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You're talking up the awfulness of this episode so much that people are going to want to hear it and it's going to be like the like lost a show like that Holocaust movie that Jerry Lewis made. Welcome to You're Wrong about the show, where we go to the year 2000. Oh, I have a way of keeping it simple.


It's funny how that still sounds magical 20 years later. Yeah, well, it is magical because it's the best part.


I am Michael Hobbs. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.


I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic. And we're on Patreon at Patrón Dotcoms. You're wrong about and on PayPal. And we sell cute T-shirts and our listeners have been making incredible designs for us. And as usual, it's quarantine.


We know it's tough out there and so don't feel remotely pressured.


It's tough in here also. Yes. And it's tough on the inside than the outside. It's tough everywhere. I would like to give a special shout out to all of our listeners who are listening to this show on one earbud right now because they have children. Oh, yes, we love you guys.


And today we're talking about Y2K, the millennium bug. Yes, I'm excited.


This is a throwback episode, although our listeners probably don't know that that this was the first episode we ever recorded when we were first doing the show almost exactly two years ago, May 2nd. Right.


Well, that was when we started releasing the show. But we recorded this on like early March 18. So so, yeah, a little over two years ago.


And it was so bad that we to this day have never released it.


And whenever we tell people that they always think that, like, we're being modest, like, oh, I'm sure it's fine.


No, really bad. I listen to this week.


Well, I haven't listened to it since we originally edited it, so thank you. I choose to believe that you are being modest, but I also choose to not attempt to confirm that independently, which speaks for itself.


I bet it's like the pilot episode of 30 Rock where there is like a lot of weird long silences, like what does a show like normally like? What's the secret sauce that happens later? But I can't identify but which I know isn't here.


But we thought it would be a good idea to wait a while so that Sarah would forget everything I told her.


Yeah, we thought we decided we would wait two years and two months. Yes. And then we would take another crack. Yes.


And there's actually been a lot of new weirdly a lot of new academic research on Y2K between 2018 and now.


So there's actually some like a bunch of new stuff that we're going to talk about. So this is not all going to be familiar to you? I probably won't remember.


OK, well, I think now is a good time to return to Y2K because Y2K has become this weird thing that people only bring up when they're talking about something else.


Right. And I feel like it comes up as a metaphor for like something that didn't happen. Yes. Like something we all thought was going to happen. But then we never react.


When we talk about climate change, people will bring up like, oh, we were worried about Y2K, too, and that turned out to be a hoax. And somebody else will respond to that by saying, no, Y2K is an example of us coming together and fixing a problem.


Both of those arguments are kind of detached from what really happened in Y2K.


And since we have now had two years of doing this show since then, I am able to extrapolate that perhaps the answer is no one is right.


Yes, OK, both of those arguments are correct in some ways, were incorrect in other ways.


Right. Because they contain elements of truth. But you don't grasp the truth.


But so now is the point in the show where ordinarily I would ask you what you know about Y2K so I can mith bust you.


But we have tape. We have live footage of Sarah describing this two years ago.


So I thought it would just play you the clip. Oh my God. And you can decide, eh, how bad you want to tell me the editing is.


B, if you want to add anything to your description of my twenties, then listen to this thing. Can you see it? Great machine. Yes, three to one.


So tell me about what you what you know about Y2K, the fear that was that like all of the computers and like automated things and the electronic things would break and then all of our systems would fall apart and then we would just not have a grid anymore.


The amazing thing about that is that your understanding now is about as good as like the U.S. Senate's understanding back then, like it was 1999, was kind of like the beginning of dotcom stuff.


Yeah, it's got that weird grading quality. Yes.


The podcast that people put no effort into, whereas we put in a minimal effort. I did this thing in our first couple of episodes where when one of us would say a joke and the other would laugh, I would turn down the volume on the laugh really low.


So it sounds like you're all of a sudden like sixty feet away and laughing at one of my jokes. I don't know why I did that.


Yeah, it's like a little late with Lily saying it's like one person laughing their ass off far away.


Eerie, but do you want to add any. To your explanation of what your understanding of the Y2K bug was, I don't know if I could add anything to what I said. I was 11 when we reached the year 2000. And I remember understanding that people were concerned about the fact that basically the machines that ran society were programmed using dates that gave you only three digits. And therefore, when it reached the year 2000, they would all go to OWO or something.


It was two digits, yet two digit, two digits.


OK, and because of that, everything would break. Yes. And it would be like Jurassic Park, basically. Yes.


Yeah, but so the first myth to bust is that the millennium bug was not a bug. Was it an arachnid?


It was. It was actually it was a design choice. It was a way of saving space completely, of course.


Forgotten about all this now. But in the early days of computing, back when they were like punch cards and when computers took up an entire room, which is what, like the early mid 60s?


Yeah, 60s to 70s. Basically, I interviewed a researcher about this. And one of the things he said is that, you know, in these old programming languages, they very easily could have had the date at eight digits and had all four digits of the year in there. But it would have taken up too much space.


Right. And if you're trying to put dudes on the moon, you need all the space you can get. Exactly.


I mean, one of things I cannot get over, the original Super Mario Brothers from 1985 is 40 kilobits. Wow.


And this file that you just sent me that I listen to is six hundred and eighty one kilobytes.


Yeah. There just was not space for anything extraneous. So they made the choice that we're only going to do dates in six digits.


So like yea yea yea.


So yea yea month, month, day, day. OK, and there were people in the 70s writing papers in magazines saying like this might be bad. Like let's let's proceed with caution here guys. This might not be such a great idea, but then everybody just like whatever, it's 30 years away. Right.


Everyone as everyone always does, whatever. That's a problem for like our kids or something. Exactly. Which is what every generation says. And they're like, why are kids buying real estate? And it's like maybe because you made choices that we're dealing with right now.


