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Y2K Bug

Y2K BUG

The phrase "Y2K bug" stood for the range of potentially adverse effects on computer systems of the rollover from the year 1999 to 2000. Within that definition, however, there were a wide range of questions, concerns, and solutions. The two-digit date-storage system posed its problem in the computer's recognition of time and its logical implications. Computers that already assumed the "19" and read and manipulated only the last two digits would naturally read the new date as "1900." Nobody knew for certain how this rollover would affect various systems, but few were willing to take chances. In the late 1990s, businesses, governments, organizations, individuals, and just about every other entity that depended on computer systems scrambled to render their systems Y2K-compliant, spending billions of dollars in the process.

Fears ranged from the relatively mundane (lost e-mail) to the costly (disruption of service or lost records) to the catastrophic (unpredictable computer responses at air-traffic controls and even nuclear facilities). One factor adding to the concern was the result of the increasingly networked nature of modern life. With computer systems interconnected with each other across state and national boundaries, analysts feared the potential snowball effects of moderate problems in local systems as they spread through wider networks. As wide-ranging as the concerns, however, were the reactions to the eventor noneventas the crucial date came and went.

ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM

The underlying problemthe inability of computers to read years rendered in four digitsseems almost a foolish and short-sighted blunder, but there was good reason for the two-digit date system. Computer programmers were faced with the daunting task of providing for adequate computer memory at an affordable cost. In the early days of computing technology, memory was expensive and logistically difficult, and thus designers needed to cut corners where they could. In the 1950s and 1960s, the most sophisticated computer-memory systems utilized strips of costly punched cardboard. Programmers at the time opted to save space and money on those cards by rendering dates in only six digits rather than eight (as in "01-01-00" rather than "01-01-2000"). At the time, few programmers considered the possibility that such memory programs would last until the end of the century.

Soon, however, scientists and programmers adapted their own systems to this programming technique, called common business-oriented language (COBOL). In this way, the problem that would eventually be referred to as the Y2K bug spread through computing systems by the sheer act of rendering computers compliant with each other. By the end of the 1960s, IBM, the leading computer maker of the day, had effectively codified the Y2K bug as part of the dominant programming language. Once this de facto standard was set, other computer makers and programmers followed suit.

Ironically, one of the main writers of the COBOL program, IBM programmer Robert Bemer, was among the first to sound the alarm of an eventual Y2K crisis clear back in 1971. However, with the crucial date still nearly thirty years away and the problem so remote from programmers' everyday concerns, Bemers's warning went unheeded. In fact, by that time Bemer had even written a program that allowed eight-digit date listing, but the priorities for programmers and manufacturers were elsewhere, and the six-digit standard blossomed.

Interest in the topic was largely shelved until the early 1990s, when a handful of younger programmers, such as the IBM computer operator Peter de Jager, began speaking and posting Web sites on the topic. By the middle of the decade, awareness of Y2K had reached most major organizations, including corporations and governments, who set about convening task forces to study the problem and ready their systems for it. By the late 1990s, the Y2K bug was a hot topic of popular concern, generating miles of newsprint and far-ranging speculation, some of it reaching the apocalyptic. There was in fact some evidence for the grave predictions. In 1993, nuclear monitors at NORAD rolled their clocks forward to see what would happen on January 1, 2000. To their surprise, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) alert system crashed.

Popular concernand occasionally hysteriawith the Y2K bug fed, and was fed by, cultural and religious fears involving the year 2000, which some felt would mark large-scale catastrophes and other shattering phenomena. The mountain of information and rumors circulating on the Internet about Y2K took on a life of its own, generating a small industry devoted to Y2K survival, geared toward a situation in which society's sustaining computer systems were inoperative. Adding to the mix were the conspiracy theorists, who remained skeptical of the whole affair, seeing it as a product of the agenda of powerful forces. While such factors normally don't reach the level of mainstream consideration, the coalescence of these factors with the Y2K bugwhich the business world, after all, was certainly taking seriouslyproduced a second life for the Y2K bug.

THE CRISIS COMES AND GOES

But in the months leading up to the crucial rol-lover, no one could say with any certainty just what the Y2K bug's effects would be. While some insisted the whole phenomenon was much ado about nothing, others warned of potentially costly and disruptive side effects if companies, organizations, governments, and individuals didn't work to ready their own systems. Most groups chose to play it safe, investing hefty sums to purchase Y2K-compliance software or hire outside consultants to root through their systems and fix any potential trouble spots. In the process, an enormous Y2K industry was spawned. Estimates of total U.S. Y2K expenditures reached into the hundreds of billions of dollars, while the worldwide total topped $600 billion. According to Peter de Jager, the U.S. government alone spent $8.34 billion on year-2000 compliance.

As midnight on December 31, 1999 approached, businesses and governments all over the world maintained staff on-call, ready to respond at a moment's notice should catastrophe strike. Cisco Systems Inc., for example, kept nearly half of their 22,000 employees on call during the rollover.

Finally, the crucial date came and went, and to the surprise of many, virtually nothing happenedcertainly nothing on the order of the more dire predictions. The extent to which the Y2K bug's benign effects were the result of vigilant compliance measures or of the bug's relatively benign nature was a matter of debate, and commentators had yet to reach consensus on the matter even two years later. There were glitches, even in some major systems. For instance, a U.S. military satellite surveillance system went down and wasn't recovered for several weeks. But on the whole, the extent of preparationto say nothing of the newsprint and hysteriaseemed vastly out of proportion with the event itself.

IN HINDSIGHT

As a result, the early 2000s were marked by nearly as much Y2K debate as were the late 1990s, but of a very different nature. Analysts, business executives, and IT experts all offered their own takes on exactly what occurred and why, and assessed the benefits and drawbacks of the extensive technological preparation. Gartner Group, for instance, held that the catastrophe-free rollover was a product of the extensive and successful preparation companies undertook; Gartner Group analyst Dale Vecchio remarked, "people didn't spend $300 billion on a problem that didn't exist."

Some commentators noted that, in addition to the economic benefits of the new software expenditures, the phenomenon of businesses moving all at once to upgrade their software was a boon to the emerging Internet economy, since the new systems were vastly more likely to be able to accommodate the Internet's heavy, interactive traffic. In this way, such analysts noted, more or less all at once entire industries were upgraded for e-commerce. In the absence of such a crisis, the pace of such an upgrade would have been much slower, and would not have occurred with such simultaneitysome industries would make the transition much more quickly than others, for exampleand thus seamless e-commerce readiness would have been postponed. In addition, some analysts noted that the Y2K crisis forced companies to reconsider the role of technology in their businesses, inspiring executives to involve their information officers in strategic planning to an unprecedented extent. In the wake of the Y2K crisis, companies were also more likely to develop continuity plans that will enable them to continue functioning in the event of technology failures.

By forcing companies to overhaul their information-technology systems and purge antiquated hardware and software, the Y2K bug may have sped IT's evolutionary process along. For instance, Business Week reported that, largely as a result of the Y2K crisis, by 2000 hotels such as Marriott International Inc. featured computer and Internet connectivity in each room, where that was seldom the case just a few years earlier. At DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, the $260 million investment into Y2K fixes resulted in the purging of some 15,000 outdated computers; the replacement of these systems with state-of-the-art technology allowed the company to link two-thirds of its plants to the same network, thereby greatly enhancing internal efficiency and supply chain management. Companies were most likely to have their entire personnel online and feature electronic customer service systems, all of which are essential for readying businesses for the Internet economy.

Not everyone was so charitable or positive about the benign effects of Y2K. Fortune, for instance, expressed indignation over the whole affair, insisting that the Y2K crisis was an overblown panic that caused businesses to waste billions of dollars, and going so far as to demand that those responsible for the fervorthe media, financial executives, and computer industry players who capitalized on the crisis, and those "professional Jeremiads" who made their names lecturing and writing on the severity of the problembe held accountable. To other analysts, the investment was not only a colossal waste, but an indication of the information-technology industry's inability to manageeconomically and otherwisecomputer-based risks.

