Now that the time of reckoning has come and gone, we can all get on with our livesmuch like we were doing before.
But wasn't it peculiar, when you think back on it, how much a non-problem the Y2K bug actually turned out to be? You could see that as early as the morning of Dec. 31, from the CNN cable television and MSNBC Web site updates. As the day progressed, and the new millennium crept westward across the globe, it became evident that nobody's lights were going out, no country's nuclear missiles were accidentally shooting off. There was no Y2K panic in the streets of Guam, New Zealand, Japan, or Russia. Instead, we got reports of Chinese dragon dancers weaving along the Great Wall and fireworks under the Sydney summer sky. In a most spectacular, astounding, and amazing way, the Y2K bug failed to have any effect at all.
What I found to be even more amazing was the fact that almost nobody took Y2K seriously anyway. I mean, it's not like we weren't warned by two years' worth of sometimes near-hysterical press coverage. But we took little heed in such soon-to-be period pieces as Utne Reader's early-1999 special supplement "Citizen's Action Guide", in which Utne founder and editor-in-chief Eric Utne equated the then-pending Y2K to the "social equivalent of a worldwide earthquake." We could expect delays in airplane flights, the report warned, as well as interruptions in phone services, power failures, global recession, and civil unrest. Nor did we fret over USA Today's prophecies: "Basic utilities, such as water-purification systems or power grids fail; elevators seize; automated teller machines crash; foreign banks collapse; and assembly lines stall as they await late deliveries," one 1998 article foretold.
Nope, not a single person I know prepared for a electricity-less, water-less, heat-less lifestyle. A few extracted money from the ATM machines, the collective effect of which caused no run on the banks but probably spurred a mini-boom in ATM fees. A few other people I know thought of buying extra water, but they never got around to it. It was a priority far below, say, figuring out what to wear to their New Year's festivities. And this wave of unconcern seemed to prevail in almost everyone, excepting the crank survivalist hiding in the family tree. A Dec. 30 USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that 66 percent of Americans surveyed said they were "unlikely to change their behavior or take special precautions" for Y2K.
Don't you find that odd? I find that odd. Our collective unconscious took in the idea of a Y2K meltdown only to spit it back out, taking it not the least bit seriously. Did such unconcern prove we're so fat, lazy, and happy in our decadent Western ways that we can't even see how precariously our lives are based on computers? I don't think so. To point out the obvious, it was the fat, apathetic citizen who was right: Nothing happened. Sure, we'd been assured by companies and governments that many of the bugs were corrected, but who believes what they say anyway?
No, I have an entirely new take on our Y2K apathy. A vision of hope, if you will.
There's an old computer acronym that's in überhacker Eric Raymond's Jargon File that would come in handy here. It's called FUD, which stands for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD was coined to describe the feelings aggressive computer-sales companies may try to instill in a potential customer about a rival's products. A salesperson drops hints that the rival's product may break down or the rival may go out of business. He is provoking fear, creating doubt and mistrust where previously there was none. He's making FUD.
The term FUD is used much these days among hard-bitten computer-system administrators. They use it in a derisive way. They've gotten enough FUD from bullying software companies, and they are sick of being intimidated by it. They know the damage caused by FUD goes far beyond lost salesthat FUD breeds a mindset that is hostile, paranoid, uncreative, fearful, and, ultimately, lonely. And if you're thinking I'm only talking in computer-speak, you're missing the point: FUD is what causes us to mistrust other races, other countries, and people with values other than our own. FUD is everywhere.
Y2K, as it turned out, was little more than a big ball of FUD. There were glitches, and many of them were fixed because of sensational press coveragebut none of the problems warranted the apocalyptic tone they received. I mean, there were people who really, really tried to get us to believe the Y2K bug would bring the collapse of the civilized world. They wanted us to cower in bunkers and eat tasteless canned food. But we shrugged it off. And my most optimistic self believes this shows that we, like the systems administrators, are a little bit less inclined to be swayed by FUD these days. We've seen too much to be intimidated by appeals to our dark side.
Perhaps it will make the next millennium a bit more peaceful than the last.