And so it was only in 1993 with the publication of an article called Doomsday 2000 that the country started to get worried about.


That sounds like a movie where Robert Duvall is on death race across the American Southwest.


One of the quotes from it is we and our computers are supposed to make life easier. What do we have delivered is a catastrophe doomsday two thousand.


So this was the beginning of people starting to get nervous about it. And it wasn't actually that all of the software would crash. It was actually more about the hardware.


So the phrase that became really important in the panic about Y2K was embedded systems. So the idea is that all of the infrastructure of modern life has chips within it. Most of these chips have like a little clock inside of them, like they have very basic, very rudimentary systems inside to just like make the thing work, like clock radios have little chips and then with, like, the dates in them.


This this is a list from one of the articles that came out in 1999 of all of the things that have these embedded systems in them, in these ways that are like kind of murky and kind of difficult to sort out.


So personal computers, surveillance equipment, lighting systems, entry systems, bakos systems, clock in machines, vending machines, switchboard's safes and locks, elevators, faxes, production line equipment, ATM machines, military command control systems, IRS tax computations, vending machines and military command control systems I would be concerned about.


And so the idea was basically that everything from, you know, traffic lights to like MRI machines have these chips embedded in them.


And it wasn't clear at the time sort of what it would take to fix it because you don't even really know what the problem is like.


You don't really know like, well, is my clock radio going to stop working or is it just going to think that it's 900 for the rest of its natural life?


And who cares what my understanding is? An 11 year old was the clock radio would think it was nineteen hundred and be like, oh my God, I shouldn't exist. Yes.


And then I would like to burst into flame or something like back to the future.


It would start to disappear like I don't exist yet. Yes.


Yes. That's what I thought would happen. So this is an excerpt from a really interesting oral history that was published a few years ago. This is a quote from the guy that wrote the Doomsday 2000 article, what he says, As most people didn't seem to understand the depth of the programming we depend on, it's not unusual for a bank to have in excess of 50000 programs.


So when you say we have a two digit problem, why don't you just expand it to four digits? OK, fine. Where are they? In which databases? And by the way, which ones are you going to fix? First to fix this one, you have to fix that one and to fix that one, you have to fix the other one. And to fix the other one, you have to fix the vendor. And so another one of the phrases that went around at the time was this idea of.


Cascading faults. If one of these systems breaks, well, all these other systems are dependent on that one system.


So a really interesting example of this by one of these guys in this oral history of a computer researcher at the Echo Intelligence Institute. He talks about how this was in the mid 90s.


He was riding an Amtrak train and the train stopped in the tracks and it sat there for four hours.


And it turned out that the computer system that runs the Amtrak train had to reboot for some reason. And in rebooting, it also shut down the air conditioning system and and shutting down the air conditioning system. It also shut down the ventilation system. So people are sitting there in the heat in these cars with like bathrooms in them. And it's starting to get smelly and it's starting to get stuffy and you can't open the windows.


Yeah, and people are getting really on edge. And so there was this realization that, like, first of all, Amtrak trains have computers.


Right? I know. I would not have guessed that it's right. Choo train. That's as far as my thinking goes on the matter. I guess it's not a Cucu train, though. There's no choo choo on it.


There's a bleep loop. Yes. So these were the kinds of stories that went around. But it's like guys, computers are everywhere. Computers are in cars now. Computers are in airplanes. And we don't really understand the architecture of these systems.


Computers are in hot dogs, you guys. The hot dogs are going to stop working. I don't think a really important statistic from the time was that only 50 percent of the population had personal computers. So it was like computers were normal enough that people had them. But they were also knew enough that people didn't really understand how they worked.


I've been thinking lately about the fact that it's very interesting that millennials have been branded like the first generation online. Millennials are also the last generation with any living memory of what it was like before the Internet. Yeah. You know, had taken over American infrastructure. Yeah.


And before online reality was as real as meatspace reality and that weird transition period to where computers weren't everywhere yet, but they were like here the like eXistenZ parents, like people didn't really know what to be afraid of.


Right. Like the net comes out. There's also the thing and this is a way that the net is silly, but it's a way that every mid 90s movie was forced to be silly. Also, Mission Impossible really jumps to my mind where they're like, OK, we're using computers as a plot element, but everyone knows that a computer is this like weird, slow, dusty thing that happens.


And I can, like, barely play games at, like, reheats if you play most on it.


But Tom Cruise is going to hack into the CIA in about five minutes from a dial up Internet right in Europe.


And so Dylan Mulvane, who's this one of the only researchers who specializes in Y2K, he's writing a book and I interviewed him.


He said what was interesting about it was Y2K had a definite deadline, like we knew exactly when the Y2K bug was going to happen, but it had indefinite effect.


So we knew that, like, these embedded systems were everywhere, but we didn't know what was going to be affected or how. And that was one of the things that drove a lot of the paranoia about what was going to happen.


So would it be accurate to say there are a lot of unknown unknowns? Yes. Yeah. Like the thing where Pablo Escobar by his hippo's for his private zoo and then they go feral and now they just live in Colombia and they just start there.


It's like, what are the best of our hippos in this scenario going to be like? We don't know.


And so it basically became this thing that anything you could imagine was only totally outside the realm of possibility. Right. It's like it might be all of the traffic lights stop working or might be all of the traffic lights turned green.


What's going to happen to all the audio animatronics at Disney World for the love of God?


And I remember this being an item of significant national concern. Like I remember people talking about this a lot. Oh, yeah. And for a long time. And was and so is that like me being in kind of a liberal bubble, like was this a bipartisan concern also?


I mean, it's actually one of my conclusions about this is that it's it's like the last example of, like all of us coming together and doing something and then concluding that it wasn't worth it.


