"What do you know about Y2K?" I asked.
"That it was 10 years ago," he said.
His response embodied the attitude of people everywhere now; unless you're a computer programmer or a disappointed would-be prophet, the term "Y2K" doesn't mean much to you anymore.
A decade into the new millennium, everyone seems to have forgotten about the Y2K bug and the panic that ensued. The controversy surrounding it merits discussion, though, if only because the virulent public reaction to Y2K was nothing less than mass hysteria in action. University of Oregon sociology professor Chuck Hunt said, "Nobody even mentions it now...the silence that occurred within a month of Y2K was deafening."
Like many other recent blunders, we'd prefer to pretend that it never happened, or if we must face it, at least pretend that there was some logical basis for our actions.
In a way, the whole mess seemed reminiscent of those cheesy Cold War-era films demonstrating the duck-and-cover procedure in case of a nuclear weapons launch - the quintessential exercise in futility if Russia had actually pushed the big red button. Had we been thinking logically, we would have come to this conclusion and perhaps there would not be so many dusty cans of Spaghetti-os sitting on basement shelves right now.
Instead, we ended up with a glut of non-perishables, flashlights, gas masks, and many sheepish people who would never admit that they had their own little Y2K checklist at one point. Indeed, not much has changed in seventy years.
The panic during Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of the War of the Worlds could have been avoided had there been a few more interludes reminding listeners that what they were hearing was, in fact, fictional. Or maybe we should chalk it up to human nature and take responsibility for being a big group of Chicken Littles.
Ultimately, the question is one of accountability. Is it the fault of the media for not making the truth about Y2K more accessible, or is it the public's fault for panicking without knowing the facts?
Should the government have been more honest about the dangers, or should they have played it down more to avoid the manageable, but potentially volatile group anxiety of the hoarders?
Had something on par with Armageddon actually occurred, citizens would have been surprised and angry that this information was kept from them - many of the closed-door Y2K boards caused suspicion and fear in the media, not to mention the general public.
Then again, maybe we would have panicked anyway. Chuck Hunt and Eleen Baumann, another sociology professor at the University of Oregon, seem to agree that we live in a media-constructed, technology-dependent society.
"The media plays an important role in social construction," Professor Baumann said. "[We are] a media constructed culture." The media reaction to Y2K seemed deeply divided - some liberal commentators such as Helen Caldercott predicted doom, while other editorials scoffed at what Chuck Hunt referred to as, "balderdash."
Perhaps the media is to blame for the numerous misconceptions about Y2K, but swimming somewhere in the chaotic media feeding frenzy was fact. Professor Hunt said, "Post modern culture has an apocalyptic element to it, that there's this fear of collapse. Y2K was an example of that." Even if truth was a little harder to find, one would think a rational individual would be more willing to research the actual risks of Y2K instead of jumping to erroneous conclusions.
It's a normal practice to blame the government for putting a false light on a situation, but at least they tried to get the facts out about the bug. Great Britain distributed a pamphlet with facts about Y2K, and not long after, the United States followed suit with "Y2K and You." Unfortunately, it was too little too late - by then, the floodgates had burst and the orgy of stockpiling had already been in full force for months.
Meanwhile, economists warned that hoarding and withdrawal of funds from banks could create an economic crisis by straining the already-reduced budget. Professor Baumann said, "Once [Y2K became] legitimate [in the media], it was okay to put your own spin on the problem...the number of experts coming in to remedy Y2K just reinforced that there might be a problem." Professor Hunt added that we are just now beginning to see the repercussions of hoarding. "[There has been] a recent economic slump in technology because everyone stocked up on software four years ago," Hunt said.
The actual number of American citizens who actually admitted concern is almost surprising now. According to a pre-Y2K poll taken by Time/CNN, 58% of Americans were not concerned about the effects of Y2K, while 41% felt at least slightly anxious about the few weeks following the ball drop. A comparison to other nations could be helpful to gauge how much Americans over (or under) reacted to Y2K, but there is no conclusive evidence now that Americans reacted more or less severely than other nations. Professor Hunt said, "My inclination is that Second or Third World countries worried less because they are less technology-dependent, but I couldn't say for sure."
The increased awareness of the huge role technology plays in our daily lives has probably been the greatest post-Y2K insight. "I think people feel somewhat powerless about technology," Hunt said. "[People] have a great fear of the loss of control." Most people can use a computer, but the purple people-eating monster of progress is nothing more than the fear of the unknown for those of us who can do little more than click a mouse.
Within the last ten years before Y2K, use of the Internet went rapidly from some high-tech government tool to an everyday phenomenon without which most of us would feel lost.
Technology has grown exponentially, and so it's a little pathetic, (but not entirely shocking) that people who don't understand both the breadth AND the limits of technology would be frightened of the unknown effects - especially when there was a lot more emphasis on the latitude of technology rather than on its limits.
Placing blame is futile now, but the "Y2K bug" seemed a lot more like something created by extremists and religious fanatics than a physical phenomenon. "I think there is an element of reality to the apocalyptic thinking, but a tremendous amount gets out of hand," Hunt said.
It was the reaction to Y2K, and not the bug itself, that created the media circus of dark predictions and scoffing cynics. Doomsday predictions are often self-fulfilling; we just got lucky that we could trust our government and ourselves, at least enough to ensure the continuation of society as we understand it.
For now, we are safe from technology, but the Y2K panic should not be forgotten - it should be taken as a warning of our vulnerability to collapse. "One of the things that concerned me was because of technology's reach - whether technological society is sustainable in the long term," Professor Hunt said. Y2K was just a catalyst illustrating how ignorant we have become about the functions that take place behind the scenes in order to support our way of life.
Technology isn't just for nerds anymore; it's an inescapable phenomenon that will only become more complex and integral to the daily functions of society. The Y2K phenomenon didn't just remind us how ill-equipped we are to live out a technology-free existence, it revealed a severe dearth in the number of people who have more than a smattering of technological know-how. A greater number of average citizens need to be able to understand more about technology than point and click, or it is certain that Y2K (Y3K?) will happen again.Luckily, we have another 990 years to prepare.