Millennium? What Millennium?
I WAS SITTING IN MY PEW at the Chapel of St. Arbucks yesterday, staring into my coffee, when a rogue thought crawled across my consciousness: Was it fifteen years ago when millions of people were all bent out of shape about the new millennium?
In the late 1990s fear of the new millennium became quite an industry. Catalogues of products and books were available that were designed to nurture fears and then to offer solutions, all at steep prices, with financing available.
For those of you under 25 years of age I will explain. Pay attention, take notes. This will be on the test.
The use of computers to handle and regulate important functions of the personal, commercial and governmental sectors of modern life had begun in the 1940s and had grown exponentially as we approached the end of the 20th century. Most people were blissfully unaware of this until the 1980s when personal desktop computers entered the picture. We had become more integrated, with all aspects of our lives dependent upon the “ones and zeroes” of binary code.
In our personal lives we did banking online, bought and paid for goods and services online. Our paychecks were direct deposited. We communicated by email and watched our digital television cable and satellite programs in between making calls on our cellular phones.
Computers controlled the distribution of electrical power and our nation’s defense relied on computerized launch codes.
In other words, did we control the computers or did they control us?
Enter the 1990s when people began to be aware that in just a few short years we would be crossing into a new century and a new millennium and across the land could be heard a loud and quivering, “Uh oh.”
Since we started using digital computers that little clock down in the corner of the screen had always been counting the passage of time as part of a year beginning with the numbers “1” and “9,” but that was about to change.
Computers are nothing more or less than tools. They have no more intelligence than hammers. They can only do what they are told to do. A hammer can’t create a Mona Lisa, any more than a computer can, on its own, decide to tap dance.
The fear was that the world’s computers would not know what to do when the year 2000 slid down the pole in Times Square. The computers would say, “Wait one cotton picking minute here. Ever since I was first booted up the year has always been 19 – something or other. This 2000 business does not compute. I’m shutting down until I receive further instructions.”
And this made logical sense, which is how computers compute.
While the computer whiz bangs scratched their dandruffy heads and adjusted their pocket protectors looking for an answer, a large segment of the world went, “Oh, crap.”
Fear of the imminent collapse of modern civilization made many people go seriously stupid. Survivalists began to build shelters filled with nonperishable foods, portable generators and enough ammunition to hold off the hordes of their ill-prepared neighbors and in-laws.
Software fixes, to get us over the 2000 hump, were written and uploaded for critical applications. We were assured that airplanes would not fall from the sky and thermonuclear ballistic missiles would not launch themselves, and that we would not miss an episode of “Sex And the City.”
In the end it turned out that, instead of putting their hard drives up on blocks, most computers thought, “2000? Now isn’t that cute? OK, I’ll go along with them. From now on I’ll start everything with 2 and 0 instead of 1 and 9.” It turns out they were pretty smart hammers after all.
Of course, some problems did occur. The most serious one that I heard of was that 150 slot machines at race tracks in Delaware stopped working.
At midnight on January, 1 2000 the world did not end, civilization did not collapse, and “Sex And The City” continued to be in questionable taste and a waste of time.
That is it in a nutshell. We are now fifteen years into the new millennium and our computers continue to hum. New problems will arise – they always do, but I smile when I think about all of the dehydrated dinners that are sitting in rural bunkers waiting for another crisis to come along so the folks who stocked them won’t feel like such incredible ninnies.
(The preceding has been a statement of personal opinion. Live with it.)