Y2K: 20 Years Later

Y2K was one of the most hyped and feared times in world history. The media conjured up a false reality, where technological disaster was imminent due to obsolete legacy code.

By Chand Bellur

December 5, 2019 at 12:56 p.m. PDT

What Was Y2K?

Years ago, back in 1999, supposedly intelligent journalists did what they do best — spread misinformation. Similar to today’s fears over vaporizers, Russians and people of color, the year 2000 was an imminent disaster that never happened.

Y2K hype did have some basis in reality. Old mainframes were running obsolete code. They only stored the date as two digits, in order to save precious data. When 1999 became 2000, these older machines would interpret “00” as “1900”.

A large, concerted effort arose to remediate these Y2K date bugs. Retired COBOL programmers were recruited to do some of the work. It was a boon to developers. As the .com boom was taking off, software engineers were also desperately needed to fix Y2K defects.

If you could say “java” you could get a job as a software engineer back then. It’s similar to today’s tech job market, where poorly skilled developers create mostly mediocre technology. Twitter and Instagram are not marvels of modern technology. They’re simple products, riddled with defects, not the ripe, righteous, high-hanging fruits of multi-billion dollar corporations. People use them because they’re afraid of not fitting in, not because they’re actually decent products.

The bar for journalism, especially in digital format, was already set low in the late 90s, as the World Wide Web was taking off. Major, reputable print publications rushed to fill the Web with mediocre content. This, combined with fear and a lack of understanding, inflated Y2K into the ultimate boogeyman. Journalists and supposed tech experts predicted that airplanes would fall out of the sky and elevators would either be stuck or plummet to the ground floor.

Y2K: The Ultimate Clickbait

Digital “journalists” often use a technique known as clickbait to get readers interested in otherwise trivial content. Clickbait articles usually have provocative headlines, proposing the gloomiest and “doomiest” outcomes. Y2K was the epitome of clickbait. Much like Hailey’s Comet in 1928, Y2K was set to be humanity’s greatest disaster.

News organizations employ clickbait to obtain views on advertisements. This is why you rarely see the PBS NewsHour or NPR use this tactic. Misinformation and hyperbole are profitable for some, as viewers are glued to the screen, waiting for “breaking news” to unfold before their eyes!

Y2K hype actually cost a lot of corporations and individuals dearly, as they were conned into remediating bugs that didn’t exist or would have no impact. It ruined people’s New Year’s Eve plans, as many feared travel or even going out in their own city. After all, an airplane may fall out of the sky onto Chicken Little’s head! Some people even committed suicide, rather than face the post 2000 computer apocalypse.

Back in 1999, I was working at a major software company. Even amongst talented engineers, there was some belief that Y2K defects would cause major problems. I remember a very intelligent colleague telling me to just stay home. When hype is pervasive, even if it emanates from mediocre minds, it can fool even the most intelligent individuals.

When January 1, 2000 rolled around, nothing serious happened. There weren’t any deadly incidents related to Y2K defects. The fear of Y2K was more deadly and damaging than the actual event. The media shrugged it off without apology, errata correction, or even an inkling of introspection. There was no desire to reform their ways. After all, they made a killing on Y2K fear. If anything, the event showed the power of corporate media. They can make massive profits and control people. Why would they reform?

We Still Haven’t Learned the Lesson of Y2K

The lesson of Y2K should have been that we simply cannot trust the media. Most journalists have glorified English degrees. They’re not subject matter experts. Complex subjects, such as computer science and theoretical physics are completely misunderstood and muddled by the media. 2012’s discovery of the Higgs Boson was declared “The God Particle” by the media, much to Higgs’ dismay.

The list of news media hyperbole is too long to mention. From hype over vaping, fear of immigrants, fear of Russians, it would appear that the whole enterprise is about conjuring up boogeymen to scare the public into certain behaviors — consumption or voting against their own interests. As someone with expertise in technology, politics and international relations, I can honestly testify that corporate news is mostly inaccurate and misleading for the purposes of benefitting the parent corporation.

As individuals, you do have a choice. Corporate network news has transformed into reality TV. Jeff Zucker, executive producer of The Apprentice is also the head of CNN. It appears as though the entire network has transformed into a 24 hour reality TV show — the sequel to The Apprentice, complete with screaming “journalists” and supposed experts. Even the demeanor and disrespect of reality TV have intruded into the news. Our leaders and journalists act more like 1980s professional wrestlers, “mad dogging” each other over complete nonsense.

For those who want to stay informed, the good news is that you have a choice. News organizations like NPR, the PBS NewsHour, the Economist and other sources pride themselves in creating high quality news content. It’s up to the individual to find truth. Don’t expect honesty from news organizations accountable to a parent corporation.

The lesson of Y2K is abundantly clear — most major news sources are deeply flawed and inaccurate. It’s up to you to find the truth, in a vast ocean of misinformation. Don’t expect the corporate media to reform. They’re getting worse every day, rapidly transforming news into reality television. It’s what the people want — entertainment.

Most people will continue to get their news from poor sources, such as corporate networks. This impacts everyone, as people’s behaviors are shaped by this misinformation.

At best, finding the truth is a personal epiphany on the brink of disappointment, as this reality is shared by so few. Gaslighting is nothing new, but it’s the industry standard for today’s corporate media. Y2K is just one example of how the corporate media needs to be reigned in, but the rope just slips further out of our hands.

1 comment

  1. Fascinating! Thank you for the trip down memory lane with so much insight and context. I remember the Y2K hype and the fizzle, but I’ve never seen an analysis of it like this.

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