Sometimes I still can’t believe I had the good fortune of being alive between 11:59:59 PM on December 31, 1999 and 12:00:00 AM on January 1, 2000. Of all the times to exist! It felt momentous then, when I was 13, and it still does: a state of perfect rollover, the ultimate annual flux. A global caesura, a cusp between epochs. I’ve written here before1 about the strange gratitude that pervaded public life in the ’90s, when it was fashionable to recognize that civilization was enjoying a moment of exceptional prosperity—a moment that happened to fall at the end of a long and gory millennium. “I think this is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be alive,” Jack Kemp said in the ’96 vice-presidential debate. Time Bomb Y2K, a new documentary composed entirely of archival footage from those heady days, finds Jeff Bezos, then in his pre-overlord era, saying the same thing: “People are gonna look back and say, ‘Wow, the late 20th century was really a great time to be alive on this planet.’”
And it did feel that way—to me, at least, as a child of the ’90s in its expansive middle class. How historic it was to have made one’s home at the end of history, so halcyon that it was often marked by no news at all. A famous 1993 ad: “Pepsi is pleased to announce . . . nothing.” Rumor had it that Diet Pepsi cans had been tainted with syringes, bullets, crack vials, goo, but it turned out to be a hoax. The real news, the good news, was nothing, and the bounty that came with it. “Drink all the Diet Pepsi you want,” the ad said. “Uh Huh®.”
So being alive to greet The Year 2000 (it demanded that honorific) was my Pepsi-glutted birthright, the greatest possible version of chancing to look at the clock when it said 11:11. Uh Huh®. It was a hundred-year flood times ten: an event so rare that you could be anywhere when it happened, doing anything, and it still counted as living through history. All you had to do was coincide. To maximize their coincidence, some people spent New Year’s Eve ’99 astride the International Date Line, allowing them to experience history twice. Some paid $44,950 to board a jet for a transoceanic tour of midnights: with every hour, The Year 2000 arrived anew.
Suppose it didn’t come in peace. Suppose it augured the destruction of all that we held dear. Well, it would still come, and you would still greet it. With guns, gas masks, and hundreds of cans of Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli. From sandbagged doublewides, quonset huts, or a network of forty-two buried school buses outside Toronto. Even the appearance of preparation could be useful. In South Dakota, a patent lawyer and “practical prophet” took $1,000 deposits for homes in a new development called Heritage Farms 2000—“a town for people afraid of time,” one newspaper called it. When this fell through, he started another development, this time in Arizona, called Heritage West 2000. It would be next to a golf course because part of it was already a golf course. Here, he said, “the new Golden Age” would rise from the ashes of what had been society. He didn’t own the land yet, but he was confident that he would.
So The Year 2000 required you to pursue or flee from coincidence. Regardless of your feelings about The Year itself (just a number—about Jesus) there were the computers to think about. They were harder to ignore, being plugged in. To the grid. With the information. The computers were generating the coincidence, unless it was the other way around. “This new cyberculture,” as one commentator says in Time Bomb, is “not happening by accident. It’s the actual millennium itself making this happen. It’s like an energy. It’s like a magnet.”
I do kind of believe this. People wanted the internet to coincide with The Year 2000. The two were as perfectly mated as hardware and software. A flurry of development and commerce capitalized on this yearning, more or less fulfilling it. Microsoft’s Windows Me (Millennium Edition) suggested that the operating system and the individual were coevolved to thrive in the impending century. Hubristic, but probably not wrong. Sega released its Dreamcast console on 9/9/99 to harness that big countdown energy, the inevitability of the new zeroes, soldering numerology to technology. It was as if Nostradamus himself had foreseen Sonic Adventure.
