No planes fell from the sky, but a lot happened to keep them from doing so.

After a few minutes arguing over whether Y2K was a hoax or not, the meeting was called back to order, and we moved on to the task at hand of dealing with the current project.

After the meeting, Stephen Smith, Executive Editor for ARW, pointed out that the five-year anniversary of Y2K was coming up and suggested that we look into whether there was a story here about if Y2K was real or a hoax, what misperceptions of Y2K remain, and about how Y2K might still be affecting us.

The first thing we discovered was one of the most surprising to me. We couldn't find any reporting on Y2K after about March of 2000, and nearly all of the reporting after January 1, 2000 was in the "how were we all duped" vein. This, of course, was nice for us in that the story hadn't been done, but I was also a little disappointed that in the past five years, no one cared to revisit the work done by so many people to keep the phones ringing and planes flying.

Throughout the interviews for this project, it became clear that the programmers felt the most slighted from their Y2K experience, and some still harbor resentment. They saw themselves as the foot soldiers in the battle against Y2K, and they won that battle. But instead of coming home to parades, they were distrusted and accused of scamming the world for profit.

I asked David Eddy, a programmer in Boston and the person widely credited with coining the term "Y2K", what he felt the public's reaction to Y2K was.

"I bet you hard money," he said, "that most [people] 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."

Work that he fears will never be appreciated.

This project had a number of goals. First: to find out if Y2K was a success, or just hype. The answer seems to be yes and yes. The problem was very real and the consequences for doing nothing were huge. There were also news organizations, technology consultants, religious leaders, and the like, who spent lots of energy hyping the problem beyond reality, often for their own gains.

A second goal was to give credit where it's due. It seems like we all know the impossible situation of only being noticed when something goes wrong. And we do the same to others. As long as the phones keep ringing (which they do nearly all the time) we don't think much about the phone company. But when something goes wrong, we grumble at how incompetent the phone company must be.

The primary goal of those working on Y2K was to keep everything working. If on January 1, 2000, it looked like nothing happened, then their mission was accomplished. In the vast majority of cases, this is exactly what happened.

And so we never noticed the programmers working through the night, the senators meeting with technology executives, the Federal Reserve inspectors combing through bank processes. Everyone did their job, and nearly on cue, the rest of us forgot they were there.

David Eddy says he can't mention Y2K on his resume. As long as the public can't distinguish between the success of his work and the hype of others, Y2K will continue to be a black mark on those people who saved us all from disaster.

Back to The Surprising Legacy of Y2K.

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