Y remember Y2K?

Who remembers the millennium bug? The computer software glitch that was supposed to – according to some gloom experts – trigger the fall of society.

A copy of an original letter from February 2000

What was Y2K?

In the 1960s, to save expensive memory, computer programmers used just two digits in programming dates, so that to record a date like 1965, only 65 was recorded. This reflected very early software developments, when cards were punched and as a result only provided a finite space in which to record information. Early warnings that this system of programming dates would cause computers to malfunction at the turn of the century because software would read 00 as 1900, and not 2000, went unheeded. That is, until the mid-late 1990s, when governments across the world raced to fix or minimize the problem that some commentators were warning would bring down airplanes, crash the stock market, stop traffic lights from working and instigate widespread civil unrest. Some governments spent more than others to update all sorts of machines – the UK spent £396million, Russia spent comparably less. The global cost of preparing for the millennium bug is estimated to have been up to £500billion, though the outcomes for those countries who spent a lot and those that didn’t was almost the same – bar a few glitches here and there, no major incidents occurred and things ticked over.


What’s remarkable about the Y2K bug was not so much the impending software glitches, but how it entrenched a society-wide fear that the glitches would trigger an apocalyptic entry into the 21st century. This fear was captured in a letter from a senior officer in the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to the Friends of the Band in February 2000. Here, he references the sentiment in the run up to the millennium; ‘for all the reports of impending doom and the nasty things we were told were going to happen (including the Dome) we seem to have survived’.

Stocking up of essential items, bulk buying dehydrated food and the demand for non-standard items like wood-burning stoves and home generators captured the panic Y2K created. Behaviours we can all observe today, albeit in response to a serious and unquestionable threat to our individual and collective health and wellbeing.

A few months before the 1st January 2000, the New York Times asked of the impending situation and predicted chaos: ‘will citizens be neighbourly, rather than selfish? Will political and business leaders step in effectively at the right moments?’ (B.J. Feder, The New York Times, 1999). Questions that sound as relevant today as they did 22 years ago

Words by Miranda Stevens