Since companies and governments faced the threat of severe short-and long-term consequences if their systems weren't prepared, they had little choice but to devote whatever amounts were required to remedy their Y2K problems; cost wasn't the immediate consideration before making such an investment. As a result, organizations tied up vastly disproportionate percentages of their budgets to Y2K issues. International Data Corporation held that some of the consultants claiming responsibility for Y2K success would prove some of the ultimate victims of Y2K, as business executives reviewed their expenditures in the late 1990s and concluded that too much was spent on Y2K preparation at the expense of more important strategic programs.

FURTHER READING:

Bing, Stanley. "Oh, Sure. Now They're Sorry: Y2K Idiots Cost Business $500 billion! Is No One to be Punished?" Fortune, February 7, 2000.

"Bugging People." Economist, December 18, 1999.

Burke, Steven, and Pedro Pereira. "Industry Ponders Impact On Operations, Sales: As the Clock Ticks, Y2K Still a Puzzle." Computer Reseller News, November 30, 1998.

Hicks, Matt. "Did Y2K Consultants Cry Wolf?" PC Week, January 10, 2000.

Jones, Jennifer. "Y2K Bug Squashed, Feds Say." Network World, January 10, 2000.

"Panic Postponed." Economist, January 8, 2000.

Peters, Richard, and Robert Sikorski. "Y2K or Bust." Science, December 17, 1999.

Rash, Wayne. "Why the Y2K Problem was Good for You." InternetWeek, December 4, 2000.

Strassman, Paul A. "The Y2K Ransom." Computerworld, January 10, 2000.

"The Y2K Bug Repellent Wasn't a Waste." Business Week, January 17, 2000.

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Millennium Bug

Millennium Bug


The millennium bug refers to the existence in many computer software packages of a six-digit date rather than an eight-digit date. Computers speak the language of mathematics. Every question posed to a computer program is answered either "yes" or "no" and represented in binary code as either a one or a zero. Since computers recognize math symbols, a computer can add 97 + 1 and get 98. When the computer is presented the problem 99 + 1 and the answer does not fit in the required two-digit field, the computer's response is an error, or worse, a shut-down.

What caused this error in planning to occur? In the 1960s and 1970s, when computers were coming into widespread use, one of the largest concerns to programmers was the amount of memory available to the user. With this concern in mind, programmers searched for ways to cut memory requirements. Reducing dates to six digits (01/31/99, for example) rather than using the eight-digit international date (01/31/1999) was one way to decrease memory requirements. A second reason is that computers were so new and programmers were so inexperienced that they believed that any software produced in the 1960s and 1970s would be archaic by the 1980s and certainly long before the year 2000. They produced software designed to answer immediate needs, failing to predict that software programs would be used far longer than intended.

Many businesses and industries were impacted by the millennium bug. All entities that work from a mainframe were vulnerable, including many government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration among others. Any business or entity using personal computers (PCs) was vulnerable. Computer experts estimated that 93 percent of the PCs made before 1972 would fail. When PCs are part of a network, the risk of problems developing is much greater.

Many doomsday predictions were made prior to January 1, 2000. Books, videos, and web sites, all designed either to sell consumers the equipment needed to get them through the "apocalyptic" event or to warn computer users what to expect, began to appear. Almost weekly, newspaper articles were published reporting who had doneor had not donewhat to prepare and what types of tests had succeeded or failed. During the final week of 1999, local governments suggested that citizens stockpile drinking water. It was predicted that businesses dependent upon computer systems would fail. Some people feared runs on banks by panic-stricken people that would put the national economy at risk of collapsing. Public and private transportation would shut down due to fuel shortages resulting from delivery problems and electrical failures. Hospitals, governing agencies, the food industry, news, communications, and education were predicted to suffer due to the millennium bug.

The millennium bug dilemma appeared deceptively simple: After all, how difficult could it be to change programming to read a four-digit year rather than a two-digit year? The situation became more complex due to the magnitude of programs that needed to be changed. Every mainframe computer, every program created before 1995, the vast majority of PCs made before the mid-1990s, every microchip embedded in every car, every pacemakerall of these only begin a list of the things that could potentially be affected by the millennium bug. The challenge of fixing all of the potential problems before January 1, 2000, seemed impossible. Information technologists would have to check every system for compliance. The problem, which existed not just in the United States but across the entire globe, seemed astronomical.

At the end of 1999, the computer industry was expected to spend between $300 to $600 billion to deal with the problem. The director of the Millennium Watch Institute said: "Responsible estimates of what we collectively paid range from 250 gigabucks to 600 gigabucksenough to give $100 to every human alive. Another estimate mentions one terabuck as a reasonable figure." (A gigabuck is equivalent to one billion dollars and a terabuck is equivalent to one trillion dollars.)

So what did occur on January 1, 2000? A German businessman found an additional $6.2 million more dollars in his bank account than he truly had. A U.S. defense satellite was out of commission for three hours. Amtrak lost track of some trains until the date was reset in the company's computer system. A newborn baby in a Denmark hospital was registered as 100 years old. The doors on a federal building in Nebraska flew open. A government official in Slovenia was forced to resign for overemphasizing the potential problems of the millennium bug, and a few small inconveniences occurred elsewhere in the world. But amazingly, none of the predicted disasters came to pass. Some contend that the Y2K (Year 2000) problems were not severe due to the extensive upgrades that businesses and individual consumers made to their hardware and software prior to the date change.

Some good did come from the preparation. Many companies and government offices are now much more efficient and have developed better communication skills. Software quality has improved. Old hardware has been updated or replaced. Audits have been performed at many companies and agencies, leading to streamlining processes. Information technology experts have acquired much more precise knowledge of systems. According to experts, the modernization that came with the millennium bug preparation will bring economic gains. In the words of one columnist, the millennium bug preparation was "the greatest technological housecleaning of all time."

The extensive hardware and software upgrades by businesses and private citizens also meant that many technology firms saw greatly increased profits during that time. Once systems were Y2K compatible and the intense demand for new products and services decreased, some technology companies began to experience much lower sales and profits than expected in 2000 and 2001.

see also Computers and the Binary System.

Susan Strain Mockert

Bibliography

Chaney, Warren H. Y2K: A World in Crisis? Alvin, TX: SWAN Publishing, 1999.

Yourdon, Edward, and Jennifer Yourdon. Time Bomb 2000. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall PTR, 1998.

Internet Resources

Y2K Media Watch. <http://ojr.usc.edu/content/y2k_briefs.cfm>.

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Year 2000 problem

Year 2000 problem, Y2K problem, or millennium bug, in computer science, a design flaw in the hardware or software of a computer that caused erroneous results when working with dates beyond Dec. 31, 1999. In the 1960s and 70s programmers who designed computer systems dropped the first two digits of a year when storing or processing dates to save what then was expensive and limited memory; such a system recorded the year 2000 as 00 and could not distinguish it from 1900. In sorting, comparison, and arithmetic operations, the year 2000 would be treated as if it were equivalent to 0 rather than 100, causing incorrect results. The algorithm used to calculate leap years was also in some cases invalid, creating an additional problem in calculating the correct date after Feb. 28, 2000. Because the designers of such computer systems expected them to be replaced before the beginning of the year 2000, using a two-digit date was not regarded as a problem. Thousands of older computer systems, called legacy systems, were still in use in the 1990s, however, particularly in the finance and insurance industries, creating a potential operational and financial nightmare, which was termed Doomsday 2000. In the late 1990s business, government, and other computer users spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars to correct the Year 2000 problem, and only minor problems were experienced after Jan. 1, 2000.

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Millennium bug

Millennium bug The problem faced by computer users when the year 2000 (y2k) was reached. Many accounting and database applications had, for years, used only two digits to represent the year in a date; i.e. they would use 31.12.99 to represent 31 December 1999. This would obviously give incorrect follow-on dates for 01.01.00, and incorrect sorting of records in date order. Another problem involved the BIOS giving incorrect dates after 31.12.99. A considerable amount of money and time was spent by companies preparing for y2k. Most problems were solved by new software issues or by patches to existing software, and the major disruption that many had predicted did not materialize.

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Y2K problem

Y2K problem or Y2K bug: see Year 2000 problem.

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y2k

y2k Abbrev. for year 2000. See Millennium bug.