Exactly. And we shouldn't have bothered.


Yeah, but it didn't really take on a partisan valence, but it was a huge deal.


So it was only really in 1996 that people started to get nervous about it. Like that's when the government efforts ramped up. That's when the corporate efforts ramped up. And between 1996 and 1999, congressional committees held 100 hearings. The GAO issued one hundred and sixty reports like guidance to companies and assessments of how the government was doing. The estimates now are that the U.S. government spent nine billion dollars on fixing it and the private sector spent around 100 billion.


They put together a task. Scores of CEOs, they passed a law saying that large companies had to be public about what they were doing and had to issue guidance to small companies. Oh, wow, they appointed a Y2K czar.


Wow. The Federal Reserve started printing a bunch of extra cash just in case there were bank runs. It was huge. Yeah.


It's interesting that this also led to corporate regulation. Like we took this so seriously that we were like the federal government is going to tell the private sector what to do. Yeah. And that was acceptable enough to everyone that it actually happened. Yeah, because, like, I'm not shocked when companies are told to stop poisoning children and they're like, but at what cost?


The one of the members of parliament in the U.K. called it the greatest mobilization since World War Two. This was also one of the things that Dylan Mulvane told me is that he figured out that this was one of the first times we got large scale gig work and large scale outsourcing. Wow.


So millennials have been marked from like the moment that we started preparing for the millennium. Yeah, man. Wow.


One of the vulnerabilities in the U.S. tech sector was that we used an old coding language called COBOL. And by some coincidence, a lot of programmers in India also use COBOL or learn COBOL. And so this is one of the first times that big companies were like, well, we've got like millions of lines of code that we need to update. There's all these people in India that know how to do this. They're like, let's set up some outsourcing infrastructure.


So this is a huge ramp up in outsourcing. Technical grunt work style labor to developing countries in the tech sector was the first time they realized they do this.


This is outsourcing actual skilled work. Yeah. And so by 1999, 51 percent of Americans were saying they would avoid air travel.


In the months before and after Y2K, 42 percent were saying they would stockpile food and water, and six percent of Americans said they were planning to withdraw all of their money from the bank.


And this, of course, gave rise to all of this weird prepa community.


I don't think it was the first time the preppers had, like, use something as an excuse, but like gun magazines started doing special Y2K issues.


I'm like thinking about proper is a lot these days. Oh, yeah. I'm interested in the relationship between the proper mentality where you're like just waiting for the penny to drop so that society can crumble and you can like be in your compound with your ammunition and your canned peaches and how that seems to go hand in hand with the sort of conservative mentality where someone's like, stay home, please, just like watch some shows and get some dominoes.


And being like, how dare you?


Do you want me to remind you what you said in our show two years ago? Because I just listened to it the other day. Yes.


You said you get the feeling that some people are sort of looking forward to this, that, like, people want something bad to happen.


Well, and that was what I thought two years ago. And I'm like, OK, it's happening. Like, why aren't people just like, I'm going to stay home? Yeah. Like, if you're waiting your whole life for an excuse to not engage with society, then why do you get so sad about it changing slightly?


I know this is what's so I don't know. I just think this was the first cross pollination of the Internet and conspiracy theories and capitalism.


And I think alongside this preparator community, there's always profiteering.


But you think a lot of it. It's like P.T. Barnum types.


I mean, this is one of the first times we saw websites pop up like Alex Jones style, right. Where it's like one half of the website is like the government is trying to kill you. They're poisoning the water. And then the other half of the website is like, let me sell you supplements that will cure the poison that they're putting in the water.


Is this the beginning of supplements as we now know them, like conservative supplements and like food kits, like people were selling like gallon bucket, whatever things of food supplies, basically. So like when like the purge happens on January 1st, we'll be ready.


Right. It got so bad for Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico had to warn his constituents.


He's like, don't stockpile gasoline because gasoline explodes.


Like don't keep jugs of gasoline in your house because you're more likely to die from that than you are from the actual Y2K.


Yeah, I was listening to NPR last night. It was like, yeah, obviously we don't want you to enjoy cleaning supplies. And it's like just just yell at people a little, tell them no.


Well, I actually think the government I mean, if you look at the old government warnings, what they all say is they all say don't panic, but kind of panic. Right.


So a lot of the statement that you read in old newspapers, you know, journalists, of course, who call up like the secretary of transportation or whatever, and they'd say, like, you know, we don't expect any negative impact. We expect everything to be fine. Dot, dot, dot and some traffic lights will probably go out. So you should be ready for her.


So it's like, well, if you're telling people not to worry, but you're also telling them that traffic lights. I go out like a bunch of traffic lights going out is a actually kind of a big deal and be a sign that something much bigger is happening.


Right. And also, it's like as an American, you're going to assume that if a traffic light goes out, it'll be the one that you are interfacing with.


Exactly. I also think as Americans, the impulse to think that the government doesn't have your best interests at heart is like not crazy. Right. I think you can disagree with the logic of someone's misgivings, but it's unfair to tell them their perspective is is meaningless if it's based on the idea of fearing those in power.


Right. Well, I mean, you're right in that one of the first things to happen is, of course, conspiracy theories. And I'm fascinated by like the structure of conspiracy theories that it's always the same, like for arguments just like phrased in different ways, like the screenplay's.


Yes. What are the basic arguments of conspiracy theories?


Well, I mean, there's this guy named Mike Adams, but he started something called Y2K Newswire.


There was like, of course, you know, pretending to be like Y2K news, but was really just like the panic digest, like all he did was Friesians, that you should be scared.


All these descriptions feel like they're from a very specific and charming moment. And it's like the Y2K Newswire Tuesday 2000. Like, I love it. I know.


And so he put out a list of 39, quote unquote, unanswered questions about Y2K.


