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The 2000 Apocalypse, Which was Not

The 2000 Apocalypse, Which was Not 1

Twenty years ago, millions of people, including corporate executives and heads of government, feared that on New Year’s Eve, the Internet would collapse, dragging along a significant portion of civilization. And all because computers around the world could not cope with the onset of 2000. The software installed on them used only two characters to represent the year in dates. When the year “99” was replaced by the year “00”, the programs would be transferred a century ago – in 1900. And then the systems would fall one after another like an almost endless chain of dominoes. Billions were spent on preparing for what seemed almost inevitable.

Here’s how Vanity Fair magazine described the coming future in January 1999:

“It’s midnight, January 1, 2000. In some cities there is no electricity. Bank vaults and prison gates are wide open. Hospitals do not work. Many countries are mired in riots and revolutions. No one will be able to realize the magnitude of the consequences until they come. One thing is certain: the amazing machines that control and simplify our lives will not know what to do.”

But then the year ended: the clock struck midnight in every time zone around the globe – and almost nothing happened.

A lot of effort spent on preparing – and about the same amount of hysteria. This story showed that in reality we know little about the power or fragility of massive information networks and even less about what awaits us in the future.

“A hangover for business”

It all began half a century ago, at the dawn of computer technology, when punch cards were used to store information – paper cards measuring 8 by 19 cm, which were inserted into computers. Memory was expensive and took up a lot of space – countless rooms in the case of the first computers. Therefore, the amount of recorded information was minimized. It was decided to indicate only two digits for calendar years. Once recorded in this way, they were further introduced into the system in this way.

In 1964, IBM made the computer an essential business device by introducing the System / 360. These devices were relatively compact, but still outsized refrigerators. They also used the standard two-digit year format. “I am one of those guilty of this problem,” a former economic consultant testified before Congress in 1998. “I wrote these programs back in the 1960s and 1970s and was so proud that I managed to save a little space without attributing “19” to the exact year.” This former consultant was Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

In 1984, an employee of an insurance company in Illinois entered the annuity payment date on her computer, which was in the early 2000s. The computer thought that this was a year earlier, and instead of calculating it gave out nonsense. Subsequently, she and her husband wrote the book “The crisis of computers: how to prevent the impending global collapse of computer systems.” Few people paid attention to her. But by the end of the 1980s, employees of the US Federal Social Security Administration found that they also could not calculate dates after 2000. By 1994, management began to analyze millions of lines of computer code to find a solution to the problem. The Department of Defense faced similar difficulties and launched a similar project. One of the senior ministry officials once said: “If we built houses the same way,

In the second half of the 1990s, anxiety about future changes in dates became widespread. Congress, as expected, began to investigate the issue, but could not pass bills that would solve the problem. In 1998, Washington finally took action: President Bill Clinton signed an executive decree establishing a council to address the 2000 problem. Clinton appointed John Koskinen, who had previously been Deputy Director of the Office of Administrative Affairs and Budget, Clinton. Clinton told the Americans that “any company that, on the eve of the New Year, is armed only with champagne and crackers, will face a severe hangover in the morning.” Big business by that time already allocated a lot of money for preventive measures to solve the problem of 2000. In particular, the telecommunications company AT & T spent at the end of the 1990s at $ 500 million per year. The general director of the company, Michael Armstrong, complained about the team involved in the “Problem of the Year 2000”: “They had an unlimited budget, and they still managed to exceed it.”

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President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion Chairman John Koshinen at a press conference in December, 1999 in Washington, DCPresident’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion Chairman John Koshinen at a press conference in December, 1999 in Washington, DCPhoto Getty Images

Prediction of bill gates

It was a golden era for IT professionals, survival specialists, and especially recent Christians. Information Technology Consultant Peter de Jager made the 2000 Problem his specialty and became so famous for his speeches and seminars that the American Stock Exchange launched the stock index of companies related to the 2000 Problem and called it “ The 2000 de Jager Index. ” The New York Times called de Jager, “Paul Revier of the 2000 Computer Crisis.” Looking back ten years later, Ace Hardware’s senior vice president of technology noted: “The year 2000 problem has drawn everyone’s attention to IT.” The investment director of an offshore drilling company agreed: “It was a turning point, one of the best times for IT.” AMC Computers top manager nostalgically recalled: “We made so much money from it. Many thought that this easy money would never end. ”

