For a time 20 years ago, millions of people, including corporate chiefs and government leaders, feared that the internet was going to crash and shatter on New Year’s Eve and bring much of civilization crumbling down with it. This was all because computers around the world weren’t equipped to deal with the fact of the year 2000.
Their software thought of years as two digits. When the year 99 gave way to the year 00, data would behave as if it were about the year 1900, a century before, and system upon system in an almost infinite chain of dominoes would fail.
Billions were spent trying to prepare for what seemed almost inevitable.
An article in Vanity Fair in January 1999 laid out the prospect: “It is an instant past midnight, January 1, 2000. . . . The power in some cities isn’t working. . .. Bank vaults and prison gates have swung open. . . . Hospitals have shut down. . . . so many countries degenerating into riots and revolution. . . . No one will know the extent of its consequences until after they occur. The one sure thing is that the wondrous machines that govern and ease our lives won’t know what to do.”
But then, when the end of the year did come, and midnight struck in time zone after time zone around the globe, almost nothing happened.
There had been a mass of preparation and just as much panic. The story is a testament to how little we can understand of the strength or fragility of our vast information networks, and how even less we can understand of what the future holds at any time.
It begins half a century earlier, at the dawn of computing, when data was stored by punching holes in 3-by-7-inch paper cards, stacks of which were fed into machines to do individual calculations. Memory was so expensive, and took up so much space—rooms and rooms full for some early computers—that the information recorded was kept to the barest minimum.