They say two thousand zero zero, party over, oops, out of time
So tonight we're gonna party like it's nineteen ninety-nine.
Supposedly, on the first of January, 2000, the world was going to be destroyed by a computer glitch named the 'Millennium Bug' (also referred to as 'Y2K' or the 'Year 2000 problem'
) whereby numerous computer systems would think the year was 1900 instead of 2000, resulting in planes falling out of the sky, satellites going wrong and all the calculators going to silicon heaven
. (Most of the actual problems were just cosmetic, such as programs displaying the year after "1999" as "19100"
, or desktop internal clocks resetting to 1st January 1981 as a crash-preventing exception).
What had happened was, computer memory and disk space was extremely expensive. By comparison, today, a gigabyte of RAM (roughly 1.4 million kilobytes) for your computer is maybe 15 bucks and a two terabyte (about 20,000 times 100 megabytes) hard drive (about the size of two packs of playing cards) might be $100 or less. But go back to 1970 and one kilobyte of RAM is about a thousand dollars, a 100 megabyte hard drive (about the size of a dishwasher) might cost $12,000 and replacement disk packs (a foot high and the circumference of a dinner plate) are around $800 (For comparison, a brand-new VW Beetle was just under $2000). So they needed to find ways to use less internal RAM and less disk space in storing information on a computer. One way to save money was to store dates in a short form. So, typically all dates were stored internally as 6 digits (and punctuation was added at display time), so November 27, 1960 was coded as 112760. Now, a month later you can get by adding 1 to the first two digits. The new date is later than the original one. Now, however, say you have a date of November 15, 1992 (111592) and you add eight years to it, you get 111500, which, if the program wasn't prepared for it, would consider it not 11/15/2000, but 11/15/1900
. Either the difference between the two is a negative amount, or instead of eight years difference being computed, 92 years are computed. The issue here might have been, if you bought something and charged it to your credit card on the last week of 1999, and your bill came in a month later, you get billed for 99 years of compound interest at 21%!
This was considered most serious in the case of process software. Say you're cooking chemicals in a plant that runs 24/7, where you have to heat a batch for exactly 37 hours at 1200 degrees, then move to the next process, when the calendar turns over, either the batch gets kicked out too soon, or it sits in too long, and potentially explosions could occur, or perhaps a batch of something that costs hundred of thousands of dollars to make (and would have been sold for several million) is ruined. Or a system checks the date, realizes it's been running for 99 years with no maintenance, and shuts itself down for safety. If it happens to be the equipment that runs the electricity for your grid, you've got no power in the middle of winter (or summer in the Southern Hemisphere: which is just as bad, if not worse, since at least you can heat your house without power; air conditioning pretty much needs electricity, and in many places, no AC means heatstroke). There were also other potential scenarios, all bad.
Of course, planes, satellites and calculators didn't do that, much to the joy of aviators, astronomers and calculus students. But the bug was an opportunity for writers to come up with doomsday stories and a few of them even wrote of actual insects (groan-worthy though that may sound
Some newspapers even had a weekly column in their tech section throughout 1999, detailing how things were going in the battle against the bug.
There is now a retrospective debate
as to whether Y2K was blown out of proportion by people looking for an excuse to panic
(or an excuse to damn the demon computer
), or whether disaster was averted by thousands of man-hours of programmers (mostly COBOL, which isn't really used for safety-critical
software) working tirelessly to avoid a technological apocalypse. Although some dangers such as "planes falling out of the sky" were pretty much fabricated, the effects on the economy of a plausible worst-case scenario would still have been immeasurable. In addition, the Y2K preparations also had the effect of causing a lot of companies to rethink their emergency plans, helping them get back on their feet faster after events like 9/11 and the 2003 Northeast US blackout. The fears over the bug did lead to many companies purchasing new hardware before they otherwise would have leading to a tech boom followed by a bursting tech bubble in the early 2000's.
