Ever since the fall of 1997, when I first launched my year 2000 Web site, I've been obnoxiously preaching that Y2K would become the biggest money-making hoax in the 20th century. This dubious title may have some other contenders from the century past, but Y2K certainly was the biggest overblown disaster dud in a very long time.
It was so exciting to watch everyone these past few years. Now that it's over and Y2K fizzled out, I am sad. I feel as if I've lost a loud and flamboyant yet slightly deranged friend who has silently passed on. Along with billions of Canadian dollars.
The millennium bug -- which was neither a real bug nor connected to the real millennium -- started out as a million-dollar issue and escalated into a multibillion-dollar industry. The basic premise of Y2K was true: The date fields of all important computer programs and applications had to be checked to see if they recognized the year 00, the leap day of 29/02/00, and myriad other dates.
To check a system or application for Y2K compliancy was mind-numbingly dull. Computer programmers spend their time creating wonderful new applications out of mere ideas in their heads; for them to be pulled off their cutting-edge projects to go through old code to look for date fields was an assignment that most tried, and failed, to avoid. But instead of remaining a mere date-field issue, Y2K somehow morphed into being synonymous with any and every type of computer failure and all associated fears.
In fact, few systems actually depend on the calendar year, including some of those that were the source of so much hysteria, such as hydro and air-traffic control. And some of us realized that even in those that did, the most likely result of Y2K glitches would be irritating disruptions rather than wide-scale shutdown.
According to John Gantz -- chief research officer at highly regarded U.S. analyst International Data Corp. -- Canada spent more than $15-billion ($10-billion U.S.) in the past three years on the problem. That's a third more, as a percentage of technology spending, than even the Y2K-frenzied United States. "Basically we've overspent," said Mr. Gantz. "We paid a price, I think, for the hype."
Mr. Gantz pointed out that laid-back Italy spent far less on Y2K expenses than Canada and has an economy twice the size. While there will likely still be some costs due to Y2K glitches -- shutdowns, lost productivity and other screwups -- Italy would not have benefited more by spending more. "Italy got it about right," Mr. Gantz said. If Canada had done nothing, he added, we would have lost an estimated $8.6-billion (Canadian) -- which is less than we spent.
Some of expenditure was necessary. But not establishing Y2K command centres, contingency plans, government tax writeoffs for new computers, and other Y2K spin-off industries, including checking VCRs and microwaves and other electronic systems that could not possibly be effected by the problem -- this sent our total bill into orbit.
Most Canadian firms would have been better off fixing only critical systems and then waiting for bugs to crop up and dealing with them at the time. Computers break down daily anyway, and we quickly deal with these aggravations on an individual basis.
Since the date roll-over, there have been sporadic reports of Y2K problems around the world. More are expected. But most have already been fixed within hours at relatively little cost.
I created my Web site, The Year 2000 Computer Bug Hoax ( http://www.justanumber.com), as my way of congratulating the computer consultants and bandwagon jumpers involved in this elaborate scam. I naively assumed only friends and a few colleagues would comment on my site. I was unprepared for the daily onslaught of E-mail from all over the world that suddenly started and continued non-stop over the years. I've received more than 4,000 messages and more than 100,000 visitors. (I was concerned when the site was about to have its 100,000th because I had only set up the hit counter for five digits. Thank goodness the program automatically went to six.)
As a mild-mannered Internet geek, I was shocked when I received E-mails with such blunt messages as "If you are wrong and mislead one person from taking action to provide for their survival, may God have mercy on your miserable soul," and "Do you believe in a God or do you believe that we come from monkeys or what?" Then there were ones that made me smile: "Your sarcasm, refined sense of humour, and profound disrespect for the craze deserves the Nobel Prize." I've posted snippets of a few hundred of the thousands of E-mails and have frozen my site -- as of Dec. 31, 1999 -- as a permanent document of how we acted and reacted to the Y2K threat in the final days of the 20th century.
In the end, the panic had nothing to do with the flip from 99 to 00. It was about our culture's fear and dependence on electric computers made out of plastic, glass and metal. As you read this, there are the same amount of computer failures today as there were on Dec. 31, and as there are on any given day, pre- or post-Y2K. It simply symbolized our distrust of computers.
Even after the "crisis" fizzled to nothing shortly after Jan. 1, 2000, the hucksters still won. They announced that everything turned out fine and total destruction was avoided all because of their work. They accepted our thanks and walked away with smiles on their faces and money in the bank. (Actually, some of them refuse to walk away and are busily creating post-2000 scenarios: Hire consultant X to maintain a vigilant check on your applications in 2000, 2001, 2002 . . .)
Now that Y2K is gone and I'm without a hobby, I feel empty. I'm anxious to wake up on Friday, May 5, 2000. This is the Day of the Great Planetary Alignment -- whereby Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon, and Earth will be in a straight line. Untold destruction will occur. All human civilization will be destroyed. The end is near. Trust me: I was dead right about Y2K. David-Robert Loblaw is a computer-systems analyst, Internet trainer, and director of justanumber.com in Edmonton.