Monday, November 2, 2009

#60 - Y2K

It was the decade when...

There wasn't supposed to be a decade.

The idea was too poetic to not be true. On the dawn of the next millennium -a new era of technological explosion and scientific discovery - the entire edifice of civilization was about to come crashing down, annihilated by our dependence upon the very machines that were supposed to signal our intellectual prowess and mastery over nature. It was the end of the world, brought about by two little digits: 00. The notion grafted on nicely to a pre-modern eschatological end-times anxiety that was being stoked by the millennial mania. This was Y2K (Y= Year, and K = Thousand), the computer bug to end them (and us) all. There was an inherent plausibility to the idea; a sense of cosmic justice accompanied the panic. By lacking the foresight to worry about what would happen when our computers clocks reset from 99 to 00, a seemingly foreseeable and moderately trivial detail, we had sowed the seeds of our own destruction years before. More dramatic than a Hollywood blockbuster, society would unravel at the stroke of midnight in a moment of instant and total pandemonium. Our technology had gotten ahead of us. Computers had their own logical axioms and the more dependent we became on them, the less we understood the laws governing their behavior. Predicting the outcome of an event like the Y2K glitch had become all but impossible, even for the experts. The worst-case scenario was therefore a responsible hypothesis to entertain. The computers weren't going to turn on us a la the HAL-9000; instead they were going to self-destruct and collapse from inside, as if we had built a skyscraper on a balsa wood frame. The millennium was poised to turn even the most enthusiastic techo-nerd into a Luddite.

In America, there is no bone you can throw to the press as juicy as a good panic. Needless to say, the media was all but licking their chops to report the story in the most alarmist of terms, the logic being that it is indeed kosher to shout "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theatre if you smell smoke (especially if you are selling extinguishers in the lobby). So, what exactly did we have to worry about? Let's remind ourselves what Newsweek though might happen, the effects of the cataclysm enumerated in a 1997 cover story called "The Day The World Shut Down":
The power may go out. Or the credit card you pull out to pay for dinner may no longer be valid. If you try an ATM for cash, that may not work, either. Or the elevator that you took up to the party ball room may be stuck on the ground floor. Or the parking garage you drove into earlier in the evening may charge you more than your yearly salary. Or your car may not start. Or the traffic lights might be on the blink. Or, when you get home, the phones may not work. The mail may show up, but magazine subscriptions will have stopped, your government check may not arrive, your insurance policies may have expired.

Basically, it was only a matter of time before we were sketching buffalo on cave walls again. With predictions this dire framed as a near inevitability, America took action. Sparing no expense, up to $500 BILLION dollars were spent in a massive effort to correct the glitch. Even with this heavy investment, many people stocked up on canned goods, batteries and other survival necessities before the clock chimed 12:00.

And what actually happened when the 20th century breathed it's last breath? What dominoes came tumbling down? In Australia, bus-ticket validation machines ceased functioning. (SHRIEK!) France's National Weather Service had some glitches on its website, displaying the date as 01/01/19100. (DEAR GOD!) And in Delaware, slot machines at racetracks stopped working. (OH! THE HUMANITY!) That's pretty much it. To those who truly believed in the threat of Y2K the miniscule (and even that's hyperbolic) glitches were proof that armageddon had been averted and the $500 Billion had been well spent. Skeptics scoff, pointing to Italy's problem-free New Years, even though the Italians had little investment in Y2K "preparedness." Y2K, says the cynic, was little more than a collective instance of mass paranoia.

In the end, 2000's champagne shortage proved a larger crisis than anything associated with Y2K. The psychic causes of Y2K however are less chimerical. The crisis was a manifestation of a uniquely modern anxiety: the total domination of technology over our lives. We sit supplicant in front of our computer screens, fearing that the new digital totality is little more than house of cards; even the experts have a foggy understanding on how this new computer-centric society really works. In 1999 and 2000 the home computer and information super highway were still novel enough that an individual life could be lived without either (the public infrastructure however was already computer dependent). Professing ignorance about one's computing acumen gave individuals a kind of anti-tech street cred. Those days were numbered. Similar pronouncements today can be greeted only with disbelief and sarcasm (especially if one is responding to a Presidental candidate). It's simply not legitimate anymore to denounce computer technology.

Y2K was a little more than an analog spasm; a final hurrah for those who, still scared enough of technology to renounce its use, projected their feelings onto society as a whole. A "see, I told you so!" for techno-phobes everywhere. The Unibomber probably got his jollies in the count-down to social destruction. Y2K bolstered the feeling, one which would only grow in the decade that followed, that technology was no longer a tool for our use; it's now the computers who rule us.

You AUGHT to remember...

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