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millennium bug

millennium bug: see Year 2000 problem.

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Y2K

Y2K ★½ 1999 (R)

The gimmick of the Y2K bug is what this tame actioner hangs its plot on. A secret U.S. nuclear facility, estabished by the CIA in the Colombian jungle 30 years ago, is becoming destablized because its computer thinks it's 1969 and that the U.S. is under nuclear attack. A Y2K expert (Woolvett), a crazy general (McDowell), a CIA officer (O'Ross), and the facility's designer (Gossett), among others, all try to head off disaster. 103m/C VHS . Jaimz Woolvett, Louis Gossett Jr., Ed O'Ross, Malcolm McDowell, Sarah Chalke, Ismael Carlo; D: Richard Pepin; W: Terry Cunningham, Mick Dalrymple; C: Ronald Orieux; M: John Sponsler.

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Y2K

Y2K

ARTHUR KOPIT 1999

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

PLOT SUMMARY

CHARACTERS

THEMES

STYLE

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

CRITICISM

SOURCES

FURTHER READING

Like some of Kopit’s other plays, Y2K is a social commentary with a hint of darkness. Through a computer, a man and wife, with a perhaps not highly moral sexual history, are thrown into another reality where everything they do or don’t do is blown out of proportion. The main action of the play is interrupted by the memory sequences of Costa Astrakhan, a self-centered teenager who, if not insane, is delighted by the power a computer can give him. While these sequences seem more like a sexual fantasy than reality, Astrakhan translates them into digital fact. The devastation to the married couple that follows is sudden and complete; while the Secret Service is aware of Astrakhan’s actions, Astrakhan himself seems to have escaped capture at the end of the play.

While Y2K does touch on the horror of identity theft and the dangers of privacy invasion in the digital age, the main theme is how revenge (in this case, Astrakhan’s revenge upon Joseph, who has kicked Astrakhan out of his class) can take on a new form through technology. From his depiction of unscrupulous federal agents to his portrayal of an implacable computer hacker, Kopit shows that power corrupts. He places the focus on the abuse of authority, which happens simply because it is possible.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Born May 10, 1937, in New York City, New York, Arthur Kopit is a contemporary American playwright who is sensitive to the honor and the humiliation of the human condition. His first successful play, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, debuted in 1960.

Kopit is the son of George and Maxine (Dubin) Kopit; his father was a jeweler in Long Island, New York. When Kopit enrolled in Harvard University, he was interested in engineering, but he soon found that he had a talent for the arts. During his college years, Kopit won two playwriting contests. He directed six of his seven plays that were produced at Harvard.

The Questioning of Nick, Kopit’s first one-act drama, was a serious play about teenage rebellion written during the spring of 1957 for Dunster House Drama Workshop at Harvard University. Don Juan in Texas, Kopit’s witty turn on the American Western, was also written in 1957. In 1958, Kopit wrote On the Runway of Life, You Never Know What’s Coming Off Next, which features a fifteen-year-old boy seeking adventure in a carnival. In 1958 Kopit also wrote Across the River and into the Jungle, a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees.

Other Kopit plays include Gemini (1957), Aubad (1959), Sing to Me through Open Windows (1959), To Dwell in a Place of Strangers (1959), Asylum: or What the Gentlemen Are Up To, and As for the Ladies (1963), The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis (1965), Indians (1968), Wings (1978), End of the World with Symposium to Follow (1984), and Road to Nirvana (1991). For his musical Nine, Kopit won the Best Musical Tony award in 1982.

At the close of the twentieth century, Kopit wrote Y2K, which deals with the threat the Internet poses to personal privacy. According to the preface he wrote for the play, Kopit was inspired in 1999 by the investigation into then-president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The play conveys the fear of having one’s reality suddenly changed by outside forces.

Ranging from explorations of serious issues to satire, Kopit’s plays expose the elements of daily life, whether they are cruel, whimsical, or threatening.

Kopit is married to Leslie Ann Garis and has three children: Alex, Ben, and Kathleen. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1959 and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He is also a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, the Dramatists Guild, the Hasty Pudding Society, and the Signet Society.

PLOT SUMMARY

Astrakhan Enters

Y2K begins with Astrakhan in the spotlight on stage, stating that he is everywhere and on the hunt. Like the Greek chorus, Astrakhan introduces the play, explains the action, and concludes the drama.

Warehouse Scene

Secret Service agents Orin Slake and Dennis McAlvane have taken Joseph Elliot to an abandoned warehouse that smells of dead meat in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. Just as in classic spy thrillers when the person being interrogated is under a bright light, Joseph is sitting under a single bulb.

The two agents allow Joseph to call his lawyer but refuse to give him their names. Slake and McAlvane ask Joseph apparently nonsensical questions about names and whether he has had any contact with someone who calls himself ISeeU. Joseph says that neither he nor his wife Joanne is acquainted with anyone who has identified himself in that way.

Living Room Scene 1

Astrakhan declares that he can see everything and that no one can hide from him.

The spotlight moves to the Elliots. Joseph tries to tell Joanne about his interrogation, but she tells him about his daughter Emma’s receiving a crank call, which sounded as though it were in Joseph’s voice.

The lights return to Astrakhan. With increasing arrogance, Astrakhan states that he is a “Master of Downloading.” He admits to toying with others through his knowledge of computers.

As the action returns to the Elliots, Joseph explains his interrogation. Joanne reveals why she was unable to listen to Joseph earlier: she has had a run-in with her ex-husband, Francis Summerhays. An indication of Joseph’s mistrust of his wife surfaces as he questions her as to whether she is still in love with Francis. After Joanne reassures him, the couple embraces.

Astrakhan returns to the spotlight and gives details on Joanne’s history, including her supposed affair with Joseph while Joseph’s wife was dying of cancer.

Office Interrogation

Slake and McAlvane appear in Joseph’s office, and their questions about his computer use turn into threats of arrest. An interesting fact in this scene is that Joseph apparently publishes books that might attract the attention of the authorities. The book Mapplethorpe (an apparent reference to the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe, known for his homoerotic photographs) is one McAlvane thinks that Joseph should not be proud of. This gives possible support to Astrakhan’s later claim that Joseph loved the plagiarized pornographic story that Astrakhan submitted in class as his own work.

During this second interrogation, Astrakhan interrupts from time to time to explain how he targets someone through a computer. At the end of the scene, he claims that he had a lurid affair with Joseph’s wife after becoming one of Joseph’s students in a writing class. His memory, Astrakhan says, becomes “clearer” each time he goes over the details, which is a hint that perhaps he is embellishing.

Astrakhan Sequence

This sequence is presented as a memory, but it is presented by Astrakhan; therefore, it is very likely that what actually happened is very different from what is presented.

Astrakhan arrives in the Elliots’s living room. He claims that he is fifteen but that drug use has made him seem older. Instead of finding this alarming, Joseph is flattered into thinking that he has been responsible for stopping Astrakhan’s drug use. Both Joseph and Joanne have read and are impressed by the pornographic story Astrakhan wrote for Joseph’s class, and Joanne is particularly delighted by its filthiness. Soon she is seducing Astrakhan by displaying herself unclothed in front of him. Joanne says that Joseph tells his students, “Everything you invent is true,” which seems to be something Astrakhan has adopted as his mantra. The sequence ends with Joanne’s rejection of Astrakhan.

Living Room Scene 2

Joseph is even more suspicious of his wife, for he questions her about a trip she took to see her mother. He explains how he unintentionally gave Astrakhan access to their identities. When Joseph talks about connecting to Joanne’s computer, it seems to be an allusion to his sexual possession of his wife, because he says that he found it stimulating.

In between drinks, Joseph tells Joanne that Astrakhan has usurped their identities and made her into a porno star and him into a child molester. Joanne immediately says that allegations of molestation against Joseph are ridiculous, but it is evident that Joseph half-believes the allegations against her. He produces photos, which she tries, unconvincingly, to discredit. Then Joseph tells her that Astrakhan has falsified records to make it look like he is the son of Joseph and his first wife.

