Society

What Was the Y2K Scare?

The Y2K bug, also known as the Y2K problem or Year 2000 Problem, was a major perceived threat of the late 1990s.

The Y2K Scare was a phenomenon at the turn of the 21st century where computer users and programmers feared that computers would stop working on December 31, 1999. The phenomenon was also referred to as the "Millennium Bug" or "Year 2000 problem" by technology experts. A lot of planning went into preparing for the ‘Millennium Bug.' In fact, the scare led governments and private organizations to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to avert the risk.

Background

In the 1960s and 1970s, when computer engineers worked on complex computer programs, they used two-digit codes to represent the year. The first two digits were left out. For example, instead of coding "1960", they just used "60". The main reason for leaving out the first two digits was to save on storage space which was too costly. For instance, a kilobyte of storage went for as high as US$100. Additionally, the programmers did not expect the programs to last up to the turn of the century. When the new Millennium neared, computer experts realized that the software would recognize "00" as 1900 instead of the year 2000. This realization posed a risk to many institutions such as banks, insurance companies, hospitals, and government departments that relied on computers to provide accurate time and date.

Threats

As the calendar approached the year 2000, anxiety spread across the world as people feared that computer systems would shut down. Banking institutions which relied on software programs to calculate daily interest were at risk of system failure. As a result, stock prices of banking institutions dropped in value as the year 2000 neared. Transport systems were also affected especially in the airline business whose operations depend on accurate time and date. There were rumors that planes would drop from the sky when clocks turned to midnight on 31st Dec 1999. This led travelers to avoid the airport on New Year’s Eve. Hospitals, power plants, and government organizations were not spared from the threats either.

Programming Solution

Due to the severe implication of a possible shut down, organizations went to great lengths to prevent the system failure from materializing. One way the year 2000 problem was handled was by creating new software programs that saved dates as four digits instead of the two digits previously used. The remedy was very expensive to implement. The other solution was to amend the algorithm used in calculating leap years so as to recognize the year 2000 as a leap year.

The Dawn Of The New Millennium

On the much-awaited date of January 1st, 2000, computer programs updated to the new dates and carried on as usual. Except for a few incidents of software failures, not much happened on the date as earlier anticipated. Computer experts were later accused of exaggerating the concept of the "Millennium Bug" as millions of dollars were spent in preparation of the Y2K problem.

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