And number 18 is if Y2K is a non-event, why did the federal government spend 50 million dollars on a Y2K command bunker?


I realize it's tiresome that I continue to draw these comparisons. But again, it's like the argument that we're seeing and we'll continue to see if, like if coronaviruses such a big threat, then why haven't more people been dying? And it's like presumably because we've been making good choices and should continue to make good choices.


But yeah, it's like the successful illness of any attempt to avert danger. There will always be used by someone to prove that the danger wasn't really there. Right.


Another one that shows up a lot in conspiracy theories is false premises. So see if you can spot the false premises in this. Why are Californians urged to have a two week stockpile of supplies for earthquake preparedness, but only a three day stockpile for Y2K?


Oh, they're saying the government is misleading Californians, right?


That it's like it's deliberately understating the threat, right. That we're taking earthquake seriously, but we're not doing what you or see what people point out when they debunk this is that California doesn't tell people to have a two week supply of food for earthquakes. It says they should have a 72 hour supply.


So it's like you're literally just making up thing.


Well, yeah. And I'm sure this guy is like, what are you going to do, Ask Jeeves?


Are you going to go on like this and wait for forty nine minutes to go to four Web pages to try and fact check me?


No, this is my favorite one.


Why is it socially acceptable to buy fire insurance, car insurance or life insurance, but not food insurance by having some extra food stored away?


Through what mechanism did the Boy Scout motto be prepared, become politically incorrect? Will the Boy Scouts now be called extremists?


Oh, this is like one of my favorite moves in conspiracy thinking is that you say like this thing that is like kind of on some level reasonable. It's like, why are you telling me to prepare for things like fires? And you're not telling me to prepare for things like Y2K, like whatever, that's that's relatively reasonable. But then it's like in two more moves. He's like the Boy Scouts think I should be prepared. Why do you hate the Boy Scouts?


Right. It's like when did you stop beating your wife? Yeah.


I'm also I wonder about, you know, with conspiracy theories how much of the work is being done with this kind of emotional hopscotch that happens inside of the person consuming this media or listening to the speech or whatever it's called, the dog whistle for a reason. You can present a phrase or an idea that put someone in an emotional state where about it, like it doesn't really matter what you say because you've got them kind of nicely whipped up. Yeah.


Yeah. And like at that stage in the emotional recipe, it's like, well, you've got whip now, like time to make meringue. Like it doesn't really matter what kind of argument you then present to someone because you they reached this malleable state. Right. Once again, it's very emotionally based exist. I'm emotionally saturated. Right.


Thinking this is the classic move. Right. Is that all of a sudden you're whipping up anger about like these people won't even let me be in the Boy Scouts or whatever, which isn't true.


But it's like you're fomenting all this this completely meaningless anger when it's really it's like, well, all they're saying is that it might not be super prudent for you to stockpile food, but also it's not illegal to stockpile food. Like if you want to go to the store.


Right. Like no one cares what you're the one really cares.


But it's like to get people into this emotional state where you can sell them things and you can convince them of things. You have to get them on this much larger distrust of society and distrust of the media and distrust of the government. I feel like there were a lot of boyscout related controversies in the 90s, like, oh my God, yeah, we spent a lot of time on that. We should do an episode about the Boy Scouts.


Yeah. Also, there was a do you want to guess who the person remember, this is the late 1990s. Do you want to guess?


Jesse Ventura?


Kloth Do you want to guess who was selling a videotape for 28 dollars, a Christian's guide to the Millennium Book?


Was it Jim Baker? No. Jerry Falwell close. Oh, OK.


Do you know how much 28 dollars was in 1999? That's so much money for a video.


It was probably a Star Wars VHS set at Costco. Yes. Yes. You could have gone to or in back, but instead you got Jerry Falwell Yellingbo. And also I love how Christian media goes for these cash grabs of like a Christian guide. Yes. Something it's impossible to do in a Christian way.


Honestly, this isn't explicitly branded as Christian, but there's also a book called Y2K for Women How to Protect Your Home and Family in the Coming Crisis.


Oh, is it about how you have to keep putting out sexually even after all the optronics start rampaging for and and so I couldn't get the text of this, but I did find it on Amazon.


And all the reviews are five stars except for one one star review from a guy named Jim. This is written by a woman called Karen Anderson. So Jim says, I worked for a large utility on the West Coast for Y2K. And one of my jobs was to answer the questions of people about the power systems and Y2K.


Karen and her band of ardent followers drove us nuts with questions about things that couldn't possibly happen because none of them had any understanding of how power systems worked. They also accused us of lying and being part of a vast conspiracy that still exists in their minds as part of a general anti-government sentiment.


You can go into any specifics. No, on that. Oh my. I wanted to hear more from Jim. What have you been through, Jim? Jim, we're waiting.


This was a time of, like, genuine grift bonanza when grift bonanza.


Yeah, I get I'll be. One of the things I love is Jerry Falwell and these other Christian right. People started coming up with this idea. There's, you know, of course, there's the divine rapture, which we all know is coming.


But then there's also something that they brand it as the civil rupture, which is like how governments are going to collapse.


OK, of course. I mean, why not have similar sounding words? So that makes sense. It's very good.


There are also a lot of really good scams. There was a guy in the UK who was selling people CD-ROMs that he said would make your computer Y2K compliant and people checked them later.


And apparently they literally did nothing like the only thing they did was just like make a window come up. They're like bleep bleep bleep. It's compliant.


I bet people got genuine peace of mind from a bleep bloops. There were also phone scams where people would call up and say, hi there, I'm calling from your bank. We're checking to see if all the cards are Y2K compliant.


So if you could just read me your credit card number, then I can tell you whether it's compliant or not.


We'll send you a sticker to put on your card. We're like five seven.


It's like, no, it's OK, sweetie.