Funnily enough, just when people started to relax when the 1999-2000 transition came to pass and nothing really major happened to computers across the globe, something actually did come along and wreak havoc on computers worldwide: the ILOVEYOU virus, or the "Love Bug" as it came to be misnomered. For the sequel to the Bug itself, watch for the Year 2038 problem
(when the UNIX
system time integer exhausts its 32 bits
), coming soon to a computer near you. Fortunately, by that point, we will certainly be using 64-bit time; however, many embedded systems still use 32-bit time and will continue to do so for years — maybe until 2038. Considering the previous panic, though, it is unlikely companies will let it come that far by then.
Anime & Manga
- In Yami No Aegis, Koumoto Youji was originally hired to prevent damage from it.
- The children's comic The Dandy took the concept of the 'Millennium Bug' and anthropomorphised it as a strange insect. The comic had numerous characters interact with it - one story involved a robotic teacher being destroyed by a student handing in a photocopy of the bug as homework.
- Promethea has one of these, with the added bonus that the bug affects a very popular intelligent material called Elastagel, which is used in everything including clothing. It gives a whole new meaning to "fashion victim" when your own pants turn on you.
- The DCU had a massive in-universe effort to make all of their cyborg and robotic superheroes "Y2K Compliant"...unfortunately, they forgot Robotman, whose WWII-era robotic body went on a rampage just after New Year's.
- A crossover in the Superman books (collected in the "Endgame" trade) had Brainiac seizing on the Y2K bug to try to take over the world.
- An infamous storyline in Iron Man has one of the eponymous hero's armors gaining sentience partly due to the Y2K bug, and going on a rampage of sorts.
- In the "Temporal Insanity" issue of PS238 time traveling superhero Captain Chronos believed that if he went past December 31st 1999 his time machine would be destroyed because he downloaded a 1999 Encyclopedia into his brain and apparently it didn't explain the Y2K bug very well. He did note that Tyler (from 2005 or so) did not look particularly post-apocalyptic.
- Office Space mentions the Y2K bug as one of the reasons that the company won't be looking close enough at their finances to notice the protagonists' plan taking place.
- There was a made-for-TV movie about it. The first hint of trouble in this movie comes when an airliner crosses the international date line on December 31st, and promptly falls from the sky.
- There was also Y2K Year to Kill, an After the End movie that goes back and forth between So Bad, It's Good and utterly awful.
- An independent horror film called The Millennium Bug (Warning! Screamer Trailer!) is set the night before Y2K and centers around a family seeking shelter in the mountains from the hypothetical Millennium Bug. Well good news is the computer one doesn't seem to be true. Bad news? Turns out a literal (and gigantic) Millennium Bug awakens from underground to go on a carnage filled rampage.
- Entrapment is set on New Years' Eve in 1999. A sizeable part of the heist involves computers, so yes, this is mentioned.
- In the final scene of the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, the government looks in on Bond with an infrared scanner that reveals he's having sex. The newly appointed Q (John Cleese) tactfully kills the feed and comments "It must be a premature form of the millenium bug."
- One flashback episode of Star Trek: Voyager ("11:59", which aired in 1999) has Janeway's ancestor quip that the bug didn't even turn off a light bulb.
- The My Name Is Earl episode "Y2K" has the characters reminiscing about their experience directly after the millennium, where they lived in the local supermarket believing themselves to be the only survivors of the millennium bug.
- Referenced in Torchwood during a flashback, as Jack talks about encountering one that had "18 legs stacked with poison!"
- One of the modern day episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess reveals that the bug was yet another plot by Ares to get Xena back on his side. With the world in ruins, a hero like her would be needed again, so she'd want to be as strong as possible.
- The Famous Jett Jackson's Show Within a Show Silverstone had an episode revolving around the villains using this to their advantage.
- The NCIS episode "Enemies: Domestic" featured a "flashback" to 1999note of Vance talking about getting the office computers ready for Y2K.
- Referenced in Alias when Sydney and Vaughn go undercover as Russian spies preparing for a mission as Deep Cover Agents in America. During a party, they make small-talk and reference the Y2K bug. They are subsequently scolded for being too stereotypical.
- In the first episode of Fox's Opposite Sex there's an announcent at a school assembly that the school is now "Y2K Compliant." This would have been just a passing reference if the show had debuted in the fall of 1999 as planned; but since it was delayed until the summer of 2000 it becomes instantly Hilarious in Hindsight.
