Recently I came across an old column I wrote a decade ago on the 10th anniversary of Y2K. You can find it in my archive along with a thousand more, but I am also reproducing it, below. For those who have forgotten Y2K or are too young to remember it, the crisis was Climate Change for an earlier era. It was a very real global problem that turned out to be anticlimactic only because we as a society took heroic efforts to handle it. We should be so lucky today.

The column holds up fairly well, I think, and its major lessons are worth remembering. If anything, it’s even more relevant today because we are living in the Trump era of bombast and willful ignorance.

Those people who threatened my life 20 years ago, I wonder where they are today? What are they worried about now?

Tonight marks the 10th anniversary of Y2K, so I’m using it as an excuse to look back at lessons learned and not learned from that experience. The greatest lessons had to do with psychology, not technology.

Y2K was no surprise to me. I wrote a chapter on it in my book Accidental Empires back in 1991 — fully nine years before the actual deadline. To my knowledge that was the first in-depth explanation of Y2K in the mass media. I explained how the problem came to be, how it could be solved, and predicted that doing so would cost a lot of money and force a transition on the way corporations and governments used technology.

In early 1999 someone at PBS came up with the bright idea that I do a TV special about Y2K to run that October, setting audience expectations about what was to come. Going into that project I remember the producers expected it to be about all the stuff that was likely to go wrong. After all, I had written eight years before that we were in peril. But when I jumped into the research in 1999 I found that Y2K remediation, as it was called, seemed to be going well. I also found that systems weren’t as inter-connected or dependent as many of us had thought — that the world simply wasn’t as much at risk as we feared. I had to fight for this position, but ultimately that was the more conservative story we told two months before the actual event. And we were right.

PBS, to its credit, was the only U. S. television network with the guts to do such a show in primetime or anytime. We took a position — a controversial one it turned out — and justified it with research. Other networks preferred to play the doom card over and over again.

Y2K remediation cost $50-100 billion for the U. S. alone. Probably half of that money would have been spent on IT improvements anyway, but an extra 25-50 billion 1999 dollars is still a lot of dough. Much of it was spent on Y2K-related issues but a lot of it was spent on this-and-that. Y2K was such an arcane problem and so far above the heads of typical CEOs that it was viewed by IT departments as a chance to buy all the cool stuff they never could before. A lot of cool stuff was bought on top of all the other cool stuff being bought because this was also the time of the dot-com Internet Bubble.

I have wondered how much of the economic downturn in 2000 and 2001 – the collapse of the Internet Bubble — was actually due to the passage of Y2K with its excessive IT purchasing and labor costs.

While making that TV special I spent weeks interviewing experts and self-proclaimed experts including survivalists. What I learned then was a story that I don’t think ever really came out. It consists of three parts:

1)  Desire: the people warning the loudest about Y2K, those hoarding lentils and suggesting the end of the world was coming, really wanted to be right. They not only thought Y2K was going to be a disaster, they wanted it to be a disaster.

2)  Paranoia: the people who were so upset about Y2K — the survivalists and others who headed to the mountains and other sparsely-populated areas — didn’t go to the country because they thought the cities would collapse. They thought the rule of law would collapse and there would be Mad Maxian mass civil unrest. And all that unrest would be aimed squarely at them — the arrogant and narcissistic survivalist leaders. They just assumed that all the other folks who stupidly hadn’t been hoarding lentils would want their lentils and would be coming for them, possibly armed. They expected that Y2K would not only delay Social Security checks, it would lead to armed insurrection aimed at they and their lentils. I am not making this up.

3)  Disappointment: When the worst didn’t happen and these same folks found themselves in the middle nowhere with half a ton of lentils, they were disappointed the world hadn’t fallen apart after all.  Some of those people still haven’t recovered.

When Y2K: The Winter of Our Disconnect? aired that October (pre-Y2K), it produced the greatest e-mail response of any show I ever made — almost 3,000 messages in the first week. Most of those messages were negative, some extremely so. Many viewers saw me as irresponsible. They claimed that my irresponsible actions would lead to the deaths of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of PBS viewers, lulled into inaction by my false reassurances. Some viewers said I deserved to die for making the show. A few suggested they would kill me themselves.

It reminded me to a certain extent of the minor firestorm a couple weeks ago over my Christmas card, though at least that one produced no death threats.

So I was Public Enemy Number One in October, 1999 for suggesting that Y2K would turn out to be no big deal. And what happened in January, when it became clear that my show was 100 percent correct? Nothing. Not a single e-mail came to me from any of those people.

Audiences: you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them.

Happy New Year.