2000 people would call people up and pretend to be banks and say, like we're the only ones that have a vault that is like Y2K compliant vault. So like we want you to move all your money to our bank.


So, like, you just transfer your money to some random account. Wow. My favorite one is the Australian version of the CCC. They set up a millennium bug insurance company, like as an April Fool's joke, literally, they're like, we're setting up a millennium bug insurance company, come get Millennium Bug insurance to like, demonstrate how gullible people were like to troll the entire Australian population. And people deposited four million dollars like you.


People are offered offered to deposit four million dollars and then they funded an indie movie.


Hmm. So before we get into what actually happened on January 1st, 2000, I think it's worth dwelling on, like why this became such a big deal. You know, there's other threats out there.


I just like super volcanoes and earthquakes in Seattle.


Like, why did we focus on this as like the threat that we're going to spend billions of dollars facing? So one researcher who works on this named Lisa Volks.


Her theory is that basically after the Cold War, we had like a apocalypse deficit, like we didn't have nuclear war anymore. So we kind of needed something because there was this vacuum.


Right? Everyone spent the 90s Kerslake waiting for the other shoe to drop and dying ever greater sizes of Kalki.


There was also I actually think this is a really important reason why it was bipartisan and a really important reason why it got to the size that it did is that fixing Y2K for ninety nine point nine percent of people didn't require any trade offs.


Right. You know, climate change means like maybe you don't drive to work anymore. Like maybe you have to take the bus or like maybe your taxes go. Up for Y2K, it was literally just like tech companies have to spend more money and like the government will give you no small business loans are printing more money, but like, you don't have to do anything.


It was kind of like that thing you remember as a kid how you would collect the tabs from soda cans. Oh, yeah. And there'd be places where you could deposit them or even like mail them in somewhere. And they were supposed to, like, get people kidneys.


I don't know. I've I haven't researched it. I'm curious about the actual ratio of soda can Tab's to kidneys if there was one.


But it was something that it made sense for people to do because it feels good and it doesn't harm you. You're not like, oh, I had a plan for that. So to get tab.


And also it was this was the middle of the dotcom bubble. So there were billions of dollars flowing into the tech sector.


Right. And all that pets' dot com. Yeah, but so, I mean, people were working their asses off to fix this. But I mean, politics is basically the art of deciding who will feel pain. Right. Like how much should be affected in a crisis. Like should we be renters or should it be landlords, should it be workers or should it be owners?


Like should it be people who are accustomed to feeling pain and feel it all the time and know it as a way of life? Exactly. That the other people who aren't used to it will go out. I don't know.


It just sort of it's like it's the last gasp of like bipartisan cross governmental togetherness. But it's also kind of a gimme and that it's not bipartisanship for something hard. It's bipartisanship for something extremely easy. Right.


It's like we are coming together as a nation to do routine maintenance because we have to.


So now we get to December 31st, 1999.


I'm 11 years old. I'm super excited. You remember you did that name? Yes, I remember. My parents lived in Hawaii. So I remember being at the beach that night and I remember a couple having what looked from a distance to be like a romantic moment. And I remember screaming, it's the new millennium, a moment of midnight. And I imagine ruining that moment that I don't know what I was excited about or why it was exciting.


It just was like really big. Yeah.


It was like one of the times one of the last times maybe of optimism about the future. Right. Because we were like entering this new technological golden age and Y2K was like the first example of maybe this golden age isn't as golden, like there's going to be some little blips along the way.


But there was this sense of huge possibility.


Oh, yeah, there is this very retro futuristic feel about it. Yeah. And by retro futuristic, I mean the kind of look and feel of like Tomorrowland. Yeah. I have an attachment to the kind of nuclear age utopian ideas about technology and what it can do of the sixties where like the atom was going to take us into this clean, amazing power that was going to allow us to live like the Jetsons. And I feel like the year 2000 felt a little bit like that, too, because it was like this idea that we had.


I think that technology would make humanity better. Yeah, just the absolute candy colored optimism of the sixties. It feels to me like it's based on that kind of a belief. And now it feels like, yeah, the T-Rex has stomped out of the paddock and eaten enough children that I. I certainly don't feel that way.


Well, one thing I think is so striking about these big technological leaps forward is that every single time we tell ourselves that they're going to be uncomplicated.


Lee Good. Yeah. And like, it never happens.


It never happens. Like when TV's first came into homes, they thought that would be this era of mass literacy because you could be an education into people's homes directly. And like all kids won't even need school anymore.


People will sit at home and watch Shakespeare. And that's why old TV is like incredibly boring because it's like Alcoa Playhouse presents a man for all seasons.


That's OK. So I'm going to send you a clip from the BBC on the night of their first year and see the little blips of problems.


I'm excited that are showing up in other time zones. Here's this.


OK, OK. Twenty five. Thirty five minutes from now, we'll know what's happening in this country, what's happened over all the rest of those bugs. We're going to crawl all over our computers and make the planes fly the sky. Are they doing it or not? Well, let's look at our bug watch map. Yeah, it is. And the big threat really seems to be in Japan.


Nothing much has happened in Southeast Asia. When you get to Japan, the bug seems to have struck, possibly struck in two places during all the serious incidents of Ishikawa and Onagawa, both of them nuclear power plants at Ishikawa. And the radiation monitoring system has failed just outside the actual nuclear reactor itself. That happened at midnight. It hasn't been put right. They don't know whether it's related at the Onagawa power station, Alamsyah. After midnight, but they seem to put that right.


Also in Japan, 38 earthquake seismic sensors seem to have failed since midnight. Again, they can't be sure whether that is fog related or not.


OK, that was stressful to listen to. Right. Because he's like a nuclear power plant in Japan is having some problems as it related to the Y2K bug. We have no idea. Yeah, but we're just going to keep talking about it real fast.


