As clocks prepared to tick over from 1999 to 2000, the so-called millennium bug became big news. In the fear that computer systems around the world would fail, some people began stockpiling food. In the event, aeroplanes did not fall out of the air, banks did not close down and, apart from a few minor glitches, life went on as usual.
The problem was that many computers were programmed to use two-digit numbers for dates, like ’80’ for 1980, and there was a fear that ’00’ would be misread as 1900. This, experts said, had the potential to disrupt the function of computers, including those that controlled vital infrastructure and systems.
Fear of the millennium bug – in an event that was termed Y2K – drove many organisations to spend considerable sums on overhauling their systems. And some computer people claim that this work did, in fact, avert significant social disruption.
As the media began to publish stories about possible upheaval, some people took note. There was even a Y2K cookbook with recipes for all that freeze-dried and canned food you might have stockpiled.
A couple of my acquaintance, living in a New South Wales village near Canberra, stockpiled canned food. They also installed a water tank, started a chicken run and even acquired a couple of sheep that grazed on their half-acre block.
The thought of my skinny, computer nerd colleague slaughtering a sheep to feed his family was completely unimaginable, so it was fortunate that the local ATMs continued to function and grocery shopping proceeded normally. They are probably still using up the tinned sausages.
Whether it was because of all the feverish activity by computer techs or whether it was mostly just hype we’ll never know. It seems, at worst, in Australia some ticketing machines stopped functioning on some buses. But the fireworks as the clock ticked over from 1999 to 2000 did not signal catastrophe. The power was still on. So we could watch them on television.