But a New York Times editorial on Dec. 30, citing the $100 billion American companies and governments had spent to correct the problem, predicted disruptions of the noncatastrophic variety, but with several caveats, including lack of preparation in countries such as Russia and China, and “potential stoppages and delays” in the “vital functions” of “local schools, hospitals, nursing homes, transit systems and small or medium-sized businesses.” The editorial concluded that we would end the millennium listening “expectantly to the news, hoping for the best.”
Which is where I came in. As the editor of a Yahoo! News service called Full Coverage, I had been preparing for Y2K all year. This was the era when newspapers and magazines all over the world had rushed to put their stories online, and (in an orgy of shortsightedness) made them available for free. That allowed aggregators like Yahoo to subsume thousands of articles and organize them by topic-based web pages. As the clock counted down, while the general public may have been somewhat blasé about the possibility of two little absent digits finally doing us in, online readers — at the time, a vastly smaller and more technologically oriented percentage of the overall population than it is today — appeared less sanguine, as evidenced by the growing tsunami of pageviews our Y2K section registered from all over the world.
So, in anticipation of what I thought would be the biggest online news event to date, I had organized our coverage by geographical categories and subcategories, in order to accommodate the massive global flow of stories that would surely come pouring in as problems emerged. I mean, if an Albanian government agency went down, my Albania section was ready. If the Sydney Morning Herald reported problems at a bank, into the Australia bucket it would go. From an online news angle, at least, I was prepared.
In order to catch the very earliest midnight on the planet, in the South Pacific, I started work in Sunnyvale the night of Dec. 30. I figured no matter how small the initial surge of problems, it would still be of big interest to Yahoo! News users. And if the problems turned out to be worse than anticipated, it was going to require 24-7 coverage. I reported in for this marathon web surfing session carrying an overnight bag containing a change of clothes, a toothbrush and snacks.
The year 2000 hit the tiny island nation of Kiribati. Just a titch overeager, I scoured the wires for signs of trouble. Next came Tonga, Fiji, parts of New Zealand. What did the New Zealand Herald have to say? Not much. Papua New Guinea? Nothing. Australia, Japan, South Korea? All clear. China, India, Iran? No snags. Yet, it was still the middle of the night. What would happen when the new day dawned? Anything yet, New Zealand? How about you, oh longitudinally endowed Russia? The country had nine time zones — at least one of them had to be generating some news.
But the midnights came, the midnights went, and nobody seemed to wake up in the year 1900. The Y2K bug did not bite in Asia; it did not bite in Europe; it did not bite in the U.S. As the sun came up on a succession of slow news days around the globe, I realized I was not going to need that change of underwear after all. So I went home.
Was I disappointed? To state the obvious, dirty little not-so-secret that most people in my profession grapple with, we like it when there’s actual news. Sure, as a human being, I was thrilled — 24 hours later. But on New Year’s day, as my reservoir of adrenaline emptied, I have to admit, I felt let down.
For a long time I thought the coda to the Y2K story really consisted of the series of unforeseen disasters visited upon the country in the years following, exhibiting once again the human capacity for focusing on the wrong problem. After Y2K happily fizzled, the already bloated stock market ratcheted higher in what one analyst called “panic buying;” but in March, the bubble popped, disappearing trillions of dollars from investment portfolios. In the November election, the Bush-Gore tie devolved into a constitutional crisis. Not a year later, September 11. Followed by a war in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, a recession, a global financial crisis, a much worse recession, and the accelerating pace of climate change.
But now I don’t really think that’s the lesson of Y2K at all. Here’s a Time magazine piece paying homage to all the people who worked behind the scenes to fix the Y2K bug so that Jan 1, 2000, could be a slow news day. In revisiting this episode, there’s a danger of learning the wrong lesson: that nothing needed to be done in the first place. (Some problems actually did manifest.) Instead, you could potentially view the Y2K nonevent as one of the great problem-solving achievements of the last century.
It could, maybe, have gone another way. What if, for example, the Clinton administration had dismissed Y2K as a “Chinese hoax”?