We’re Finally Learning the Lesson of Y2K — and It’s Too Late

It’s time to question our faith in the machine

Colin Horgan
9 min readDec 5, 2018
Photo: Laspi/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“In a welcome anticlimax to two years of dire warnings, the new millennium arrived over the weekend without a computer-driven meltdown of the globe’s electronic infrastructure.” So began a New York Times editorial on January 3, 2000, reflecting a collective sigh of relief that immediately followed the clocks turning over from 1999 to 2000.

New Year’s Eve 1999 was supposed to be like no other. In the months leading up to the start of the new millennium, panic rose over a programming error lodged within computers all over the world. The so-called Y2K bug was a problem with internal clocks in computers and software — they only counted years as two digits. And so, nobody was quite sure what would happen when they all went from 99 to 00. Panic rose. What would the computers do, faced with a theoretical year double-zero? Would bank machines work? Would planes fall out of the sky? Would nuclear missiles be accidentally deployed?

The answer to each, as the Times noted three days into the new year, was: no. None of that happened. And in the years since, there are two stories about why. Though the two accounts of what happened appear to be in opposition to one another, together they not only help explain our world nearly 20…