Apocalypse of the Week 8: Your Mother Smelt of Subroutines

Those of us born in the 1980s came of age in an interesting time, as the Communist governments of eastern and central Europe fell, one country turned into 15 and somehow stayed the largest in the world, and computers learned how to handle four-digit years.

And you’d better believe it was a big deal.

In the late 1990s, the news was ablaze with the idea that computer systems could spontaneously fail or start generating nonsense output because most of them had been designed with space-saving programs that utilized only the last two digits of the year.  A few other, similar issues also appeared in this decade, such as programmers used to using “9999” to refer to unknown values wondering whether 9 September 1999 would cause any strange incidents, but it was the famous Y2K bug that got and kept people’s attention.

Some perspective: this was a generation that was still in the process of getting its first home computers and consumer Internet.  This was the generation that gave us the terrifying error message, “This program has performed an illegal operation andwill shut down,” and thousands of terrified calls to tech support about their teenage offspring’s porn habits.  Computers still had to have their software and hardware shut down separately and made that charming popping noise when their plunger-like power buttons were pressed.  It was a different time.

It was a time ripe for a good panic, and with no one knowing what “failing” or “generating nonsense output” meant in a world only recently departed from the punch-card era of programming and weaned on the first two Terminator movies, it got one.  Proclaiming the imminent collapse of civilization (sound familiar?) at the hands of a few malfunctioning ones and zeroes, people stocked up on canned food and firearms, hid in bunkers and woodland cabins, cowered at the sight of their suddenly untouchable computers, and wove together intricate palimpsests of Millennialist theology, Nostradamus “prophecies,” and (for some reason) tales of impending collision with a comet called Nibiru.  Because that apparently has something to do with bank software getting confused about how many years ago 1999 was while amortizing a loan.   Who could really say that the magic metal boxes where Pac-Man lived couldn’t do that?  Like I said, different time.

Naturally, these people completely forgot the element that every eschaton leaves out: the people dedicating thousands of hours of work for years on end toward making sure that it doesn’t happen.  That goes double for one that is entirely man-made.

Back in reality, of course, the programs were updated to handle four-digit years with only a few amusing issues, such as the occasional public sign in France claiming the year was 1900.  The year 2000 came and went, and the post-apocalypse wasn’t so much Mad Max as Office Space.  The only comets that came within visual range of Earth either provided a good show for telescope enthusiasts or collided spectacularly with Jupiter’s great red spot.  We also got some fantastic Simpsons and Family Guy episodes out of the ordeal.

What’s unique about this eschaton is that, more than any other, it came with a verifiable time stamp, so its remaining adherents look even more ridiculous than such ravers usually do.  Their web sites stand in priceless testamentto the ridiculous things people will believe, and also to what passed for cutting-edge web site design in the late 1990s.  Since then, end times prophets have learned to leave themselves a LOT of wiggle room on dates, but they still sometimes forget that they can’t actually predict the future.  I’m looking at you, Harold Camping.
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