- The Capitol Steps song "Why Must I Be The Millennium Bug?"
- In late 1999, Hank Williams, Jr. rewrote his Signature Song "A Country Boy Can Survive" and got Chad Brock and George Jones to help him sing it. It was actually titled "A Country Boy Can Survive (Y2K Version)", and it naturally plummeted from the singles charts come January 2000.
- "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch" by The Clark Family Experience, which came out in 2000, contains the line "Big computers on the blink / Y2K, what a stink / It'll bring the city to the brink, but not out hereÖ"
- Some newspapers milked this for all they could by having a weekly "Countdown to Y2K" column in the tech section.
- One Dilbert strip from 1996 featured Dogbert offering to make the company's computers Y2K compliant. It was a scam: he outright told the Pointy-Haired Boss that the fix was only guaranteed for one year. The PHB still turned him down: "Why should I care? The year 00 is before I was born." (The cartoon version also dealt with the problem, see below)
- Bob the Dinosaur was introduced as a COBOL programmer brought out of retirement to fix the Y2K bug.
- FoxTrot, written by a tech-savvy author, had a lot of fun with this. One strip in particular has Jason and Peter discussing it, and Peter remarks "What's the worst that could happen in a comic strip?"; in the last panel, everything's shifted to 1900 (Peter drinking from a milk bottle rather than a can of soda, Jason reading an article about the Wright Brothers).
- Rose Is Rose had a similar sequence where Rose's mind briefly shifted everything to 1900.
- In Summer 1999, WWE started airing vignettes featuring a "Countdown to the Millennium." On the August 9th episode of WWF Raw is War, during the Rock's promo on The Big Show, the Countdown appeared on the screen. When it ended, pyro went off and Chris Jericho debuted. In Jericho's promo, he called himself "The new millennium for the WWF," and ended by saying, "The new millennium has arrived in the WWF and now that the Y2J problem is here, this company, from the front office idiots to all the amateurs in the dressing room, including this one [pointing at The Rock], to everybody watching tonight will never E-E-EVER be the same again!" "Y2J problem" was simplified to "Y2J."
- GURPS supplement Y2K, which covers millennium disasters in general, not just the Y2K bug.
- Palladium Books produced yet ANOTHER post-apocalypse game in the late 90s, Systems Failure, which dealt with both the software and literal versions of bugs appearing and wreaking havoc.
- In Kid Radd, the Big Bad is a virus that was set to go off at the start of 2000 (but decided not to do so, in favor of a grander scheme). While not the same as this bug, the inspiration is clear.
- After Y2K. Obviously. The world becomes a Mad Max wasteland after the Y2K bug destroys civilization, ultimately leading to the reinvention of all technology based on vacuum tubes instead of integrated circuits. The final plot arcs of the series involved the Techno-Talking Babes using Time Travel to transmit an "inoculation" against the bug to the internet of 1999, and author Arthur C Clarke taking the world hostage with his "Real Millennium Bug" — an attack which shut down all mechanical devices — in order to force the world to acknowledge that the Millennium didn't really start until 2001 (Which millennium is the "real" one has nothing to do with the Y2K bug: Clarke was just being pedantic.)
- Sluggy Freelance
- Torg and ZoŽ once tried taking a time machine into the future to see if Y2K would affect beer distribution. Unfortunately, the time machine itself was not Y2K compliant, so they ended up somewhere in the Middle Ages instead.
- When the year 2000 began, most of the main characters fell into comas. This turned out to be because their nervous systems had been infected with otherwise harmless nanites that suffered from the Y2K bug.
- xkcd alluded to this.
- In General Protection Fault, the entire team was forced to spend New Year's Eve at the office in case their servers had a problem due to Y2K The arc was more about the party the programmers were forced to skip to show up and the fact that they got snowed in for a couple days afterwards than the Y2K bug itself - everything started up perfectly.
- One of the early central plots of Kevin & Kell was that Y2K was a cover set up by the birds to disguise their intentions to reprogram the computers to run the world in their place.
- Real Life Comics had a little fun with this. The gang was geared up for a gaming marathon on New Year's Eve to laugh at those overly worried, only for the last panel to go dark. In the next strip, it turned out the fuse just blew and they geared up to play, only for it to end with going dark again when midnight actually rolled around. Negative Continuity brought it all back to normal the next day.