Admitting that there is some truth in some of the things that Astrakhan has invented about him, Joseph tells Joanne he is sure that the situation is similar for her. Because they are penniless (Astrakhan has stolen all their money after stealing their identities), Joseph says that they are unable to follow Joanne’s suggestion that they hire a private detective to find Astrakhan. Instead, he suggests that she resign from her job as he did from his. His mistrust of her is evident.

Astrakhan ends the scene as the spotlight moves to him. He is triumphant that things will be as he remembers them.

CHARACTERS

Costa Astrakhan

Astrakhan is a teenager who is obsessed with asserting his own importance. He associates nearly everything with sexuality, including his need to control others. As he strives to bolster his ego, Astrakhan is, in his own words, “as relentless as the wrath of God.” But unlike God, Astrakhan does not care what the truth is; he would rather make up his own version of events. In Astrakhan, there is no recognition of factual reality, because whatever he says is “honest,” according to him, whether it is completely contrived or partially accurate.

Astrakhan is nineteen, but he is so wasted and haunted that he looks more like he’s in his middle twenties. His hair is neon blue; some actors, however, have chosen to portray him with hair sticking on up on end or wearing a peaked cap. His shoes are of electric green suede and his sunglasses are almond-shaped. He wears a T-shirt that says “Nemesis.” His leather pants and leather jacket are reminiscent of those worn by Mel Gibson in Road Warrior.

Astrakhan provides many of the details about the Elliots, the main characters. As an unreliable source, he cannot be trusted to be giving completely accurate information, although Joseph recognizes that some of the details are factual.

A student in Joseph’s writing class who was kicked out for plagiarism, Astrakhan does not seem to have a grasp on what is real and what is not. He makes up information, blending it with bits of truth until fact and fiction are almost indistinguishable. Joanne says that Astrakhan is obviously insane; if so, he is also very clever, for he is able to completely obliterate the Elliots’s real identities as well as their bank accounts.

Astrakhan goes by several aliases. He has attracted the attention of the Secret Service by his ability to hack into computers and create digital identities. He creates identities for the Elliots that make them seem more despicable than they perhaps really are. He also makes it seem as if he is Joseph’s son by his first wife.

BcuzICan

See Costa Astrakhan

Joanne Summerhays Elliot

Joanne is an enigmatic woman who wishes to be “tethered” to the one she loves. Her idea of love is of being “sheltered” by the strength of her lover. She seems to be constantly trying to reassure her husband that she is true to him while at the same time being a bit defiant about it. Although she explains to Joseph that she loves him, she admits that at one time she loved her ex-husband.

Joanne is in her late thirties. Her maiden name is Joanne Elizabeth Simpson. Both her parents were university professors: her father taught moral philosophy and her mother taught the flute. There may be some irony in Joanne’s background because it is so seemingly innocent and wholesome, yet Joanne displays a knowledge of coarse behavior that scarcely matches this picture.

If played by an American actress, Joanne is supposed to have been born October 15, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and to have graduated in 1983 from Princeton. If played by a British actress, she is supposed to have been born in a small town not far from the University of Manchester and to have graduated from Oxford. Her major was art history; she works at Sotheby’s auction house as an administrative assistant specializing in jade and Chinese porcelain.

Joanne’s first husband, Francis Summerhays, has been harassing her. He is a venture capitalist whom she met at an Asian art auction. The marriage lasted less than a year, and even though Francis supposedly has been calling Joanne incessantly and leaving disgusting messages, she still believes he is capable of acting like a perfect gentleman. Whether Francis is actually doing everything Joanne says he is, is difficult to determine. How much Joanne can be trusted is questionable since she admits to lying at least once in the play.

Joanne supposedly met and pursued Joseph while she and he were still married to their first partners. Information about her moral character is contradictory, so it seems possible, although not definite, that this is true. While she calls Joseph her rock and chastises him for blasphemy, she herself uses crass language. All in all, it is possible that her behavior may not be as pure as she would like Joseph to think.

According to Astrakhan, Joanne had an affair with him after she married Joseph. He says that she had eight encounters just to satisfy her lust and then told Astrakhan it was over. Also according to Astrakhan, Joanne loves filthy books; however, she shows a definite distaste for pornography.

Whether Joanne is without any moral scruples is hard to determine; that she is capable of committing adultery seems somewhat likely since she was willing to get into a limousine with her ex-husband and to lie to Joseph about it. Like Joseph, she seems to turn to vodka throughout the play. Also like Joseph, she seems fixated on sexual topics and crude language.

Joseph Elliot

Joseph is an editor at Random House. He seems concerned about whether his wife is faithful to him. Although he seems to want to believe that she is not capable of immoral behavior, he has his doubts. He tries to convince a Secret Service agent that his wife is not the kind of woman to use foul language, but he obviously knows this is not necessarily the case, since at the same time he adds, “Who can say how her youth was spent?” Even though he is extremely defensive when the agent suggests that ISeeU (Astrakhan) knows his wife, Joseph’s suspicions that Joanne is capable of cheating on him frequently surface. While he exhibits jealousy and questions his wife’s actions, Joseph does not examine his own behaviors very closely.

Joseph is in his early fifties. He drinks quite a bit throughout the play, starting with a vodka and tonic and apparently ending with straight vodka. He also refers to having been drinking Bloody Marys on the day he inadvertently gave Astrakhan access to his computer. He seems to urge drinks on his wife throughout the play.

Joseph’s first wife, Annabel, died of cancer. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, Annabel became pregnant and chose to have an abortion in Paris. Astrakhan claims the child was actually delivered; he has falsified documents to show that he is the child.

Joseph’s daughter, Emma, is Annabel’s daughter. She is in Paris when the play starts and tells Joanne that she has received an obscene phone call that sounded like her father’s voice. At the age of twelve, Emma supposedly refused to attend her father’s second wedding, which, if true, may indicate that Joseph’s behavior to his first wife was less than exemplary.

Just how much Joseph tells the truth is somewhat obscured. When questioned by federal agents, he claims that he does not have much use for his computer; yet he not only has a computer, he also bought one for his wife. When talking to Joanne, he calls his computer a “lovely new machine” and admits that he likes visiting Web sites. Yet he tells Slake and McAlvane that he doesn’t have difficulty resisting the urge to go online.

FlowBare

See Costa Astrakhan

ISeeU

See Costa Astrakhan

Dennis McAlvane

McAlvane is in the Secret Service and seems intent upon pleasing his superior, Slake. He is quick to speak in Slake’s direction and quick to act at Slake’s request. Without really showing a personality of his own, McAlvane is eager to display a knowledge of Slake’s methods and desires. Slake calls him “Mac” and seems to look upon him as a promising protégé.

McAlvane is a bit younger than Slake, which would put him in his thirties. He is the junior federal agent investigating Astrakhan’s activities. Described by Kopit as a trainee trying to emulate Slake, McAlvane does not take the initiative in the two sessions in which he and Slake question Joseph. He is like an echo, repeating what Slake says and reinforcing his arguments. When he does take the lead in talking about sending the Elliots to jail, he receives a mild reproof from Slake. Immediately, McAlvane takes his cue, agreeing with Slake’s adjustment to his statement about Joanne being the most likely one to be imprisoned as long as Joseph cooperates.

Orin Slake

Slake is supposed to look as if he is in his forties. Dressed in a dark, undistinguished suit and tie, he has an open, friendly face and easy smile. He even pretends that he would be willing to conduct the interview with Joseph in a restaurant. This demeanor is deceptive, however. Slake is very serious about his job, which is to investigate the computer fraud perpetrated by Astrakhan, otherwise known as “ISeeU” or “BCuzICan.”

Like Astrakhan, Slake is not above snooping and knows that Joseph has a lunch appointment at the Gramercy Tavern in an hour. He also indicates that he has records as to exactly how much time Joseph spends on the Internet. His name, “Slake,” may suggest that he must satisfy his desire to know all about the case.

Displaying a veneer of geniality that thinly masks his zeal for closing in on his prey, Slake tells Joseph to stop “pretending” and to admit the truth. He insinuates that Joanne is involved in something illegal and will be arrested even if Joseph is not. Slake’s main role seems to be that of interrogator, the kind who assumes guilt whether it is present or not.