I think it's a youthful clip because it shows that, first of all, there were actually like a lot more glitches than we know about. Like this was not a complete nothing burger.


But what's really interesting is that he's describing a bunch of glitches that seem like, oh, my God, there's this like avalanche of glitches happening in like nuclear reactors, like it's so bad. But then also he's also describing things like the monitoring system has gone down.


Right? It's he's like 38 earthquake sensors. Right. So what we get on midnight of January 1st, 2000 is a relatively sizable number of these kinds of glitches, but no glitches that are like really consequential.


There's a Senate report that's published in February of 2000 that lists maybe 100 of these things, like all the glitches that they could confirm.


And so here I'm going to read you a couple of these hundreds of Knoxville utility board bills were printed with incorrect payment due dates, either in January 1900 or January 2099, a power outage in Carson City, Nevada, for 30 minutes. That's the only power outage we know of. Really?


Yeah, well, Medicare payments were delayed one day because of a Y2K problem with the electric fund transfer through a bank that handles the transactions. Nine one one systems broke down in North Carolina. Long distance phone service was out in parts of central Montana for about three hours.


Godiva chocolate experience, total systems failure, including cash registers in his New York store. But they were back in operation within three hours.


This is like weirdly soothing to listen to because it's just like a nice list of, like, consequence list problem. Exactly. Yes. Like Godiva couldn't run their cash registers for three hours. And you're like, oh, that's nice that the news is about people being inconvenienced.


There's for whatever reason, a lot of the ones that they mention in the Senate report are about slot machines.


Yeah, it's just nice to have this national epidemic of, like, very minor problems.


So there's only one, like, real problem that's like actually extremely tragic. And so let's do it now because it's bad.


OK, so the actual worst one that we know of is in the UK, the NHS sent out 154 false positive test results to pregnant women, telling them that their children had Down syndrome.


Oh, my God. And two women terminated the pregnancy as a result before they figured out that it was a Y2K UK based error. That's horrible.


That's terrible. That's the only one we know of that is like tragically awful.


BASHMILAH Interestingly, and I think this is really important, three of the glitches that they mention in the Senate report about Y2K preparedness are caused by Y2K preparedness, not by Y2K itself.


And what are those? So the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., replaced all of its software and all of their budget reports basically got like wiped.


The government listings in the Milwaukee White Pages were, quote, so riddled with errors that the publisher has agreed to reprint that section and hand deliver it for free to consumers next month. The company updated its software last year to make it Y2K compliant, but the software had bugs and introduced errors into the system.


They also this is really weird.


Do you remember Lamonts? No, it was like it was like a whatever Nordstrom, Macy's, like any other department store. It was in the Pacific is only in the Pacific Northwest.


They went bankrupt in 2000. And the Senate report blames their bankruptcy on Y2K because apparently they spent 10 million dollars installing new computerized registers to get ready for Y2K.


And that was one of the things that contributed to their bankruptcy.


But also, like if you're a giant department store with 38 stores and you go bankrupt, I don't think it's like your new cash registers, son. Like, I don't think that's it.


I don't know how it ended up in the Senate report, but maybe it sells your wounded pride.


But I think it's those two categories of glitches I think are important, because whenever there's a problem that you're preparing for, there's always the possibility that fixing the problem will cause more damage than the problem itself.


And so this one Senate report, which is called Y2K, a crisis averted, is essentially the only assessment that we've ever had of whether this one hundred billion dollars that the U.S. spent getting ready for Y2K was worth it.


There's never been an independent in. There's never been a task force, basically, as soon as it happened, nobody wanted to look back for it, partly because this whole idea that it was a hoax, that it was bullshit all along, we didn't have to do anything about it.


This understanding was already forming.


I mean, I remember feeling like, oh, I really thought that, like something when you told, like, I always thought the power would go out.


I mean, this is you know, since this happened, we've basically been locked in this debate of was it a nothing burger to begin with?


Could we have done nothing or did we fix it, like in the same way we're having this debate now of like, well, are the not that bad effects the result of our preparation or are they evidence that we never needed to prepare in the first place?


Right. And so the rest of this episode is basically walking through the arguments, because I think, like I mentioned at the beginning, like both arguments have merit, but both arguments are also, I think, kind of wrong.


As always, it is truth and falsehood. Bridge mix.


Yes. OK, to walk through the argument that it was a hoax.


To me, the closest thing to a compelling argument is that there's essentially only four countries that made any significant effort to solve it America, the UK, Canada and Australia. There was a survey in 1999 that in Italy, only 15 percent of the population had even heard of the Y2K bug.


So like Germany, Italy, Japan, there was no government efforts. There was no funding. There was no like stimulus money for this. It was just full on, like we're just going to wait for it to happen. And then if there's any glitches, we're going to fix them.


The counterargument to that is always that, like, well, Germany and Italy are like not advanced as the U.S. So like the U.S. had to do way more of this preparation because we're the center of tech.


We're the center of the tech boom. For whatever reason. America also has more of this COBOL coding language because it was mandatory to use it by the military and for government contracts for a really long time. So for whatever reason, we have like a higher density of this programming language. So that does necessitate more efforts in America.


But then to me, that doesn't explain why, like the UK put a billion pounds into fixing this and Germany put zero pounds into fixing this, and they both essentially had the same number of errors on January 2000.


So like even if America is like uniquely poorly positioned for this problem, that's not really an argument that the UK was uniquely poorly positioned to. There's also the argument that, you know, the kinds of glitches that happened on Y2K, those glitches happen all the time. You know, things like the nine one one system going out, like that's literally something that happens every day in America. Like some states, some cities, nine one one system goes down and then gets brought back up again.


These casinos where these slot machines turned off and turned back on again.


