december 15, 1999
Selected Past Articles:
Watching the Y2K story unfold since the early nineties has been like watching a dubious parody of Alice in Wonderland, with the press playing the part of the Queen, Alice an alternately in-the-bunker and cynical public, and with the part of the Rabbit shared between Peter De Jager and a gaggle of analysts.
This is a bit unfair to De Jager. His 1993 article in Computer World "Doomsday 2000" is credited by many as the piece that precipitated widespread awareness of the problem. The article was the model of a clear and simple explanation of a clear and simple problem.
At the time, there was some media reaction. A scan of several different news paper archives for Year 2000 articles got me an average of three hits, and nobody had used the word "Armageddon". In 1993 Y2K was still a sound-bite because the world hadn't quite found its "new" voice. It was about to.
Tim Berners-Lee and CERN had released the World Wide Web on the Internet in 1991, but computers were still mostly the stuff of corporations and not lurking en-mass in living rooms. Microsoft wasn't even a glint in the U.S. Justice Departments eye. Two years later, when De Jager wrote what CNN describes as his "path breaking [Doomsday] article", the web was about ready to explode. It just hadn't gone totally "bang" yet.
Along with the meteoric rise of The Net would come computers everywhere.
You could say that the World Wide Web and the Y2K issue grew up together. 1996 was a pivotal year for both. AOL joined its users to the web in late 1995. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was passed (and subsequently partly squashed on 1st amendment grounds). Cyber-everything was Cyber-everywhere - especially Cyber Smut.
The web and the Internet were every news rooms favorite bad guy. In 1996 home computers were well on their way to be being demonized just as the 56K modems we're stuck with today began appearing and the browser wars began. Computers were bad AND cool and the synergy between bad scary technology and Y2K was just beginning.
The 1996 Y2K media reports still aren't widely using "Armageddon" in the headlines but we now have a full page of search hits. Many positive about how swimmingly well all this 2K fixing-up is going.
In the midst of this De Jager makes his debut on Capitol Hill with testimony to the Science Committee. His presentation is called "Unjustifiable Optimism" and its key theme is how we're running out of time. Many other analysts are also issuing reports in the same vein with the added bonus of really big numbers.
It's around 1996 that the media begins it's consistent reports about possible power failures, planes falling out the sky, pensioners getting stiffed on Social Security checks and how it's all going to cost billions and billions of dollars to fix.
The key media Y2K theme of 1996 follows De Jager: how big a job it is and how close 12/31/1999 is coming (De Jager moved fix-it-day up to 12/31/1998 in his congressional testimony), and how slowly the industry is working on the problem.
There was nothing so VERY remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so VERY much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural)
-- " in wonderland", Lewis Caroll
Throughout 1997 the crescendo of alarm builds. My search hits for 1997 are double those in 1996. "Doomsday" and "Armageddon" are becoming the most popular terms in Y2K related headlines. The internet has exploded - again. The letter "E" also begins to appear everywhere stuck in front of everything. Sales of survival supplies begin to pick up.
In 1998, story lede's begin relentlessly telling us how bad it will be.
"At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, the ''Y2K'' bug will strike. Some of the big computers that run corporations and governments, and some of the tiny computers that run appliances and industrial equipment, will suddenly freeze or go crazy." San Jose Mercury 05/04/1998.
There are also lots of positive stories in 1998. Every single one of them confuted by one Congressional committee or another. It's also in 1998 that stories about how bad it's going to get BEFORE Y2K start appearing in earnest. Also noteworthy is the press that "imbedded systems" (systems on a chip) are getting - those "tiny computers". The specter of nuclear Armageddon appears as everyone realizes that missiles and power stations are computerized - in many cases with "tiny computers".
De Jager had predicted in 1995 that some problems would begin appearing in 1996 with credit cards that expired in 2000. He was bang on.
Somewhere though, the stories of other key milestones began to circulate. The 99th day of the 99th year is reported as a potential problem (that'd be 04/09/1999 to you and me or 99099 to a badly programmed computer). These are widely reported in 1998.
Other key milestones included the start of fiscal year 2000 for many government agencies. In August 1999, we were warned, the Global Positioning System (GPS) would reset back to zero. This wasn't even a Y2K problem but it somehow became a 'Y2K test' in several industry publication articles. Next up would September 9th 1999, or 99999, commonly referred to as the "nines problem".
By the end of 1998 there are widespread media reports that things would start going higgledy-piggledy throughout 1999 and well into 2000. The internet explodes again in 1998 and most news organizations consolidate their on-line presence. The web becomes THE place for breaking news, including news about Y2K breaks.
As we enter 1999 the stories about how crappy it's going to be soar.
`A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. `Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
-- "Thorugh the Looking Glass", Lewis Caroll
The travel industry passes its Y2K milestone (taking advance bookings for 2000) with barely a whimper. 04/01/1999 arrives with a fanfare and leaves with a big fat zero. Positive stories about how it's all ok start appearing in droves. Don't panic. Stay cool, and PLEASE don't hoard money under the bed.
By the time GPS resets itself most of the other fanfares to do with fiscal 2000 have come and gone. Corporations are in some kind of bidding war for how much they announce spending on Y2K. Nobody cares. Not even the financial markets. Some analysts begin complaining that they are fed up with being ignored and treated like doomsaying loons. Still, everyone try's one last heave at a real problem before the big Zero Zero and vacations for technical people are cancelled all over the world for 9/9/99. A day on which absolutely nothing happens.
Some very minor problems happen as the Federal government heaves ITSELF into Fiscal 2000. All corrected the same day. This year's conventional wisdom says if you ain't on the Internet for business you are out of business in 2000. Numerous polls show the public doesn't give a damn about Y2K, much. They sure as heck are not going to pay $2000 for a New Years concert. Somewhere around October the media coverage changes to "Is it really the millennium?" and pathological mathematicians get their day in the Y2K sun.
The major shift in coverage has been to bad guys. Virus writers, terrorists, evil Y2K consultants leaving trap doors in remediated code. Problems that have been with us since before the Internet and problems that will be with us long after 1/1/2000. Except the evil Y2K consultants who'll be on public assistance.
There's only one issue left and analysts, doomsayers and the media are converging again, much like they did in 1998.
The 24 or so 12/31/1999 midnight's are the only real test. And none of us have all the answers. Probably none of us squished all the bugs. Things are going to be at least a little bit irritating in the digital swamp come New Years.
The media gets one last swipe at a self fulfilling prophesy and everyone who ever said anything about Y2K gets the last word. Best news I've had all year.
The writer of this article welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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