THEMES

Appearances

Illusion is something magicians make a living creating, and Astrakhan makes a life of it. To himself, he appears bigger than life, almost godlike. In reality, he is a criminal whom federal agents are trying to apprehend. He toys with them, keeping up the appearance of power and control.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the heroine, Rosalind, poses as a man and hides her true appearance from the man she loves. So too does Joanne keep back her true nature from her husband. She may have a scandalous past, as the pictures Joseph shows her seem to indicate, but she never admits to it. Although she complains to Joseph that she is “staggered at how little” he understands her, Joanne seems to prefer to maintain appearances that make it impossible for him to truly know her. Joseph also is interested in maintaining appearances. He is elusive about his computer use, claiming that he prefers to write things out by hand. It seems likely that he publishes works of dubious merit.

Infidelity

The question of faithfulness is key in the Elliots’ marriage. They were not faithful to their first spouses, so how can they be sure they are faithful to each other? Joanne does seem to have a little more contact with her ex-husband, Francis, than is normal, and Joseph is fixated on whether she is cheating on him. He even asks her if she gets a charge from the indecent way Francis talks to her.

Jealousy is already Joseph’s weak point, but Astrakhan adds fuel to the fire when he manufactures evidence (if it is manufactured) of a sexual liaison between himself and Joanne. Like Iago, who stirs up Othello’s mistrust of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play Othello, Astrakhan incites Joseph’s suspicions of his wife. These suspicions seem to be confirmed by the photos that Astrakhan has made available, though Joseph knows that Astrakhan has invented some incorrect information about his own fidelity.

Identity Theft

At the core of every human being is identity. People spend years defining who they are. They decide where to go to college, what to choose as a career, and whom to marry. They build reputations, assets, and credit histories. All that the Elliots have built is wiped out with Astrakhan’s computer hacking. In changing their identities, Astrakhan is usurping them.

Troubled by a lack of self-esteem and recognition, Astrakhan decides that he is not satisfied with his parents. His mother, Glenda, was a dental hygienist and sometime prostitute killed by her former husband, a tap dancer with Tourette’s Syndrome (an inherited, neurological disorder characterized by repeated involuntary movements and uncontrollable vocal sounds, often including profanity). Astrakhan decides that they are not his real parents, so he rewrites history to become Joseph’s son. He promises to take care of his new “parents” with the financial resources he has stolen from them. The Elliots lose their identities, and Astrakhan gains a new one.

Privacy and the Internet

Computer technology is a useful tool in Y2K. Joanne keeps a journal on the computer. Joseph uses it to research material he is about to publish. But as they go about using the technology, they become vulnerable. Their innermost thoughts and feelings are exposed for someone else to use against them.

As home computers become networked to global servers, society in the twenty-first century becomes increasingly threatened by privacy invasion. As Keith Regan points out in E-Commerce Times, if a person has an e-mail address, someone is selling information about that person to the highest bidder. People prefer to think that their information remains in one place. The Elliots apparently believed that until it was too late.

Though a company may assure customers that their personal data will not be sold to others, the fact is that when a company changes hands, most likely the information, too, will be sold. There is no telling exactly where the information will end up, as Joseph learns.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, although computer technology makes it easier for companies to share information, it also makes it easier for law enforcement to track down criminals and prevent fraud. It advises, however, that people take precautions as to how much information they submit online. Perhaps such a warning is too late for most people. In Kopit’s Y2K, the damage was done quickly, and it was apparently irreversible.

Sexual Impropriety

A distrusting couple, the Elliots have both been married before and seem a little uncomfortable in their second marriage. Perhaps that is because they committed adultery together while they were married to their previous spouses. Or perhaps it is because neither one can resist sexual impropriety.

Joseph and Joanne accuse each other of sexual liaisons with other people. They use very coarse terms to communicate. Elyse Sommer points out in Curtain Up that the way Joseph and Joanne talk to each other is not the way people normally talk to each other.

Charles McNulty notes in Village Voice that Y2K is “erotically charged.” Demonstrations of affection and love between Joseph and Joanne almost seem out of place, because the language they use with each other is lewd rather than respectful. Whether the sexual impropriety is mostly just talk or whether there is substance behind it is not certain, but it is a prevalent theme that drives the play.

STYLE

Narrator

Y2K is a contemporary drama narrated by Astrakhan, a teenager with the ability to hack into computers but apparently with little else in the way of accomplishments. He invents a number of events and details, so he is not a reliable narrator. Since he is also the villain of the piece, his purpose seems to be to create the story as well as to tell it.

The play proceeds in a disjointed style, with past and present blending together. Astrakhan’s version of reality becomes dominant, so that it is

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • At the end of the play, Astrakhan seems to get away with his crimes. Write a different ending in which he somehow has to pay for what he has done. Imitate Kopit’s style so that your ending blends with the rest of the play and seems plausible.
  • Research Internet privacy. What kinds of security software solutions are available? Are they effective? What kinds of regulations govern the Internet? Are they sufficient? Write a one-page summary of your findings.
  • One of the themes in Y2K is revenge. The preface quotes Stalin’s statement on the sweetness of vengeance, “To choose one’s victims, to prepare one’s plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed... there is nothing sweeter in the world.” Is revenge sweet or is it bitter? Write an answer that draws on Kopit’s play and on your own experience.
  • In the play, Costa Astrakhan repeatedly says that he is honest. Do you think that he is aware or unaware that he is dishonest? Explain why or why not.

difficult to determine if he invented most of the events, especially those that are explicitly sexual. At the end of the drama, Astrakhan’s version of what happened has become a digital reality that the Elliots must cope with.

Setting

Set at the end of 1999, Y2K takes place just before the new millennium. There is considerable concern that computers not programmed to function in years with dates beyond 1999 will disrupt many of the normal functions of society. A book Joseph is about to publish, Crisis, predicts doom. Joseph questions whether this prediction is accurate. The physical settings vary from the ordinary to the eerie. For the most part, the play takes place in the Elliots’s living room or in Joseph’s office. But the play starts in an abandoned warehouse, a setting in which the Secret Service agents seem comfortable but in which Joseph is not.

Subject

Y2K deals with sexual indiscretions and how destructive they can be when made public. Joseph Elliot discovers that the computer age makes both discovering and using such information easier; he compares the situation to a house of cards that is “ready to come toppling at the slightest wind.” One of Astrakhan’s aliases is “BCuzICan.” Kopit shows that once this kind of ammunition exists, it will be used, simply because it can be. The subject matter of the play was inspired by Kenneth Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions and his later testimony about them, according to Kopit’s preface.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Monica Lewinsky Scandal

In June 1995, Monica Lewinsky began an internship at the White House. In mid-January 1998, FBI agents questioned Lewinsky about whether she had had a sexual relationship with then-president Bill Clinton. The next day, in a deposition he gave in another case involving allegations of sexual misconduct with Paula Jones, Clinton denied that he had had sexual relations with Lewinsky. The story of a possible affair with Lewinsky, and lying to cover it up, broke to the media just four days later, and the scandal escalated from there.

Federal independent counsel Kenneth Starr expanded his investigation of the Paula Jones suit to include Lewinsky. He filed a motion on April 14, 1998, to compel testimony about Lewinsky’s relationship with Clinton from Secret Service agents. Starr also wanted to question Lewinsky, and she agreed to answer Starr’s questions in return for immunity from prosecution. She testified before a grand jury on August 6, 1998, that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton.

After a lengthy and expensive investigation into his relationship with Lewinsky and into statements he had made under oath about that relationship, Clinton was impeached. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against him, with eleven counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Clinton was the second president of the United States to be impeached while in office. (Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868.)

Impeachment is one step in the process that may lead to a public official being removed from office, if the official is also convicted of the crimes for which he or she is impeached. Because Clinton was not convicted, he was not removed from office. As he finished his term in January 2001, Clinton avoided indictment for lying under oath by agreeing to pay $25,000 in fines and accepting a five-year suspension of his license to practice law.

