Back when we, as a civilization, were on the brink of entering a new millennium, there was a lot of clamor about Y2K. While “Y2K” itself is simply a numeronym for the year 2000, it was fears of a technological meltdown that really started the whole Y2K craze. If you were alive at the time, you likely remember fears of computer crashes, planes falling from the sky, the End Times, etc. Of course, the world is more or less alive and well today. So what exactly caused all the Y2K hype, and was it really a problem?
While we will stick to the term “Y2K,” bear in mind that it isn’t uncommon to also see “Y2K Bug” or “Millennium Bug” to refer to the same thing.
For fun Y2K stories on reddit, click here.
Why Did People Think Y2K Would Be a Problem?
You might be wondering why the year number ticking up by 1 is such a big deal. Well, turns out, it was a big deal back in the day. If you’re versed in any computer science, you definitely know that programs can up and do some weird things. Oftentimes they do things you never thought they would–and the fix is something you may not fully understand.
People also tend not to “future-proof” themselves, and in the 1900s, this was definitely the case. The first computers and programs cropped up around the 1940s, and if they had to do with years, they would automatically tick them up every time January 1st rolled around.
Except some programs had the dates entered as 19XX, where the 19 was fixed. Conversely, others accepted years as the aforementioned XX, where the 19 part of the 1900s was assumed. So if (19)99 rolled to 2000, the 99 would have rolled to 100–making a year 19100. Except maybe the program was only meant to output a year as 4 numbers, so spitting out 5 would just… Not work. Further still, some thought computers might revert their date’s back to the year 1900 instead of 2000, wiping out things like bank statements and government data.
Heck, some programmers didn’t realize the year 2000 was actually a leap year. So you can imagine the nightmare that brought in.
When we need to keep track of years for very basic things like record-keeping, and considering how important records are, you can see how it might be an issue if the year changes and everything breaks.
Things That Broke
Alright, you’re probably here for the nutty shenanigans that went down with Y2K right? Sadly, a lot of people were really freaked out about the prospect of Y2K, so there were no internet-ending apocalyptic style programming errors. At least in America, because Americans freaked out and spent a lot of money to fix the impending Y2K. We’re talking in the hundreds of billions.
But there wasn’t really any world ending drama either. Just some minor inconveniences like some HSBC swipe machines failing for a couple days. No, planes didn’t fall out of the sky or anything, even for countries that did relatively little, if anything, to prepare for Y2K. For example, Russia, Italy, and South Korea.
Things That Are Breaking In 2020
Okay, so yeah. It turns out the Y2K bug is not dead and is actually back! Remember that thing we mentioned about programmers not “future-proofing” themselves? Yeah. So that’s a fun time.
Basically, some programmers picked lazy fix. Instead of rewriting their code entirely (which would have been a good fix), many opted for a quick fix called “windowing”. Basically, under this method, all dates from 00 to 20 were treated as being from the 2000s, rather than 1900s. The thought process here was that all these “windowed” systems would become outmoded by 2020, when this fix might become an issue again. The only problem is many are still hanging around. And thanks to this Y2K 2.0, we did get the wonderful irony that was the video game WWE 2k20 ceasing to work in 2k20.
Hopefully the fixes this time weren’t as lazy, lest we get the Y2038 Bug. Quick overview, this bug is basically because programs won’t be able to store a number of years greater than 2038. But that’s really only applicable for 32-bit programs–the advent of 64-bit kind of sidelines this.
Think you know your Y2K? See if you can tell what happened before or after here.