Y2K, as seen on TV, as seen now

HBO recently released a documentary called Time Bomb Y2K. Several places—including IMDb—offer a short blurb about the film as such:

An immersive, all-archival retelling of the "Y2K" millennium bug and the mass hysteria that changed the fabric of modern society.

In some corners of the Internet, this summary caused the particular reaction that seems to have become common whenever the year 2000 problem is mentioned. Although the 1990s were in the ancient times of over 24 years ago, there are still people alive who were alive back then. Some of those people were also, at the time, involved in year 2000 problem mitigations. Some of those people take issue with framing of the problem as "mass hysteria", pointing out that the issue was actually real, and it was work like theirs that ensured the issue was addressed before it became a more serious problem.

Indeed, this seems to be the trajectory the year 2000 problem has taken in popular perceptions. Previously, people—either those who remembered that time, or those who learned about it later—often associated it with the prevalence of irrational fears of impending literal apocalypse. Recently, though, it is more common to see people vehemently arguing on the other end of the spectrum, and defending the position that the year 2000 problem was actually very serious

Blurb notwithstanding, the film actually does not attempt to make the point that the year 2000 problem was a lie. Nevertheless, the broader shifting of sentiment about the year 2000 problem, as manifested in the reaction to the film, does make sense if we consider how serious, global problems are talked about today. A useful way to approach the film, then, is with an eye on how the 1990s and the 2020s differ in how they deal with their problems.

The film

Directed by Marley McDonald and Brian Becker, and first shown at a film festival in early 2023, Time Bomb Y2K consists entirely of contemporary footage from the 1990s, with no extra narration. The film splices news reports, snippets of documentaries, assorted B-roll, less-professionally published tapes, and even home movies into a chronological narrative.

The film starts in the mid-1990s, and moves forward from there, with larger portions of the film devoted to the times closer to the year 2000. It tries to convey the general mood of the times, or at least the general mood of the times as seen on American television. It also includes some coverage of more fringe elements of society, and their reaction to the year 2000 problem and its possible consequences. At the end, we find out that (spoiler alert) civilization did not end on January 1st, 2000, and get to watch the people of the year 2000 express their relief and joy.

At times, the film is cheeky, referencing our current times in the same way that a prequel from a popular franchise may reference later canon. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Osama bin Laden show up at various points. At one point, someone mentions an example of a car that may refuse to start after the year 2000, because it believes it has not been serviced for a hundred years, which seems directed at the people of 2023 and their cars that refuse to start due to a failed over-the-air software update.

A 1990s crisis from the 2024 perspective

For inhabitants of 2024 who are looking back at the year 2000 problem, the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis both come to mind. All three are examples of global problems, which require considerable efforts to address. All three are things that people could have been better prepared for earlier on.

It is these comparisons that are likely why current day discussions of the year 2000 problem often involve strong condemnations of seeing the problem as exaggerated. The hypothetical individual who is the target of condemnation here is one who believes that the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are also exaggerated problems, and the efforts already spent on them were excessive. This individual would then presumably point at the year 2000 problem as another example of something that generated more concern than it should have—a mass hysteria, if you will.

It is true that the year 2000 problem could have been addressed earlier. Even before the 1990s, people were aware of the fact that the year 2000 may happen in the future, and that some of their computer systems were incapable of handling it properly. Eventually, though, enough awareness of the problem was raised in the mainstream, and successful mitigations were applied, which is something many wish would happen with problems of today. There are, however, some fundamental differences between then and now.

Information in the 1990s

One difference between the 2020s and the 1990s that Time Bomb Y2K highlights is in how people interacted with news, and information in general.

A point that frequently comes up in news reports and interviews shown in the film is that the looming problem may affect even those who do not own a computer. This made things more scary for people of the 1990s, but to the people of 2020s, it also serves as a reminder that back then, it was less common for people to get their news through a computer.

From the vox pop interviews included in the film, one gets the impression that people mostly had only a vague idea of what the year 2000 problem was, how it would affect them, and what was being done to fix it. These people have the idea that someone, somewhere is doing something to fix it, but they do not know the details, and they do not know how well that is going.

