Recent Memory: Case File #0002: "The Millennium Bug"

By Keith Gatchel

And, now, a look back at what had made the news over the past 5 to 20 years, and if it still matters to this day.

What was the news?
The Millennium Bug.

How was this news?
Two thousand years were about to end in the 1990s. We'd all celebrated New Year's Eve before, and seen more than one or two decades go by (stop reading if you haven't, this is PG-13). Even a select few of us are lucky enough to live over 100 years, or be cursed by a painting. But, this was "Dick Clark's Rock Hard New Year's Event of 19Goddamn99, Jabronies!" The odometer rolling over into a whole new number. And, damn were some people into it. Jennifer Lopez waited for tonight, Will Smith sampled the name. And Prince, true to form, was ahead of his time. Despite being the construct of a guy who would soon hate March 15, then a Pope who had to fix it, people gave a nearly supernatural significance to the upcoming year of 2000.

What went down?
This coincided with the permeation of the modern personal computer into homes worldwide. To understand how revolutionary computers and the internet were at the time, or if you have to explain it to a kid: imagine walking down to the river every day to get water, and however much water you get is determined by how many times you can get up and walk down to said river. Then, someone comes along to your little hut (or teepee, or van on cinder blocks) and installs indoor plumbing with a Champagne glass shaped Jacuzzi; now there’s less walking, and a better chance to get laid. Still unclear? Talk to Rome. But, with all change comes questions and healthy skepticism. Where does this water come from? Could this water get polluted flowing through the pipes? Will the Jacuzzi jets hide your farts? Could sex in it prevent you from getting an STD, or cure it like the biblical healing waters of Jordan?

You laugh, but it was called "surfing" a "super highway" in "cyberspace." All of it sounded magical.

You laugh, but it was called "surfing" a "super highway" in "cyberspace." All of it sounded magical.

But, this wasn’t just water, this was information. (Brain water!) Computers were made by vast swaths of nerds, not all of whom talked to each other, which was typical, as much fewer comic cons existed at the time. The internet they would soon use to communicate with was still being made by them. Thus, this was the internet by the end of the '90s, this was how it was sold and this is was the past 20 years leading up to it. How you felt about the future determined what you awaited for in the years or decades until the year 2000: either the vast, sprawling, perfect civilization predicted for you by The Jetsons, The Carousel Of Progress or Demolition Man, or the scary hellscape of Mad Max, Judge Dredd, or for that matter, Demolition Man again (seriously, that movie really holds up.) But, with this massive change came a flaw, a “recalled airbag” if you will.

Since you don’t have as much time to watch old internet videos like I do, I’ll summarize. Computer memory was expensive, thus space was limited, thus the years were paired down. "1969" became "'69" (of course, you're picturing the yin and yang.) Thus, the average computer, as the ball dropped, might read the year "2000" as “00," mistake it for “1900" then possibly clam up and pretend it didn’t exist (again, like many nerds of its day). This was all over pop culture, specifically Strange Days, Sports Night, SportsCenter, Family Guy, that Chris Carter show that wasn't The X-Files, the X-Files episode that finished that showNewsradio, and plenty of others. The movie Office Space described it well, which I’ll link again here because this is essentially every movie in the ‘90s wrapped up within one clip. The Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves (but not whoever still maintains their website). The year 2000 was like the arrival of a celebrity, or god, with a cult of personality formed around it with a manager, a publicist and a stuntman.

Christ could return to direct traffic.

Christ could return to direct traffic.

Here’s Leonard Nimoy scaring the crap out of you, and a commercial selling you a survival kit. Apple computers released an ad starring HAL 9000 telling you why they won’t rise up and kill you (talk about sending "Nixon to China," eh, Nimoy?) To be fair, there were many people who weren’t all that concerned about it, and most that were prepared for just a tiny apocalypse.

Why always so many beans? You're going to be sealed up with your family.

Why always so many beans? You're going to be sealed up with your family.

What's up with it now?
We’re still here, if you weren’t too sure. True, we might not be. But, for all intents and purposes, nothing really happened. Overall, we partied hard, then went back to normal.

Does it still matter?
What the Millennium Bug did was give the end of the world a name. As a species, we’ve never dealt with a singular threat as one. Between raiding, attacking and destroying each others’ civilizations, we’ve never faced a life threatening asteroid or alien race that threatened humankind. But, here we had a name with a weakness to exploit: sunlight to our Gremlins, a tangible enemy that we could defeat. And, 100 billion dollars later, we did. (Say it with me, 100 BILLION DOLLARS!) But, that hasn’t stopped other end-of-the-world predictions, be they from some random preacher, another possible bug in the year 2038, or the prediction of the Mayans just because their calendar stopped (as if one Mayans didn’t just say, “Hey, um, guys, we just mapped out 5,000 years into the future, so I think we're at a good stopping point.”)

Do we still care?
Unless you plan to live another 983 years (dream big, you!) probably not. And, there's a real chance that words and numbers might not even mean the same to us at that point, if we even still speak with mouths. But it brought out a little secret we as a society are all curious about: how will the world end?

I bought this in January of 2000 for $1, and still haven't opened it. Best to be prepared...

I bought this in January of 2000 for $1, and still haven't opened it. Best to be prepared...

No one wants the world to end, in the sense that none of us want to cause it (...put down the earthquake machine.) But we know the world we live in isn’t natural, and built on shaky ground. I live in Chicago, and am never entirely sure at any given time which grass is real. So, we imagine it like we imagine winning the lottery or going to jail—we wonder how we’ll act. And the best part about Y2K, if we’ve learned anything, is that we, as a society, won’t totally lose it. If the day comes that we see an asteroid hit the Earth, or nuclear war, we won’t immediately hunt and kill our neighbor, Beth. And, if it's going to happen, we secretly want to be there for it. Perhaps we want to be one of the few billion in heaven that get a t-shirt made. We’ll get to be a part of the special somebodies that got to be the epoch of civilization, the height of mankind, the end of the book, the cookie dough ice cream of the freezer. And, more than anything, we would know what predictions are right and which ones were false. Because that’s the thing about prophecies, it’s easy to make up ones that will never come true. So, it’s best to focus on the ones that will.