Meanwhile, the fact that the year 2000 marked the second millennium since the birth of Christ and that Revelation can be interpreted so that the change of the millennium marks the end of time did not go unnoticed. Pastor and television preacher Jerry Falwell announced that “with the help of the 2000 problem, the Lord is possibly trying to bring this country to life, to pacify it,” “to begin a revival that will sweep the whole world to the delight of the church.” He launched sales of a video called the Christian Millennium Failure Guideat $ 28 per copy and began to stock up on food and ammunition. “I want to be sure that I can convince others not to mess with us,” he explained. His colleague, preacher Pat Robertson, warned: “There is no doubt that we are facing serious unrest.” He was echoed by James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family Christian organization: “We are facing tough times that we will have to endure.”

A skeleton crew monitors the National Command Center for Mastercard on January 3, 2000. The center processed 18 million transactions totalling $ 1.8 billion for the busy New Year's Eve weekend.  No Y2K problems were encountered.A skeleton crew monitors the National Command Center for Mastercard on January 3, 2000. The center processed 18 million transactions totalling $ 1.8 billion for the busy New Year’s Eve weekend. No Y2K problems were encountered.Getty Images Photos

Books multiplied with headlines like “2000 Problem = 666?” And “Spiritual Survival During the 2000 Crisis,” as well as sites like josephproject2000.org that sold food in bulk. General excitement grew, and Rev. Steve Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing magazine, traveled around the country, inspiring tranquility in the flock. “I’m fighting a panic,” he said. – Windows 98 is not a matter of faith. Pentium II is not a matter of faith. ”

In February 1999, the UN established an international center for cooperation on the 2000 issue. In December 1999, the United States and Russia created a joint strategic stability center in 2000 to prevent accidental missile launches or nuclear attacks. A Massachusetts company sold for $ 89 a Survival Kit in 2000 for personal protection, which included abacus, a flashlight, and a compass. But there were oases of calm. The head of Microsoft, Bill Gates, said he was looking forward to a period when “people will be worried about all this preparation, but in fact the possible problems will not cause the panic they are talking about.”

New Year

As the New Year approached, the Federal Reserve ordered $ 70 billion in paper money – about $ 255 for every US citizen, in case depositors decide to collect money from banks en masse. Chase Manhattan Bank has created 27 focal points to monitor its network around the clock. Citigroup opened a central focal point whose location was kept secret.

Finally, the clock struck midnight – primarily in the south of the Pacific region. In New Zealand, as described later Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy, “only champagne and fireworks caused an upsurge of interest, as phones, ATMs, cars, computers and airplanes continued to work as usual.” Gradually midnight attacked around the world. In Australia, a bus ticket printing machine made a mistake in the date. In Italy, the prison sentence of some prisoners was briefly extended by a century. In England, the tidal gauge broke. In the United States, the spy satellite was in standby mode for several hours. In Hong Kong, police breathalyzers stopped working – admittedly, this was not at the right time. Here and there, cash registers punched “1900” instead of the correct date and handed out checks to customers, which they could save as a souvenir.

Italy tackled the 2000 problem later than many other countries, while doing much less. Many pessimists expected that in a country known for its dolce far niente principle (ital. “Doing nothing sweetly”), chaos would take on a special scale. However, even in Italy there were few failures, apart from the incident with prisoners. All trains stopped at midnight, because, as the carrier’s representative explained , “The Italians were skeptical, and we said that nothing would happen. But we could not risk it. ” Lorenzo Robustelli, one of the leaders of the organization of the celebration of the Holy Year in Rome, expressed sympathy for the rest of the world: “I am very sorry, but sometimes everything works in Italy.”