They all say they're like, yeah, this happens like once a month when Dave tripped over the cord, if I can, Dave, my favorite one is that in twenty nineteen relatively recently, a raccoon caused a power outage for 10000 people in Ohio because it got into one of the circuit breakers and chewed through one of the wires.


It was the raccoon, OK? It might not have been great for the raccoon.


I don't know. At any given time, one percent to two percent of the ATMs in the country are out of order. Right.


Little things always go wrong in America where there are even more little things at this moment than there are normally or was, I guess, that were looking for little things.


And I think I mean, the Senate had a reason to spin this as a crisis averted because they spent nine million dollars on it.


No one wants to put out a report afterwards. It's like we really fucked up here, guys, and like Germany did nothing. Right. This is my theory for why they included the fucking Lamonts bankruptcy in the Y2K glitches, like they just wanted any glitches they could find. Yeah. So that's basically like the the it was a nothing burger that we could have done nothing about. That's like the argument for it is basically comparing us to other countries and saying, like the kinds of glitches that it caused, like we could have just waited for the glitches to happen and fix them, which is what Germany and other countries did.


They were just like, yeah, we're just going to wait. And if something happens, like we'll just turn off and on our slot machines.


And then that argument is like more or less persuasive, I think, based on what is the potential financial and human cost to waiting for things to go wrong and then dealing with it then. And how much can we estimate that? And yeah, to the extent that we can grasp it, how much does it compare to the difficulty of what we would have to do to prepare in advance? Exactly.


Like you don't want to wait. Like if there's a chance of like an airplane falling out of the sky, you can't be like we're going away. Like, there's clearly there's some disasters that you can wait for and there's some that you can't.


But so now we're going to do the argument for. No, it was something that was real and we came together and solved it. And so I think the first and the biggest argument for this is just like talk to anyone who worked in it in the late 1990s and like they will tell you, like we worked our asses off. We worked overtime, the code was Janki as fuck, all these systems needed to be modernized anyway. Oh, this is interesting.


So is it like everything was kind of like hanging by a thread in a lot of significant ways that the only way to motivate to update the nation's technological infrastructure was to generate support for this big push? Yeah, around this one specific thing that people could get really worried about, I mean, that makes sense.


I feel like the only way to get people to execute routine maintenance work is to scare the shit out of them about to go wrong.


At the time, a lot of companies had sort of sleepwalked into having some technology associated with their business. One of the articles that I read talks about how very few companies, even large companies, had chief information officers at the time, like someone really high level in the company who's like, I'm in charge of all of our technology. And so what Y2K did was it made CEOs who were like, you know, dads in sneakers, who didn't really know that much about technology, it made them all of a sudden be like, wait a minute, I'm kind of running a tech company.


Whoever was running Amtrak at the time had to be like, hang on a minute. Our trains could shut down at any time because of, like, weird software shit. So, like, I need to take this stuff seriously.


Well, I feel like it's great that there can have been a phenomenon that forced people to embrace the complexity of the technology that they were trying to use to generate profit. And you treat that with some respect and the vulnerabilities that they had to.


Yeah, Y2K really pushed companies to do was to start testing banks started doing like financial forecasting into the future. And we're like, OK, well, let's do something from like 1995 to 2005 and see what the computers do.


And the computers are like, no. And then you have to think we can't be running on this like jalopy asshole anymore. It's such a cute computer voice.


That was my computer voice.


And they were like, oh, she's suffering.




And so one of the things that one of these researchers points out is that in the 1980s, British grocery stores were noticing that the barcodes of some items wouldn't scan.


And it turned out that they had expiration dates. They were in 2000. You know, some some products, you know, have like an expiration date, like 10 years in the future.


And they'll be like blup and they won't blup. But actually, they were catching those things and fixing them long before the public ever found out about.


OK, so wait, I want to try and anticipate a twist.


Does it seem as if Germany has done nothing to prevent Y2K because they just finished their work early and are sitting quietly under a tree and reading in December nineteen ninety nine?


That would be very Germany of them. That's like half the answer, but we will get there.


OK, so one of the this researcher that I interviewed, Dylan Moore, then also pointed out to me, this is fascinating, that four years, one of the most vexing problems in like banking I.T. was fucking leap years that like try explaining to a computer that like once every four years we have this extra day in less. It's a century year, in which case we don't have the extra day unless it's a century day every 400 years. And then we do have it.


And the computer is like, why did you bring me into your illogical world? Exactly. And so famously, the year 2000 was a leap year. It shouldn't have been because it's a century year, but then it should have been because it's a once every four hundred century year, because the year sixteen hundred was leap year.




So like these kinds of problems, especially in financial institutions, like, you know, your entire bank account gets wiped out overnight.


These kinds of problems were being noticed and being fixed by bank IT people long before the rest of the country was figuring out about this stuff.


So, you know, saying it was this big nothing burger erases all this labor by it, people who were like punk.


We were working on this long before you read that fucking article in 1993. We've known about this. It's a thing.


So a story about what happens if you actually try it turns into a story about how trying is pointless and it's for nerds, it's not good.


I also find this pretty convincing that like a lot of companies that were testing their systems and finding like massive glitches, it's not like they're going to tell the public about that.


Right. Like if you're American Airlines and you're like, oh, yeah, we tested something and like all of our planes were going to fall out of the sky, just want to let you know. Right.


Like we're relying on companies to do their own disclosure of what could have happened. Yes, you chuckleheads would have been up the creek without a paddle if O'Brien here had anchored that line of code.


Well, I mean, I still find it pretty compelling that some countries spent zero dollars and some countries spent many dollars and that they both had effectively the same number of glitches. So I think when it people talk about like, you know, look, we worked our asses off doing overtime fix. These bugs, I think you could also look at that and say, like, well, a lot of those banks, a lot of those tech companies, a lot of those airlines would have done that anyway.