Y2K Fears

Y2K stands for Year 2000. (K is an abbreviation for thousand.) In the late 1990s, there was growing fear that computers whose built-in, two-digit calendars were not programmed to recognize 00 as signifying the year 2000 would fail to operate beginning at midnight on January 1 of that year. Since computers are involved in providing most services necessary to modern cities, businesses, and residences, there was a great deal of concern about what systems would fail and what the results might be. Some of the concerns included loss of computer data, loss of utilities and power, loss of telephone services, breakdowns in transportation (including air-control systems), and the resulting social and economic chaos.

In Time Bomb 2000, written to help people prepare for the possible disruption in their lives, Edward and Jennifer Yourdon advised people to “spend the remaining months until the new millennium paring down and simplifying your life, so that you can face it with as much flexibility as possible.” And they were among the more moderate voices. The anticipated problems did not develop, however. Virtually all computer systems were upgraded to recognize 00 as the year 2000 before the date changed. The new millennium was celebrated around the world with no major disruptions in services.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Many reviewers regarded Y2K as inferior to Kopit’s other notable works, such as Oh Dad, Poor Dad,Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, Wings, and Indians. John Simon wrote in New York Magazine that Y2K is not a believable story and not of the same quality as Kopit’s respected works. McNulty observed in Village Voice,“Kopit makes things somewhat more confusing than he needs to.” Sommer in CurtainUp called Y2K”a thriller that fails to thrill” and compared it unfavorably to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation and Craig Lucas’s Dying Gaul, complaining that Kopit’s play “has none of the complexity and depth of either.” She concluded, “Presumably the resolution that never comes is intended to leave you pondering the issue of our eroding privacy.... In point of fact, you’re simply left feeling you’ve had an unsatisfying meal that didn’t even offer a dessert.”

Writing in Variety, Charles Isherwood allowed, “The play turns on authentically disturbing questions. “He added, though, “Kopit doesn’t deeply explore these issues. He’s content to tell a scary story, without examining the larger issues it raises.” Isherwood concluded by agreeing with Sommer that “the play seems slight indeed, and even a little half-baked.”

On the other hand, some critics welcomed Y2K as an exploration of the moral risks of the information age. Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, writing in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, called the play “riveting, paranoic, and plausible.” Martin F. Kohn of the Detroit Free Press described it as “a chilling play that taps into whatever millennial angst is floating nearby.”

CRITICISM

April Schulthies

Schulthies is an editor who holds a master’s degree in English literature and teaches English at the community college level. In the following essay, she examines surrealistic evil and its harmful effects in Kopit’s play.

Arthur Kopit’s contemporary drama Y2K creates a feeling of lurking evil in a surrealistic setting. Kopit suggests an ominous unreality that hints at, rather than shouts of, potential danger. The evil feels close at hand because it “lives” in personal computers,

which people keep in their private homes. As people use their computers, they reveal personal information in e-mails and in their Internet use. In Y2K, Kopit poses the question, what if the most personal details of people’s lives could be tapped into and used against them?

Computers “talk” to one another at high speeds, networks record messages sent and received, and information of all kinds is submitted and accepted. But, as Kopit points out, information is also being tracked. Personal profiles are collected and saved. “Cookies” store strings of text on a user’s computer in order to monitor the user’s activities. Servers record the Internet Protocol address of the user and sometimes link it to personal information. As his drama progresses, Kopit shows that as people are served by the computer, the computer is serving others who may be evil.

Kopit’s Y2K shows the disastrous effects of privacy invasion in the technological age. When Joseph Elliot uses his computer, he is unaware of the lurking presence of someone bent on revenge. But other eyes can monitor his progress through a Web site and keep track of his preferences and personal data. Later Joseph is shocked to find out that using

“IN Y2K, KOPIT POSES THE QUESTION, WHAT IF THE MOST PERSONAL DETAILS OF PEOPLE’S LIVES COULD BE TAPPED INTO AND USED AGAINST THEM?”

his computer opened the door to prying eyes, because, as he relates to his wife, he thought the computer was his “FRIEND.”

Joseph and his wife learn that there are eyes eagerly compiling all the personal data they can. As their daily lives crumble like so many bits of scrambled data, the Elliots enter a surrealistic world, haunted by the fact that their personal identities are not their own.

Among the billions of people on the earth, many use computers on a daily basis. The scope for privacy invasion is vast and frightening. In Y2K, Kopit skims the surface of such a possibility, using a villain who respects no one and who recognizes no limits. Inspired by the way Kenneth Starr pursued Monica Lewinsky after her affair with President Clinton, Kopit displays a personal vendetta that destroys the lives of others.

In his preface to the drama, Kopit writes that he was impressed by what he called Starr’s “fascism.” Webster’s dictionary defines fascism as “a strongly nationalistic regime characterized by regimentation, rigid censorship, and suppression of opposition.” Kopit sees these qualities in the political environment that allowed Kenneth Starr to examine the most intimate details of Lewinsky’s life.

Y2K starts off in an abandoned warehouse, where Joseph is being questioned by two Secret Service men. It is an unbelievable setting and an unbelievable circumstance; Joseph is being interrogated, but interrogated with unlikely, nonsensical questions that he does not appear to understand. This is followed by a scene in which Joseph learns that his daughter has called his apartment and said that she received an obscene phone call from someone who sounded like him.

Unreality follows unreality in such a tangle that it is hard to make sense of the facts. Most of the play takes place in the living room of Joseph and Joanne, who are both in their second marriage. In what is supposedly a private domain, the two are watched by the play’s villain, the young and vindictive Costa Astrakhan.

Suffering from an apparent God complex, Astrakhan is an outrageous figure with neon hair and neon shoes. He has a taste for power that he is only able to satisfy through the computer. “And though you cannot see where I really am, I can see all of you,” Astrakhan gloats.

Astrakhan is infuriated over being accused of cheating, though he admits to the audience he has cheated. Expelled from Joseph Elliot’s class for plagiarism, Astrakhan decides that no one can hide from him. Through technology, he has the power to slake his desire for revenge.

As Kopit notes in his preface, the pursuit of Monica Lewinsky by Kenneth Starr was something Kopit found alarming. With his penchant for prying, Astrakhan seems to represent Kenneth Starr. If so, then Astrakhan’s evil madness would reflect a kind of diabolical insanity that Kopit saw in Starr. Just as Starr based his investigation on actual events that were nonetheless denied, so too does Astrakhan base his attack on recorded facts.

Astrakhan is a demented figure of malice. His grasp of reality is so minimal that it is impossible to tell whether there is any real reason for his act of revenge or whether he invented it. Certainly he seems to have no conscience. Kopit seems to indicate that therein lies the danger: if someone has the ability to spy on others, he probably will, whether there is justification for it or not. Evil will take command.

The setting for the play feels unreal partly because what happens and what doesn’t happen is unclear. The audience sees things that one character remembers but another does not. One moment the Elliots seem like a devoted couple, and the next they are insulting each other. At times there is warmth and understanding between them, and at others there is animosity. It is difficult to determine whether they are to be pitied; they almost seem to become part of the evil that is haunting them.

Kopit shows that reality is a fragile thing. Joanne admits to Joseph that she got into a limousine with her ex-husband, Francis Summerhays, because it was raining. Her husband finds his wife’s behavior extraordinary and questions her on it. After all, she had just been comparing Francis to a vampire. Does Joanne really despise her ex-husband? Or is she fascinated by him? As for Joseph, he seems overly adamant about how little he uses a computer. Does he really only turn on his computer only every once in awhile, or does he use it for something that might be embarrassing? What is true?

Unreal circumstances plague Y2K. Bits of reality mix with complete fiction in such a way that the real story is unclear. Both Joanne and Joseph are unsure of events, but so, too, is the audience. Did Joanne have an affair with Joseph’s male student? She certainly seems to think it more likely that Joseph would have an affair with one of his female students. Do either of the Elliots know with certainty that the other is a moral, decent person? After all, they supposedly had an affair together while Joseph’s first wife was dying of cancer.

Kopit seems to be saying that perhaps no one’s life should be scrutinized too closely. Joseph and Joanne feel the impact on their personal relationships as they focus on how little they trust each other rather than on how they can start reclaiming their lives. Misery fills them, as neither knows how many of the lies Astrakhan invents have a basis in truth.