The computers were smart—“IT KNOWS IT’S ALIVE,” a Dreamcast ad said—but not smart enough to understand The Year 2000. How could they? Humanity itself didn’t grasp it. The failstops and safety nets of modernity could not contain its unloosed biblical force. However it went down, it would seem really funny and stupid until it happened. People reckoned with the nightmare of interconnection, a popular Y2K word, for mere connection no longer sufficed: swaddled in crisscrossing cables, we saw now that the connections were connected. In Popular Mechanics, Tom Atlee, the research director of the Co-Intelligence Institute and a Y2K true believer, described the awareness that fell over him when his Amtrak train screeched to a halt in the middle of the desert:
We sat there for about seven hours. . . . The air conditioning went off and it began to get hot and stuffy in the cars. Supposedly for insurance purposes, we were not allowed to step off for fresh air. The train’s toilets began to back up and the air began to stink. Babies started crying and people started to get irritated with each other. I thought “Oh my gosh, this is what it is going to be like if things start to fall apart!” . . . The new computer-controlled engine had inexplicably put on its brakes and they had to await technology specialists to come debug it so we could continue. We finally got underway, but the delay had caused the crew to unexpectedly be on duty beyond their union-authorized hours and we ended up stalled in the Berkeley station for 20 minutes or more switching crews, with our long train blocking a main street, which stacked up with cars. Everything is interconnected!
We nurtured a collective paranoid delusion that was beautiful in its completeness, as the best and most florid delusions are. Who controlled the traffic signals? Modems were having encrypted conversations behind our backs. Your long-distance provider had your energy bill. Taiwan had your long-distance bill. Systems incorporated bigger systems, including satellites, the dial tone, FEMA. It was all in the Book of Revelation. The water supply was on-line and, later, online. Also ATMs. It went all the way to the top. There was the sense even among children that talking like this was a bit indulgent, superstitious—unless . . .
In Time Bomb Y2K, Brian Becker and Marley McDonald have built a dreamy, remarkably soothing montage of amorphous panic and misplaced hope. They bring across the millennial mood obliquely, in dribs and drabs of old TV, at a brisk eighty-four minutes. Their movie is alive with celebration and brimstone, with new-age synths, tribal beats, jungle, techno, electronica. Peter Jennings shows up a lot, looking pretty misty and trustworthy, in part because we know that he will soon die while Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw will live to get Twitter accounts. There are images of circuit boards, lasers. Nascent efforts at virtual reality with their naive, pixelated charm. Graphics. The word graphics. Glitches. The word glitches. Portentous televangelists and presidential video calls. There was a smorgasbord of Y2K on TV. It was a spectacle ready-made for network news coverage, one of the last hurrahs for a medium that would soon be decimated by computers—which is maybe why the news covered them with such fear.
The contours of the story are familiar. Programmers had engineered the demise of humankind. Back in the ’70s, sipping Tab or whatever, they’d taught the computers to remember years with two digits instead of four. To your average idiot computer—the one that controlled, say, your local nuclear reactor—The Year 2000 would look like 1900 or ERROR. Early programmers had done this to save money—computer memory was pricey—which made them sympathetic to Americans, who understood wanting to save money. The computers themselves were not sympathetic, though. They were going to fuck shit up and had to be reindoctrinated posthaste.
If it had been viable to set up internment camps for the computers, I believe the US would have done this. It might have consoled the uneasy public: An assembly line of machines, going in dumb and coming out smart, with an army of American knowledge workers doing the fixing. The next best thing was the Information Coordination Center, or ICC—a federally funded clearinghouse headed by John Koskinen, whom the Clinton administration had tapped as its Y2K Czar, or chairman of the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion. Koskinen, who would later lead the IRS, was thought to have the technocratic nous necessary to calm an anxious nation. He was bald and from Ohio. You weren’t going to do better than that. He appears often in Time Bomb, presiding over the intricacies of what became known as Y2K compliance—because some years wield such power that you must comply with them. You must convert.
Starting in September ’99, the ICC occupied an enormous former secret-service facility mere steps from the White House. Its backup generators ran on jet fuel. In this forty-million-dollar “crisis-management bunker,” Koskinen sat enclosed in a glass office, surrounded by two hundred staffers working twelve-hour shifts. They wore color-coded cardigans with a Y2K seal on the left breast. (Today these must be coveted, but I haven’t found one on eBay.) Senior officials in white. Experts in royal blue.