This sort of mass anxiety stands in contrast with the modern day. In the 2020s, people are far more confident in expressing opinions and providing explanations about what is happening, regardless of whether those are based in fact or not. It may be tempting to think that misinformation in the 1990s spread the same way it spreads now, but it could not have, and so things worked differently.

The fringes and their realities

The film also covers the more fringe responses to the impending year 2000. These range from the more ordinary individualist preppers, to right wing militias, and apocalyptic religious movements.

Some people shown take reasonable precautions, ensuring they have enough supplies to survive a possible disaster, in concert with their community. Some take a more extreme approach, stockpiling a remote residence in the mountains with food and guns for the coming societal breakdown. Some quit their jobs and take up homesteading, since the whole civilization thing is going to end anyway.

There are also religious leaders who preach about the coming apocalypse, connecting the end of the world predictions associated with the year 2000 problem with more traditional apocalyptic prophesies. Depicted, too, are right-wing militias, who believe that the year 2000 will usher both a societal collapse, and prompt the federal government of the United States to seize dictatorial levels of control over the nation.

Right-wingers with a fondness for AR-15s and conspiracy theories regarding a coming New World Order are also a familiar feature of 2024. Their modern-day iteration is, however, more frequently associated with denialism. A modern day right-wing militia may believe that efforts to combat the climate crisis are a plot to gain power (by whatever group the militia is bigoted against), but they will also believe that the climate crisis is made up in the first place.

From the film, one can get the impression that fringe right-wing and conservative movements in the year 2000 problem era were far closer to the shared reality of everyone else. They kept one foot outside of that reality, as manifested by their theories about conspiracies or religious apocalypses, but they built their narratives on the understanding of the world shared by the broader population. This stands in contrast with COVID-19 or the climate crisis, where the fringe right-wing elements often advance the idea that those things are not real, or if they are, the mitigation efforts are not real.

The use of the story today

It is tempting to use the year 2000 problem as an example of how we should do things now. On the surface, it seems like the good old times, when people would actually manage to solve major problems collectively. But, as Time Bomb Y2K reminds us, it was a different time, and it was a different problem. There is no going back to the culture of the 1990s—not that this would be such a good idea in the first place—and there is no going back to the way people interacted and communicated with each other back then.

We are also not facing the year 2000 problem today. Ours are not looming apocalypses with set deadlines. Our problems are not addressed by a bunch of work done behind the scenes, in a world that keeps going on as usual. These problems are not the kind that stop banks from being able to count their money, spurring them to action; they are problems that result in poor people dying, and the 1990s were not that much better about dealing with those.

The ending of the film depicts the sort of relived, happy, and optimistic mood present during the early year 2000. There is a shot of a sanitation worker disposing of a discarded sign that says "THE END IS NEAR", as if thus getting rid of the gloom and fear of the recent times and ushering in a hopeful future. The very last scenes in the film are interviews with kids, sharing their hopes for a better future. This is the sort of a moment in time that people are likely to feel nostalgia for. A moment where people just got through a problem together, and were standing there looking towards the future, hopeful to be likewise unified in dealing with the problems of the coming century.

But, the story has, of course, been spoiled for anyone living in the year 2024. We know how the 2000s ended up, with their persisting bigotries, wars, crises, and suffering. With the benefit of hindsight, that view from 2000 seems awfully naive.

It is true that the year 2000 problem was real. It is true that a lot of effort went into ensuring that it would not have serious consequences once the year 2000 actually rolled around. On the other hand, it is also true that, at the time, there were reactions among certain people that exaggerated the problem to advance their conspiracy theories and agendas. This particular sort of hysteria is useful to acknowledge, as echoes of it persist to 2024. However, it is important that, when trying to counteract the misconceptions or denialism about how this particular bit of history went down, we do not erase all the nuance. It is useful to take inspiration from past successes, but it is less useful to turn them into myths of glorious past times.

Stills included here are from Time Bomb Y2K, copyright to which is held by Home Box Office, Inc.