The so-called Y2K problem, the inability of computers to read dates beyond 1999 threatened to turn Jan. 1, 2000 into a nightmare. The issue had first been noticed by programmers in the 1950s, but had been ignored. As the turn of the century loomed, though, it seemed that humankind faced a litany of horrors.
The Y2K catastrophe was promoted with increasing shrillness toward century's end: headlines proclaimed a "computer time bomb" or "a date with disaster." Vanity Fair's January 1999 article "The Y2K Nightmare" caught the sensationalist tone, claiming that "folly, greed and denial" had "muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts."
By the time midnight reached the United States, where upward of $100 billion had been spent on Y2K fixes, there was little anxiety. Indeed, the general health of American information systems, fixed and not, became clearer in the new year. The Small Business Administration calculated that 1.5 million businesses had undertaken no Y2K remediation. On Jan. 3, it received about 40 phone calls from businesses that had experienced minor faults, like cash registers that misread the year "2000" as "1900" (which seemed everywhere the single most common error caused by Y2K).
Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems -- poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems -- needing intelligent attention. Even something as down-to-earth as the swine-flu scare has seemed at moments to be less about testing our health care system and its emergency readiness than about the fate of a diseased civilization drowning in its own fluids. We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St. Paul put it, the "twinkling of an eye" -- that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. But turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.
This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism. Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment. As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human "folly, greed and denial." Repent and recycle!
When the New York Times is publishing a piece comparing the Y2K bug to global warming, I believe it's safe to suggest that we've turned a corner.
Al Gore, call your office.