"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Life’s a Glitch – what the non-apocalypse of Y2K can teach us

As families watched from home, Dick Clark stood on the steps of the town hall hosting the final New Year’s Rocking Eve of the millennium. The excited crowd chanted the countdown as the year entered its last 10 seconds, but when the ball dropped, the cries of “Happy New Year!” became shouts of “Happy New Wha!?!?” as the year switched from 1999… to 1900. Within seconds, screams filled the crowd as traffic lights exploded, drivers lost control of their cars, rotating restaurants spun out of control, planes fell from the sky, and household appliances went on the attack. And all because the Y2K compliance officer at a small town’s nuclear power plant had not gotten the job done, thereby triggering a calamitous domino effect causing anything and everything containing a computer chip to go haywire. Wandering through the chaos and looting that had overtaken the town’s streets, a girl walking with her family commented, “Well look at the wonders of the computer age now.” Her father, the offending compliance officer, replied, “Wonders Lisa, or blunders?” She retorted, “I think that was implied by what I said.”

In case you haven’t already guessed, the family in question was none other than the Simpsons, from the cartoon bearing their name, and the scenes taking place were part of the show’s Halloween episode, which aired on October 31, 1999. Homer had been in charge of making sure Springfield’s nuclear power plant was Y2K compliant, and as audiences would expect of Homer, he hadn’t. By the episode’s end, the country’s brightest minds are boarding a rocket ship for Mars, while mushroom clouds engulf the Earth.

This dramatization of what could happen as 1999 became 2000 was obviously ridiculous. No one really believed that Y2K was going to cause waffle irons to develop a taste for human blood, or traffic lights to fire lasers at people on the streets. But blackouts, elevator failures, problems with embedded microchips, social unrest, and noncompliant systems causing cascading failures — those possibilities were not so outlandish.


I wrote about Y2K (and how we should remember it) for Real Life Magazine, the full article can be read there.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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