Skip to Content

Why 2K?

Why didn’t we see the problem coming? We didn’t think the old programs would last and we were too excited developing future applications. In other words, we blew it.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, CBS’s “60 Minutes” closed their program on the year 2000 problem with me saying: “I think we’ll have a few pretty bad situations, but not the catastrophes that the panic-creating people are talking about. The problem, deep down, is that nobody knows.”

Most people would prefer a mesmerizing revelation to such a bland conclusion. All the more so, since this event does not have an imagined deadline, like most mystical predictions, but is guaranteed to happen on January 1, 2000. No wonder we constantly hear about it, and no wonder most stories spin scarier than a typical apocalypse.

Just in case you haven’t heard, Y2K, as it is abbreviated, is the result of frugal programmers having allowed in old programs only two characters, like 98, to describe 1998. Computers still running such programs will represent the year 2000 as 00, and will run into trouble-they’ll compute 2000-1998 as -98…and may, as a result, ignore or cancel your two-year-old life insurance policy. Y2K troubles predicted by the media and by experts include failures of emergency medical equipment, shutdowns of water and power systems, malfunctions of air traffic control systems, faulty elevators and traffic lights, litigation that may total $700 billion, a collapse of the world’s financial system, and much more. Survivalists are already moving to the country, with ample supplies, to weather the expected disasters. And normal folks are, predictably, scared.

How did we get into this problem? Through gradual addiction. From laboratory curiosities, computers became increasingly important to people as they took over credit cards, payroll, word processing, and in their small-chip forms the control of automobile systems, elevators, home appliances and many other mechanisms in which they are embedded. Eventually computers became so intertwined with our lives that today, a widespread computer malfunction like Y2K can affect all of us. Why didn’t we see the problem? We didn’t think the old programs would last and we were too excited developing future applications. In other words, we blew it!

Regardless of its origins, the Y2K problem is real. To understand its reach, imagine that on January 1, 2000 one piece of paper in every file cabinet in the world will be suddenly destroyed. Some papers will be vital. Most will be worthless. No one knows how such a bizarre incident would affect the world. That’s pretty much the situation with Y2K. But ignorance has rarely stopped opinion from flowing. And since most of that opinion has involved hype and scary messages, I’ll try to balance things out by applying my own ignorance of what will happen…in the other direction.

Most big organizations have already taken corrective action: Typically, they turn their computer clocks to January 1, 2000, and test their programs to discover, assess and correct failures. Organizations that offer critical products and services have been particularly vigilant, because of fear of litigation. And regulatory organizations, feeling the public pressure, have been pressing their constituents to ensure Y2K compliance. Unfortunately, not all of these organizations will be compliant by the end of the century, and some, especially outside the United States, will not be so. Nevertheless, by century’s end, a substantial and widespread organizational corrective effort will have been applied to the Y2K problem.

Next, keep in mind that only a small fraction of the world’s computers are engaged in critical applications. While advising a major international bank, I decided to assess the relative importance of their information systems. So, I asked the staff to stop issuing all 1,200 different kinds of monthly reports they sent to their thousands of employees, and, instead, provide individual reports if and when asked. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when after a month, only six people had called for any of the reports. Alternatively, try to imagine how many of the 100 million people using personal computers to do word processing will experience a catastrophe if their computer clocks are suddenly turned to the year 2000. Still not convinced? Let’s go back to all the file cabinets in the world: How much would you pay to not have them delivered to your front lawn? Let’s face it. The bulk of information out there is not as vital to your life as the hype would like you to think.

Granted all that, there will still be Y2K problems that have not been corrected and that you consider important. What happens then? In the United States, we have 70 million office workers. This massive “information processing” human force will not be sitting on its thumbs, admiring Y2K problems as they develop. They will go to work, writing checks, switching to other, safe computer programs and devising all sorts of procedures to tackle difficulties, as they are identified.

Still, a few Y2K problems will penetrate defenses…and get us. Of these, a few will inevitably be bad. Most, however, will be simply annoying. Any bets on how many newspapers, magazines and TV programs will still be hyperventilating about Y2K in the new millennium?

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Large language models can do jaw-dropping things. But nobody knows exactly why.

And that's a problem. Figuring it out is one of the biggest scientific puzzles of our time and a crucial step towards controlling more powerful future models.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario–like games from scratch

Genie learns how to control games by watching hours and hours of video. It could help train next-gen robots too.

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.