Joanne tells her husband that they can explain that all of the information is false—information on the computer that indicates that she is practically a prostitute and that he is a sex offender. But her husband replies, “But all of it is not fake.... Is it?”

All this doubt is substantiated by the slipperiness of Y2K’s characters. There is no real reason to believe that Joanne and Joseph would not do any of the lewd things that are hinted at. After all, both of them use language that indicates a lack of sensitivity to each other, so it is not difficult to believe that they are inured to what is decent and what is not. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of evidence that the two genuinely care about each other, as when Joanne goes to comfort her husband when he is remembering his first wife’s pregnancy during her chemotherapy. It seems unlikely that either would behave in a way calculated to hurt the other.

But the suspicion is there; evil has entered. When the incriminating photos make an appearance, Joanne at first denies they are real and then recalls that at least one of them may be. When she is asked if she really did make advances to Astrakhan, Joanne denies it, saying, “It’s the sort of thing I generally remember. Joseph, have you lost your mind?”

Astrakhan is the supreme figure of evil in the play. He goes by a number of aliases, including “ISeeU.” While he is watching others, Astrakhan clearly is not very much aware of himself. He invents a whole history in which he is the son of Joseph’s first wife, Annabel. He plagiarizes a pornographic story and then claims it is an autobiography. He “remembers” having an affair with Joanne, who says she scarcely recalls meeting him. The question of how much of what he remembers is invention and how much is based on truth is never answered.

Strange as the circumstances are, the characters are stranger yet. They seem intent on sexual encounters, whether imagined or real, in a manner that seems to mirror the Starr investigation. The lines between what actually occurred and what didn’t are blurred. Joanne either went to see her mother or made up the trip as a cover for an illicit encounter; Joseph either used his computer as a paperweight or used it for something far less serviceable; Astrakhan either invented his encounters with, and dismissal by, Joanne or was simply recalling something Joanne preferred to forget.

If there was any clarity to the Elliots’ lives to begin with, there certainly is none by the end of the play. The two become a mere invention, victims of the kind of abuse perpetrated by computer hackers. “We are nothing but abstractions now—strings of digits, signifying anything you want, floating in the ether,” Joseph tells his wife.

Purposely playing on the fear of having identities recreated by someone with malignant intent, Kopit blends the known and the unknown so that the truth is impossible to detect. Unreality pervades, and evil is a felt but ill-defined presence. Reputation, finances, and trust vanish before the victims understand what is happening. The computer—the trusted and seemingly benign servant—has become a corrupt master.

Source: April Schulthies, Critical Essay on Y2K, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor of arts degree in English and specializes in writing drama and film. In the following essay, Poquette explores Kopit’s manipulation of truth and reality.

Today, as never before, ordinary people can acquire the power to reshape the reality of a person’s life—by becoming computer hackers. In Kopit’s Y2K, the playwright elevates hacking to an art form, in the process challenging the audience’s definition of truth in the digital age.

The nineteen-year-old computer hacker in Y2K, Costa Astrakhan, who is also the play’s narrator, addresses the audience early in the play: “With what I know, I can go anywhere, and you can too.”

For the duration of the play, Astrakhan demonstrates to the audience exactly how to alter a person’s life in cyberspace, using Joseph and Joanne Elliot as his real-life tutorial. By the end of the play, Astrakhan has revised the Elliots’ respective lives so that Joseph, a Random House book editor and teacher, is a child pornographer, while Joanne, who works at Sotheby’s, the famous art auction house, is “a kind of porno star.” Says Joseph to his wife: “And now it seems he has revised my life. No, rewritten it. I’ve got a whole new history, Joanne.”

It is an ironic twist of events for Joseph, a man who has made much of his fortune editing others’ stories. He says as much to his wife:

If I could just step back, I would admire it. Because what he’s done of course is written a kind of novel. Only not in the old fashioned linear one-sentence-follows-the-other sort of way, but, somehow, in all dimensions, simultaneously. A novel built of zeroes and ones. And we are its characters.

Through his computer hacking, Kopit arms Astrakhan with a new-age model for storytelling, a real-life story on a grand scale that surpasses the impact of any other medium. Books, plays, films—all of these artistic creations require the reader or viewer to transport themselves inside the world of the story. But in Astrakhan’s digital story, the audience is the entire world, and the characters are real-life people who face real-life consequences—not figments of an author’s imagination.

“We are nothing but abstractions now—strings of digits, signifying anything you want, floating in the ether,” Joseph says to Joanne.

In this era of modern drama, where the boundaries of realism have been tested for more than a hundred years, Kopit breaks through into new territory, creating an art form for the new millennium—the scripting of reality itself. In the beginning, however, the audience watching Kopit’s play doesn’t suspect that this is what Astrakhan is doing, in part due to his style of keep-no-secrets narration. As Katie Hafner of the New York Times notes to Kopit in an e-mail interview, “[Astrakhan is] a classic unreliable narrator.”

Throughout the play, Astrakhan seems to be upfront and honest, telling people both bad and good things about himself, when in fact he is a liar. As Kopit says in his e-mail interview, “Generally, we assume that when someone says something in a seemingly honest way, it’s true—or at least what that person thinks is true.” Astrakhan’s forthright and direct manner is put in an even better light when contrasted with the Elliots, who aren’t always truthful with each other. This helps to sway the audience into believing that Astrakhan’s narration of current and past events—which the audience is seeing brought to life on stage—is in fact correct. For a large portion of the play, the audience assumes that Joanne has had an affair with Astrakhan, who describes the sordid details of their affair in vivid and specific detail. Says Astrakhan, “Am I being indiscrete? I’m sorry but there’s no avoiding it. Not if honesty is to be our policy. And truth to be told.”

It is a complete shock to the audience to find out that Joanne doesn’t even recall meeting Astrakhan. Up until this point, the audience thinks they are getting more accurate information than the Elliots since Astrakhan confides in the audience constantly. This final, long scene, in which Joseph describes the particulars of how Astrakhan has ruined their lives, is the turning point in the play, where both the Elliots and the audience realize that they’ve been had. “Strategically, Kopit wants to challenge the solidity of both the Elliots’ and the audience’s sense of reality,” said John Lahr in his review in the New Yorker.

Astrakhan’s tendency to have false memories is particularly interesting since he is so adamant about telling the truth. The play is saturated with references to honesty and truth, and many of them are from Astrakhan, emphasizing to the audience that he is an honest person. Astrakhan addresses the audience: “I only tell the truth. That’s because lying is obscene.” And yet Astrakhan lies to himself and the audience, even when he is reenacting fake events from his past, such as when Joanne asks how old he is in a false memory. “Sixteen,” he replies, having just told Joseph a few minutes ago that he is fifteen. When describing another event from his false past with the Elliots, Astrakhan hints at the narrative process that he uses to rewrite both his own history and that of the Elliots: “not a day passes that I don’t bring it back to mind, with, somehow, each time, some new detail emerging, until now it seems even clearer than it was back then. Funny, how memory works.”

The idea of real versus fictionalized memories is familiar territory for Kopit. Says Lahr, “Y2K... is another of Kopit’s brilliant speculations informed by fact, an unnerving hall of mirrors that adds a new perspective to his obsession with memory and identity.” Astrakhan takes his cue from a Flaubert quote that Joseph likes to quote to his writing class: “Everything you invent is true.” This is certainly the case with Astrakhan’s new brand of digital fiction, although it needs a kernel of truth upon which to support the digital narrative. In the case of the Elliots, this seed of truth is never disclosed to the audience. Although Joseph reveals one secret to Joanne, the fact that he and his ex-wife aborted their child during its last trimester when she was undergoing chemotherapy, this is not the other secret to which both he and Astrakhan refer. One suspects that the secret is most likely some dabbling in pornography since this is the major crime that Astrakhan pins on Joseph in the hacker’s digital story. Says Joseph to Joanne: “Speaking for myself, there are things he has found—about me—and which he’s tucked in with all of the really dreadful ’invented’ stuff—which is going to come out.” Joseph suggests that Joanne has dark secrets as well, especially after seeing lurid photos of her with other men, some of which don’t look fake. Whether Joanne is telling the truth to Joseph doesn’t matter. In the digital age, the hacker’s reality is the only one that anybody else will believe. “Astrakhan has the power to re-create the virtual universe at will in his own demented image,” says Lahr.

