Strange, isn't it, the way humans invented calendars and clocks to mark the passage of time down to the smallest instant, only to fear what would happen were time's steady march to suddenly stop? Each turning of the calendar, every tick of the clock, every opening of a new page in history has been greeted by those who predict disaster, apocalypse or Armageddon. And the ratio of trepidation to elation seems to increase in proportion to the number of digits that flop over--from the turn of a year to a centennial, to a millennium.
The dawning of the year 2000, reckoned in femtoseconds, was no exception. This time the bogey man was not the wrath of the gods, war, pestilence, floods or volcanoes. But it was still a fear of our own invention--the equally mysterious and poorly understood skein of technology that underlies almost every aspect of modern civilization. Y2K--the elusive computer glitch that, with a sleight of digits, threatened to cripple the computers controlling everything from our electrical power, air traffic and ATMs to the microwaves in our kitchens--became an icon for the ending of an epoch. And the chaos we feared it could create would be far worse than snapping back just a mere century; indeed, it would plunge us all into the dark age of the caveman. Those who see technology as an evil would be thrilled.
But after months of dominating TV screens and newspaper front pages, the reality of Y2K seemed to be nothing more than a mega non-event. As midnight swept around the globe, television correspondents were hard-pressed to find Y2K events, even in "less technologically advanced" countries. (Then again, how much impact would Y2K have on a nomad in central Asia or a bushman in Australia?) By the time Greenwich Mean Time slipped smoothly into the new year, marking the changeover for most global navigation, there seemed little to do but observe the revels and fireworks as midnight swept from Europe's capitals to New York and Washington and on to Chicago and Los Angeles. A few satellites blinked on and off; some trains were sided for a few minutes. Overall, though, the world as we know it kept on running.
Hours later, as the morning sun crept over the horizon as it has for several billion years, the first light of a third millennium according to our infant Gregorian calendar found high-technology ever ticking. TV and computer screens were alight, airplanes were aloft and cash machines were dispensing legal tender. Most telling, the numerous doomsaying Internet sites advocating Y2K survival preparations, such as stockpiling food and gasoline, were not only online but were logging record traffic--much of it from disillusioned visitors who were questioning how they had been "taken in" by what was just the latest example of "media hype."
Those naysayers were quickly disputed by officials involved in the massive effort to assure Y2K preparedness. Millions of work hours, costing more than $100 billion, had been spent to ferret out possible glitches in critical computer systems in the U.S. alone; around the world the amount is pegged at more than $250 billion. The problem, they contend, had not been exaggerated--it had been averted. Once again human ingenuity and technology had triumphed. Moreover, experts warned, Y2K was hardly a thing of the past. They were quick to point out that things could still go wrong--and probably would. (Just wait until businesses opened on Monday, January 3, they said.) It would be a year or longer before the legacy of Y2K could be fully discerned.
Whether we felt gullible or not, most of us did breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, things always break. Blackouts and computer crashes are as inevitable and unpredictable as hurricanes and earthquakes. Even so, hype does not explain the grip that Y2K held on our collective consciousness. Few things capture the attention more than fear of the unknown. There is a bit of the believer, who follows a prophet to a mountaintop to await the end, in all of us. And we all find some solace when the dreary night of anticipation is dispelled by a new day and another piece of the present is safely relegated to history.