I mean, banks have an incentive for their customers accounts not to go to zero dollars like airlines have an incentive for the planes not to fall out of the sky. I find it pretty convincing that, like, they might have just solve those problems on their own.


And we could have spent nine billion dollars, like fighting against like the enduring poverty glitch or like other societal glitches that we spend a of our effort on.


It's interesting to have a story where it seems like the government over responded. That is a war. I know. And also that work is a constant in our lives. Like just systems need to be worked on in order to run. And the fact that we can't see with our own eyes where that work went exactly doesn't mean that it went nowhere. Yeah.


And so this brings us to our final twist. This is basically the answer to the question, why did only four countries fuck with Y2K? Why these four countries? So when I tell you the countries again, tell me if anything stands out to you as being in common. America, the UK, Canada and Australia, they're English speaking countries.


Yes. And I presume that that might have an effect on how we are writing dates.


Oh, close. OK, but all right. They also have English legal systems.


So one of the things that's common across all of those countries is that they're really big into legal liability and using lawsuits to fix social problems.


So one of the major memory hold aspects of Y2K was how fucking terrified corporate America was of getting sued.


So there were articles coming out in 1999. I found a really interesting projection that said if Y2K ends up being a problem, corporate America is going to spend one trillion dollars and one decade in litigation over Y2K claims.


And they're like, all right, let's update some infrastructure. As early as 1997, companies were starting to sue each other. A produce store sued the manufacturer of their cash register, saying, if we just paid 2500 bucks for cash register, we know from the millennium bug that it's going to be useless in three years. So fuck you, we want our money back and Quicken, you know, Quicken books, whatever that budgeting software, cookbook's cookbooks.


Yeah, they had six pending class action lawsuits against them by 1998. Wow.


Because people were saying, well, all of my budget data is going to get lost if this goes down.


And also, like, it's a it's a nice thing to drag CEOs in front of a Senate questioning or write like you can just see it in your mind just because, you know, they would have to be some kind of a big business whipping boy to task for all this. And it could be you. Right.


And this is actually the only aspect of Y2K that was that was partisan because Republicans wanted to pass a law saying let's protect companies from their own customers.


If something bad happens, let's make sure they don't have to pay out anything in damages.


And Democrats who are pretty captured by the trial lawyer lobby wanted to make it easy for people to sue. And so they actually ended up passing a law that limited liability for companies but didn't limit it like all the way. So there was some red meat in there for lawyers and there was some red meat in there for companies.


This is a very meaty episode. Are you hungry? I'm hungry.


And so, as we know from sexual harassment lawsuits, as a corporation, you don't have to actually prevent something from happening. You have to show the court that you try.


So if you are American Airlines, if your planes crash, if a thousand people die, if you get sued, what you can then say to the court afterwards is say, well, we shouldn't pay any damages because we spent 60 million dollars updating our systems.


We sat on the task force with the White House. Look how much we did. And so the company's in a place like Germany or France or Italy that don't have they don't use liability to solve corporate problems the way that we do. They use regulation. The companies there could have just quietly updated their systems because they didn't have to say anything about it.


They have to put off all these lawsuits because they weren't in a relationship with their government the way that children are with their parents. So I like I. We are now. Exactly, I mean, this is in the very bones of America like Ben Franklin and his autobiography has an anecdote that I love about her. When he was running his printing press, he would then deliver, you know, his pamphlets and things by hand. So he knew that people would look at him and go, there goes Ben Franklin pushing his barrow around that hard working man.


Yes, doing it all by himself. And it's like you can't see the workers that are in the shop. That's the point. Yes.


And so this was the calculation that companies in these four English speaking common law countries made banks in Japan might have been having these problems, too.


And they were just like, you know, we just quietly fix them. Like we quietly fix stuff all the time because we're not going to be fighting off lawsuits because like, we have a real government like, oh, kind of Aflex, Japan.




I would say that what we can learn from this is that as Americans, we are more likely to do things that we already need to be doing if there is some kind of urgent reason involving our own safety or comfort. Yeah, we appear also to be inclined, after having done that, to say, well, that was a lot of work, not enough bad stuff happened. I didn't like that. And that is perhaps an unhelpful right perspective to take away from a story from which you could alternatively take the lesson of it's good to update our system so that they are functional and we have to cook up a reason to compel us to do what we need to do anyway.


Then maybe that's OK. Yeah, I feel like this is a great example of the sort of gap between logic and emotion for a lot of us as humans where like we can figure it out intellectually that like if our systems are more functional than that, averts the kinds of tragedies that do move us to take action. Yeah. And yet it's harder to accept that as a reality of like right now.


Chicka bow. Wow. Like, I'm so excited about strengthening our filing systems efficiency.


Like it's it's hard to really this is why Virgos are so important.


Is that another bug.


How you mean to feature it is a regular feature.


So that's it. This is, this is, this is the story of Y2K.


This is why it's we should all stop using it as a proxy indicator for whatever we're actually arguing about on the Internet.


There are some arguments that you can't settle over Twitter. So sorry. Are there Sarah, are there I know this is like news to you.


I also like when I went to call you to start this show.


Oh, I know. I know. I didn't pick up. I was like, that's weird. And then I looked on Twitter like, oh, he's tweeting about Corbitt.


I was fighting with somebody about Jeremy Corbyn. I know doing the show with you is such a better use of my time. I'm sorry.


I was very I was like, that's that's my guy. You were seeing me in my natural habitat. That's what it is. You're like looking inside the aquarium. You're like, oh, Mike's doing what he does. Yeah. Like when you go see the iguana units, little bugs, they're like, I don't like bugs about iguana like, but I don't like having Twitter comments about British politics. But it's essential to that mix mineral needs.