At the ICC, information—an abstraction even in the best of times—attained effervescent purity. Koskinen and his deputies talked about it as if it were the luminiferous aether. “We grouped the information flow according to the kind of places it will be coming from,” one of them said. “The intent of this is that there is one single point of contact.” Koskinen later recalled that
it was clear from the start that there was no place in the government with the capacity to absorb information from everywhere, in effect, all at one time. . . . To collect all that information, we’d need to have a new information center. . . . Our general operating philosophy was that we would collect, coordinate, and analyze the information, but that emergencies would be managed by the normal emergency centers.
And so the information came flooding in, and the ICC contained it. There were, of course, occasional slip-ups. CNN caught some ICC techs watching Apocalypse Now on the job. But Koskinen, unflappable, continued to generate hours of flavorless C-SPAN programming on “cyber-assurance.” Aided by “a small army of electronic sentinels,” he envisioned “the largest event-monitoring effort in the history of the federal government.”
Of course, if he did his job properly, there would be no event to monitor. And so it was. On January 1, 2000, the government, like Pepsi, was pleased to announce . . . nothing. Y2K became the final great nonevent of the ’90s, prompting accusations of boondoggling and wanton expenditure. The issue was that solving the problem looked identical to a scenario in which the problem had never existed. Had Koskinen smoothed himself out of credit for a job well done? No one knows how much it cost, exactly, but it was hundreds of billions of dollars. Y2K insiders said then, and still say, that the story belongs to the unsung IT professionals, that a lot of nerdly man-hours went into averting disaster. What did they do to forestall the apocalypse? The media never seemed to tell us, and Time Bomb Y2K wisely doesn’t try to explain. Maybe we didn’t want to know—maybe it was actually too boring. Something about coding, firewalls. Something about real-time clocks with lithium-ion batteries. Whatever it was, they donned their color-coded cardigans and took care of it. It cost billions to maintain the serene reign of nothing.
I feel at times that I still live in the never-ending 20th century, that I’m stuck here, that maybe everyone is stuck here, even people born too late to have seen it happen. True, there are smartphones now, and new types of ugly buildings. Images are sharper, even when you zoom in. You can tell that time has passed because unremarkable things like Sweetheart Jazz cups have acquired the status of fetish objects. But some part of the American mindset is still in 1999, which feels substantially closer to us now than 1979 did then. Interconnection, the internet of things, still haunts the global village. Video conferencing is still glitchy. Virtual reality is still new.
“It is a delicate balance,” said Janet Abrams, of the President’s Council on Y2K, “because, really, Y2K is as much about people as it is about computers.” And on some level the people clamored for disaster. A Chicago Tribune columnist swiped into his office on January 1 and found that “my keycard worked just fine. I would be lying if I said this was not a disappointment to me.” At the Berkeley Bowl were shoppers who “hoped that all computers would melt down, and we would somehow be transported back to a wonderland of pre-technology.” The survivalists, the terrorists, the Branch Davidians had all solemnly sworn that that would happen, that the end of history would come to resemble prehistory; the Oklahoma City Bomber’s favorite show was Little House on the Prairie. In late January, Donella Meadows, of the Sustainability Institute, wrote that her friends still spoke of “the coming crash”
with a strange combination of dread and excitement. That’s because their logistic critique of the system’s physical vulnerability is combined with a moral critique of its materialism, violence, wastefulness, pride, injustice, soullessness. Sodom and Gomorrah. Time for something to come along and smite this wickedness.
Maybe this is why the real heads were quick to remind you that the new millennium didn’t technically begin until next year. Maybe it was why the ICC remained in operation well into The Year 2000. In February, Koskinen reconvened the press to explain that we weren’t out of the woods just yet. This was a leap year, and on February 29, all the combustible material might at last catch fire. “Who says there are no second acts in life?” he joked. He was not giddy about this, because it was his job not to have emotions, but you could tell he kind of wanted the shit to hit the fan. We had to be patient. February 29 came and went without incident, but if we could just sit through the long Y2K hangover, through hanging chads and the ILOVEYOU virus, through the death of Napster, through Mission: Impossible II and Oops! . . . I Did It Again, we would come to a crisp autumn day in 2001 and a long-awaited vision of cataclysm.