Overblown Fears

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Y2K

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Traders in Tokyo survey their computers, January 2000

Traders in Tokyo survey their computers, January 2000

In the 1960s, clever programmers lopped off the “19” when entering years in their programs. It halved the amount of necessary memory, and whether through laziness or tradition became a common industry practice. But what was going to happen in the year 2000? Would the date flip over to 1900 and cause massive data corruption and loss? Despite the media hype, the biggest story about the Y2K computer bug is that nothing happened. Trains didn’t spontaneously derail. McDonald’s didn’t roll back to turn-of-the-century pricing (no Happy Meals for a ha’penny). And the banks didn’t lose all of our money; we’d have to wait another eight years for that. Whether this nonevent occurred because of exceptional preparedness or overstatement of the problem is still unclear. According to Forbes, AT&T reportedly spent $500 million to fix their Y2K issues. Meanwhile, the U.S. government expressed concern about the lack of preparation undertaken by K-12 schools, small businesses, China, and Russia; none reported significant problems after Jan. 1. I suspect the nice round number had a significant effect on our perception of the magnitude of the situation. 2000! All those zeros! Something just has to happen! We’ll find out if that was the case on Jan. 19, 2038, the decidedly nonround date when 32-bit computer systems run out of the necessary digits to keep time. That emergency bag of grain in your hermetically sealed Y2K shelter should still be good by then.

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Kottke runs the popular Web site Kottke.orgFollow him on Twitter.

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