People line up at a HSBC branch to get cash on December 30, 1999. British banking giant HSBC allayed Asian millennium bug fears, saying no problems were expected with the company bank cards following reports of problems in Europe.People line up at a HSBC branch to get cash on December 30, 1999. British banking giant HSBC allayed Asian millennium bug fears, saying no problems were expected with the company bank cards following reports of problems in Europe.Getty Images Photos

In Slovenia, the 2000 offensive was so unremarkable that a high-ranking civil servant was accused of exaggerating the danger and fired. “Those who were assigned to fix the millennium problem would be cursed if serious problems arose, and cursed now because problems had not arisen,” the BBC said on January 4.

Useful Panic

There were those who subsequently rather positively assessed the panic that had occurred. “Ultimately, the 2000 problem was beneficial to the US economy,” he said. Larry Kudlow, while an economist at an investment bank. “People are kind of disappointed,” said Michael Granatt, one of the leaders of the 2000 British Prevention Initiative. He added: “Everything happens as it should, not by chance. This is possible thanks to proper planning. ” John Koskinen, whom Clinton instructed to tackle the 2000 problem, complained that “the only way to become a hero is if half the world froze, and then somehow returned to work, which was not our goal. As often happens in management, if everything works well, people do not pay attention to it. ” Frustrated was the survivalist Ben Levy, who built a house in Colorado to survive the apocalypse. “In a way, I was hoping for it, – He later told in the broadcast Marketplace. “That would be fun: it really seemed to me that I would handle the challenge.”

Undoubtedly, the alarm about a catastrophe that did not happen at the height of the technological revolution prompted governments and companies to upgrade systems that no one had recalled for a long time. One of the advantages of this activity became apparent when in less than two years a real tragedy occurred in America. In 2005, Alan Greenspan said : “After September 11, 2001, we found that preparing for 2000 was much more important than we thought. In retrospect, she obviously directly determined the successful functioning of the systems in crisis conditions after the attacks. ” Lois Slavin, who oversaw the system design and management program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was of the same opinion. She wrote that “redundant system elements developed in anticipation of the 2000 failure that did not happen allowed the city transport and telecommunications sector to provide the highest level of services in the face of terrible destruction” on September 11th.

One of those who helped New York prepare for the year 2000 was Richard Rescorla, vice president of security at Morgan Stanley. In 1999, he greeted the New Year in a bunker, from where, together with a colleague, as another bank employee recalled , “he went out to inspect the World Trade Center, checking floor after floor all night to find out if a problem could arise somewhere”. Twenty-one months later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Rescorla led Morgan Stanley employees out of the smoky South Tower and, along the way, sang songs through a speaker to cheer them up. About 3,700 people were then able to escape. Rescorla returned to search for the missing people, and died when the building collapsed.

The September 11 attacks were a disaster that no one could have foreseen. What did we have to learn from another disaster that millions had foreseen, but which had never happened? Were we discreet and wise? Is it too easy for us to panic? On the tenth anniversary, New Zealand philosopher Dennis Dutton published a column in The New York Times in which he stated: “The 2000 fiasco is not a simple prudence. Many religions – from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, from Judaism to UFO sects – are built on the idea of ​​sin and the end of the world. The threat of 2000 resonated with these concepts … The idea that our ingenious inventions once destroy us has remained popular in fiction since at least the time of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. ”

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“When we turn practical problems into cataclysms of a cosmic scale, we move away from solving them,” he wrote. But then he took a step to a conclusion that may turn out to be completely wrong: “In my opinion, this applies to the billowing waves, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of living creatures, which are said by proponents of fashionable climate catastrophe. “Such fascinating images have less to do with scientific climatology than with the widespread belief that modernity and its wasteful comfort bring us closer to the biblical Judgment Day.”

The future is always more mysterious than we would like to consider. Denis Dutton was a wise man, but he could not foresee how the environmental problems that he described with such neglect would affect us today. He also could not know that, due to the evil taunt of fate, The New York Times would publish his obituary exactly one year after his article on the 2000 problem: he was a victim of prostate cancer. It’s hard not to smile, watching the excesses that happened in those feverish days before the eerie calm of the night of December 31, 1999, but did not cause much harm and, perhaps, made our information networks stronger, more stable and flexible. These networks today, even more than 20 years ago, remain the central nervous system of civilization. The importance of caring for them cannot be overestimated.

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