Y2K: The Media Just Didn't Get It

But the millennium bug cost us a once-in-a-lifetime celebration

I'm writing this column on New Year's Day, 2000. Late in 1999, I made a New Year's resolution not to let the general media's lack of understanding about technical matters bother me. Unfortunately, I'm not good at keeping resolutions.

In the final 2 weeks of 1999, I did approximately 50 radio and TV interviews about Y2K. In early December, the interviewers appeared to be taking seriously the possible problems. But as January 1 approached, interviewers asked one question time and again: "If, as you say, Y2K isn't going to cause widespread computer problems, does that mean the millennium bug was a lot of hype and that we had nothing to worry about? Did the techies cry wolf?"

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, some people are wise...and some are otherwise. I know that over the past few years, many of you and many of your friends and colleagues worked long hours to find and fix countless date rollover-related programming bugs. For techies around the world, the Y2K bug leached the enjoyment from a once-in-a-lifetime event and required you to spend New Year's Eve in your office with a plastic cup of nonalcoholic champagne in one hand and a mouse in the other. And when January 1 dawned quietly, the thanks you received consisted of, "What? That was it?"

The irony is that although our industry is famous for blowing deadlines, so many people—so many of you—who tackled the job of fixing the millennium bug did that job right and finished it on time. So, even if you hear applause from no other corner, here's the sound of two hands clapping and a heartfelt thank-you to all of you who kept the planes in the air, the stock market from crashing, the water running, the lights burning, and the phones ringing. (Actually, I wouldn't have minded much if the phones hadn't rung. Then, at least, telemarketers couldn't have bothered me at dinnertime.)

The lack of recognition for the job you did to solve the Y2K problem isn't right or fair. I believe that all of you who worked on Y2K should be feted and congratulated for vanquishing the millennium bug, so I propose that we recognize this considerable achievement next New Year's Eve with a Techies' Millennium Celebration. Let me explain.

I hate to be persnickety about the question of whether the third millennium starts in 2000 or 2001. After all, the date we mark as the beginning of the millennium is undoubtedly in error: We know that Dennis the Short goofed. "Dennis the Short" might sound like your kids' favorite Pokémon character, but I'm not making him up. In 526, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus, which is usually translated as "Dennis the Short" or "Dennis the Slight," tried to compute Jesus Christ's birth date, thereby establishing the method we now use to number years. We know his calculations were off because his computation has the side effect of placing King Herod's death at 4 B.C., which doesn't square with the nativity story. So, the actual change of millennium likely occurred no later than 1996.

Nevertheless, I can argue for recognizing next year as the start of a new century, if not a new millennium: Newspapers from 1900 and 1901 clearly show that the general population viewed 1901, not 1900, as the first year of the twentieth century. So, recognizing 2000 as the start of the twenty-first century leaves us with a 99-year century.

Why bother quibbling about when a new century starts? Because I offer the following suggestion, with tongue only slightly in cheek: Let the great unwashed masses consider 2000 the start of the new millennium and century; call it the Vulgar Millennium. And next New Year's Eve, let the technical world ring in the mathematically proper Techies' Millennium. We won't need to stay in the office worrying about rollover problems, and we can celebrate in style, without any job-related cares.

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