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Despite the Hype, Y2K Mania Falls Flat

By Alan E. Wirzbicki

A year ago, it seemed like a sure bet.

December 31, 1999 would roll around and the world would be whipped up into such a millennial frenzy that anything would sell. Stores stocked up on survival supplies. Tour companies began arranging fantastically expensive tours to the Pacific for customers who want to see the first lights of the year 2000. Consumers reported widespread champagne hoarding. Rumor was that CNN was busy composing the mother of all theme jingles for their millennium coverage.

But surprisingly, with the big night a month away, America is calm. The millennial cults have been keeping to themselves. Maybe the warm and fuzzy Y2K reports the government has been issuing for the last few months are paying off. The epidemic of paranoia many anticipated would be breaking out about now just hasn't materialized.

Of course, Y2K still might cause a lot of problems in the world's computers. Especially in third-world nations and in former communist countries, Y2K preparedness is not good. While the United States government started debugging its computer systems years ago, other nations have barely started. A serious disaster on New Year's Day is still a real possibility.

But as a cultural event, the turn of the millennium is starting to look pretty anticlimactic. NBC's much-hyped "Y2K: The Movie" was a bomb. According to the Los Angeles Times last week, sales for millennium shows and galas have been "tepid." The paper reports that "many worry that what was initially looked at as a historic payday may end up as a bad investment covered in confetti." Celebration 2000, a lavish event to be held at the Javits Center in New York, was cancelled after no one bought tickets. Even singer/songwriter/poet Jewel canceled her hometown New Year's Eve concert in Anchorage after selling only 1,000 seats.

It 's possible the millennium is fizzing because everyone just realized this isn't really the end of the millennium. As any math nerd can eagerly tell you, there was no year zero, therefore the next century doesn't technically start until Jan. 1, 2001.

That doesn't seem likely. Although The New York Times newsroom is reportedly awash in hysterics over how to cover the millennium--whether or not the Gray Lady should give in to the poor math of the mob--no one else really cares. For most of us, those three zeroes are pretty convincing.

But not convincing enough that we're willing to buy Jewel tickets, or dig a fallout shelter, or buy a round trip to Tahiti. Bad math notwithstanding, Americans are remarkably blase about Y2K. "Sarah, Plain & Tall," whooped "Y2K: The Movie" before Thanksgiving. Millennium-themed advertisements are almost universally regarded as lame. And even as Y2K computer problems are beginning to surface--people in Philadelphia have been getting jury notices for service in February 1900--there's not much excitement over the impending milestone.

You can't blame Hollywood and the travel industry for banking on Y2K mania. As P.T. Barnum said, no one has lost money overestimating the stupidity of the American public (or something like that). Americans have a long and proud history of buying into such nonsense.

Reaction to the end of the millennium, though, is proving Barnum wrong. Barring a last-minute rush of millennial lunacy, all the riot plans locked deep in the vaults of America's cities will be for naught.

What does this say about us? Is the media suddenly pulling through with some Y2K common sense? Has the wisdom of our leaders preventing the forecasted hysteria? Or are Americans simply unable to handle two holiday buildups at once--and have opted for Christmas consumerism over New Year's millennialism? Maybe all the Y2K anxiety the nation's pundits have been expecting will be condensed into the week between Christmas and New Year's.

But probably not. The way it looks now, however many real computer problems Y2K causes the social delirium isn't going to happen. Buying stock in the local gas mask company seemed like a good idea a year ago. Every once in a while, though, depending on the stupidity of strangers isn't such a safe bet after all.

Alan E. Wirzbicki '01 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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