Do we need an exterminator?
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. 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 February 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. 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.
It's worth noting that Y2K is now seen as being blown out of proportion, but that was mostly a direct result of 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 economic centre would be 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.
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 processors; however, many embedded systems still run on 32-bit CPUs 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 and Manga
- Kia motors took advantage of the hype by turning the acronym into their "Say Yes to Kia" event, in one commercial stressing how much more sense it made to invest in a new car instead of an underground bunker to survive Y2K. They were right.
- A "This is SportsCenter" promo on ESPN features a Y2K test. Mayhem ensues.
- 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 titular 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.
- 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 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 Capitol Steps song "Why Must I Be The Millennium Bug?"
- Some newspapers milked this for all they could by having a weekly "Countdown to Y2K" column in the tech section.
- 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.)
- In Sluggy Freelance Torg and Zoe 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In 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.
- 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 though 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 become aware of the issue in 1975 when programs to generate 25-year documents started producing garbage was because they 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" and so on 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 is detected.