- Briefly references in Avalon when the usual New Year's Eve party goes out. Like the Real Life Comics example above, it turned out to be just an electrical error rather than the bug.
- The Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror X has doomsday on New Year's Day, 2000, but the bug was actually caused by Homer's inability to ensure everything went smoothly. It was actually portrayed fairly realistically for a few seconds, with Springfield's clock being reset to 1900. This was followed by almost everything with a computer chip (including traffic lights and a carton of milk) going wrong.
- An episode of Family Guy has the Griffin family getting ready to celebrate New Year's Eve, but Peter groups them all into a shelter he built, believing the Y2K stories. It turns out to be true.
- The Dilbert cartoon had an episode about the company trying to prepare for the bug.
- Of course, despite the doomsday preparations by some characters, the episode does portray Y2K fairly realistically. The only reason it's even an issue for Dilbert's company at all is because everything is dependent on the one computer that isn't Y2K compliant, an exceedingly old, COBOL-running mainframe that, in a move that even the Pointy-Haired Boss himself admits was stupid and short-sighted, didn't get replaced when it should have been. Fixing it was merely a matter of going in and making some minor alterations on certain lines of code.
- In Futurama, Fry's father is shown to have a degree of paranoia regarding the "Y2K" (previously he'd been obsessed with Dirty Communists).
- An old Cartoon Network short had the cast of The Godzilla Power Hour encountering a personification of the bug. Captain Majors tries to use his signal device to summon Gozilla, but it's been rendered inoperable by the bug.
- King of the Hill dealt with this as well when usually-sensible Hank catches Dale's paranoia and begins working with Dale and a hardcore survivalist to prepare for the event, including buying a Grandfather Clock for Peggy for Christmas instead of an iMac, because the Grandfather Clock would still be able to tell time afterwards. The Aesop of the episode is Hank learning not to fear the future.
- On The WB in 1999, between episodes of Animaniacs Kakko, Wakko, and Dot fixed the Y2K bug for the whole Network, ensuring that you could continue to watch them every Mondak, Tuesdak, Wednesdak, Thursdak, Fridak, and Saturdak.
- Despite the rampant fears, there were very few incidents of computer failure, most of which were found in library and movie rental databases, humorously leaving a few people with overdue fines in the tens of thousands of dollars. Not for lack of much blood, sweat and tears on the part of coders and sysadmins the world over as software patches were rolled out throughout the final quarter of 1999. At least the overtime must have come in handy for the Christmas shopping- Hey, wait a minute... Son of a bitch!
- One of the worst problems that actually happened occurred in one state's vehicle registration system. For technical reasons, registration documents for some new trucks had to be produced several months before the actual trucks were. The Y2K upgrades were not yet complete, and the system really thought the trucks were made in 1900 and produced documents with an unusual vehicle type designation used only for vehicles made before 1914. The fact that this was one of the worst things to actually happen shows how good the upgrades were.
- Despite the doomsayers, banks were never in any real danger. The only reason a bank wouldn't have fixed the issue in 1975 when programs to generate 25-year documents started producing garbage was because they had already fixed it when programs that generated 30-year documents started doing it in 1970.
- While there were no problems, many systems that listed a date but didn't actually do any calculations with it just kept right on chugging. For instance some building emergency fire systems kept on going with "1900, 1901, 1902" and so on for years after 2000, because what year it is doesn't really figure into setting off the fire alarm when there is smoke or fire, or an alarm pull being detected.
- As it would later be with the Mayan Doomsday in 2012, survival outfitters did booming business in the months leading up to it. There was a last minute run on essentials at grocery stores (people tend to freak out before snowstorms, too), but this was expected so most stores had planned for it.
- When midnight rolled around on December 31, 1999, the first technologically advanced nation it would hit (thanks to the location of the International Date Line) was New Zealand. There was a brief panic starting shortly after midnight, New Zealand time, as people all over the world tried to ping New Zealand to make sure it was still online - causing an overload that brought down New Zealand's internet briefly. It was back up by about ten past midnight, much to everyone's relief.