Timeframe: Reflecting on the Y2K bug that never was

How the turn of the millennium was tinged with terror

The last night of the 20th century at a cafe in Dubai. New Year's Eve fell during Ramadan. AFP
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The new year is invariably a time for reflection.

Whether we are creating personal or professional goals for the coming year, looking back at our achievements or noting how different life was 12 months ago, the end of the year often feels like a moment to contemplate what should happen and what could have been.

It’s not far-fetched to say that the past three years have felt like a flurry of changes — unpredictable, challenging and, especially at the start, scary. However, as the pandemic seems to be easing, and life goes back to a new semblance of normality, it’s interesting to think about other global challenges that could have changed our lives.

Take the photo above, it doesn’t seem to show anything unusual. A busy cafe with patrons enjoying the weather along with their coffee, snacks and shisha. It’s not an uncommon sight on any given evening of the week in the UAE. The photo, however, was taken at an open-air cafe in Dubai, on January 1, 2000, after the world waved farewell to the 90s and with that, the 20th century.

It may seem surprising that Dubai would take such a subtle approach to a monumental event. But that year, there were no official millennium celebrations to welcome in the 2000s. This wasn’t because the Burj Khalifa was yet to be built, (it would officially open 10 years later) but because it was Ramadan.

At the time, some might argue that the holy month worked in the UAE’s favour that year. While there was plenty of excitement about entering a new century, the world was also riddled with trepidation, some with genuine concerns, and more than a few were very fearful of the first challenge awaiting us at the new millennium — the Y2K bug.

The predicted millennium bug was a computer flaw that experts feared would cause problems when dealing with dates after December 31, 1999. Most computer programs were written between the 1960s and the 1980s and the concern was that computers might convert January 1, 2000, into January 1, 1900.

This misreading of dates would lead to software and hardware failures in computers, especially in sectors such as banking, power plants, airlines and government records, creating widespread panic, chaos and by some extremist thinking, a complete digital collapse.

According to an article in Time, Y2K was a problem for which technology experts had been preparing for two decades before the turn of the century. The US reportedly spent an estimated $100 billion on testing, preparation and co-ordination of the potential problems on a local, national and global scale.

The UAE issued a press release through the Emirates News Agency on December 27, 1999, stating that “arrangements have been completed at the General Civil Aviation Authority to prevent Y2K computer glitches and all systems have been fully installed and tested”. This was to assure the public that, like in many other countries, the potential problems Y2K presented were being taken seriously.

When January 1, 2000 came around however, Y2K issues were minor. Nothing happened as the clock struck midnight and any technological glitches that did occur were no threat to the public. Almost overnight, the Y2K bug was laughed off as an invention born out of humanity’s collective paranoia.

Since then, the world has not approached new year with such a combination of excitement and unease — aside from the list of impossible resolutions people tend to place on themselves. And while the UAE has outdone itself year after year since the start of the millennium, with its record-breaking displays of fireworks, it’s also comforting to know that there are more relaxing ways to herald a new year.

Whether it's Ramadan or not, whether we are on the cusp of an impending digital apocalypse or another pandemic, there will, at least, always be an outdoor cafe with coffee and shisha for us to sit in and enjoy, as we reflect on the past year.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 6:01 PM