So what is Astrakhan’s image? What is the idea that he develops so carefully when he revises the Elliots’ lives and his own memories? He wishes to be a part of the Elliots’ family. And by manipulating their lives and scripting new histories for them, Astrakhan writes himself into their lives for good. Astrakhan tells the audience that Joseph was “his way in,” then corrects himself: “No, let’s be honest: to me he is far more than that. In fact, always has been. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.” Astrakhan’s “discovery,” is the aborted baby, and through the hacker’s manipulation of hospital records, he brings the baby back to life and becomes that baby. Astrakhan foreshadows this turn of events at several points throughout the play, especially when he refers to Joseph as a kind of father figure. “If only someone like you had entered my life earlier, my life would be entirely different now,” Astrakhan tells Joseph in a false memory.

In another false memory of his first visit to the Elliots’ apartment, Astrakhan tells Joseph: “When I

“...KOPIT BREAKS THROUGH INTO NEW TERRITORY, CREATING AN ART FORM FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM—THE SCRIPTING OF REALITY ITSELF.”

publish my first novel, I tell you this is where I’m gonna live.” Astrakhan goes on to clarify that he didn’t mean live with “you and your wife... nice as that might be!” Astrakhan does in fact publish his novel, at least in the digital sense, by creating the new life stories of the Elliots. And in the end, he does end up living with the Elliots, or at least the audience suspects that he will, based on the last few lines of the play:

Like any homecoming, it will be difficult at first. For all of us. So much to get used to! But we will. In time. And then... Yes... It will all be, once again, as I remember it.... And I will take care of them, forever and ever.

“The villain of Mr. Kopit’s slender play is, in fact, quite a twisted piece of humanity,” says Peter Marks in his New York Times review, and by the end of the play, the audience agrees. Joseph could try to fight the hacker by proving his innocence, but the tools at the hacker’s disposal are too massive. Astrakhan has created such a large, intricate, digital history that it is almost impossible to disprove. Furthermore, to mount such a massive campaign would require funds that Joseph and Joanne no longer have because Astrakhan has made their bank accounts unattainable, as he himself is unattainable. As Joseph explains to Joanne: “Thompson says it’s almost impossible to know where he actually is, his messages are all time-delayed and routed in a Byzantine way Thompson claims is like a work of art.” For the Elliots, the unfortunate, unwilling characters in a hacker’s digital story, reality is whatever their new puppetmaster says it is.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Y2K, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Chris Semansky

Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition and writes regularly for literary

magazines and journals. In this essay, he considers the idea of representation in Kopit’s play.

On the surface, Kopit’s play, Y2K, is a cautionary tale about computer technology taking over peoples’ lives. In positioning technology as the enemy, Kopit raises questions about the representative power of words and images, suggesting that they hold the key to human identity.

In his preface, Kopit writes that he was inspired to write the play after being outraged by Special Investigator Kenneth Starr’s intrusion into the private life of Monica Lewinsky during his investigation of her relationship with former president Bill Clinton. Like the Clinton-Lewinsky story, Kopit’s play releases information incrementally, by different players at key points, essentially reshaping what the audience (the audience for the Clinton-Lewinsky story being the media-consuming public) believes to be the truth. Both stories change the audience perception of the central characters by throwing private actions into public light. Y2K, however, suggests that what happens to Joseph Elliot and his wife, Joanne, can happen to anyone.

In foregrounding the power of technology to reconstitute human identity, Kopit begs certain questions about what makes people who they are. Assumptions about human identity that have guided thinking in the industrialized world include the notion that identity is universal and is based on features such as character and personality, which are intrinsic to a person. In contrast, Kopit’s play emphasizes the notion that identity rests primarily upon the idea of narrative, rather than anything intrinsic or essential. That is, the story of a person’s life, in fact, is that person’s life. Kopit underscores this idea by manipulating readers’ expectations of the truth, so that characters such as Joseph and Joanne, who once seemed to be certain types of people, turn out (possibly) to be other types entirely. By putting stories inside stories inside stories, Kopit blurs the distinction between reality and fiction, creating a hall of mirrors in which characters can no longer recognize characters and readers must construct their own theories for what happened and why. There is no single demonstrable truth against standing behind the many versions of events.

The play opens with punk hacker Costa Astrakhan bragging about his power and his ubiquity. Telling the audience he is everywhere, “on the outskirts of your mind, in the ether, in the darkness,” Astrakhan portrays himself as an arrogant and unreliable narrator. Astrakhan appears both as a realistic character in the play, interacting with Joanne and Joseph during a dinner at their apartment, and as a demonic presence, hovering over and commenting on the play’s action. In the latter role, he is symbolic of technology’s pervasive influence in peoples’ lives. Astrakhan’s speeches about his power, his hacking history, and his relationship with Joanne provide the explanation for much of what happens to Joanne and Joseph. In this way, the play is didactic, meaning that its purpose is to teach the audience something. What it teaches, however, is not so clear. Ostensibly, the play is about the evils of computer technology; but it is also about trust, marital and generational, and the relationship between private and public realities.

Without Astrakhan’s speeches, the play would be more of a mystery. By using Astrakhan as a symbolic character, Kopit introduces nonrealistic elements in the play. Nonrealistic plays differ from realistic plays in that they often distort character and time and use symbolic as opposed to realistic settings. Samuel Beckett’s plays, for example, are nonrealistic plays, as they usually ignore both clock time and historical time and have absurd settings, such as cartoon-like characters inhabiting trashcans. Other nonrealistic playwrights include Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and David J. LeMaster. By combining realistic elements such as believable settings and action with nonrealistic elements, Kopit further reinforces the idea that reality itself is an unstable phenomenon over which people often have little control.

Take the character of Joanne, for example. Kopit masterfully pits readers’ knowledge of her, which they gain through seeing her interact with her husband, against Astrakhan’s story of her life, which he puts together by hacking into computer systems, including her own and her husband’s. At first, she appears to be a loving, if somewhat distracted, wife to Joseph, effervescent and with a dry sense of humor. The audience finds out through the couple’s interaction that Joanne is fending off the advances of her ex-husband, Francis Summerhays, a wealthy and obsessive venture capitalist, whom Joseph despises. Astrakhan’s representation of her mixes what appears to be fact—details of her birth, education, etc.—with a story of how they came to be lovers. However, even though readers have every reason to doubt Astrakhan’s version of Joanne’s life and especially of their “affair”—after all, he is a proven liar, plagiarist, drug abuser, and self-confessed hacker—they have no credible alternative to what really happened. Joanne’s credibility has already been compromised. Joseph distrusts her, partly because of his own jealousy of Francis and partly because she was reluctant to provide complete information about her encounter with Francis. In addition, throughout most of the play, the characters drink heavily, causing the audience to question the truthfulness and motivation of their words.

As the audience re-evaluates the truthfulness of the various characters’ versions of events in light of new information, they also begin to question the characters’ motivation. This resembles the way in which the Clinton-Lewinsky affair unfolded and, indeed, the way in which many such situations unfold, where a secret is gradually brought to light by others not initially involved. In some ways, the play resembles a courtroom drama with evidence offered, stories presented and denied, intent and motivation probed, and a jury voting to believe one side’s version of events versus another side’s.

One of the primary theories that viewers and readers of Y2K must consider is the possibility that the entire play is a construct of Astrakhan’s mind. His words frame the action, and his god-like presence

“ONE EXPLANATION IS THAT ASTRAKHAN’S STORY REPRESENTS THE VENGEANCE OF A YOUNGER GENERATION UPON AN OLDER ONE.”

during the course of events suggests that he controls what gets said and done. Although Astrakhan has claimed that he initially became interested in Joseph because he wanted to sleep with a girl in Joseph’s writing class, readers are later told that his “true” motivation is to reunite with the Elliots, whom he believes are his biological parents. But even this motivation for ruining their lives is questionable, given Astrakhan’s previous explanations.

If readers consider the play as the machinations of Astrakhan’s mind, complete with the invention of characters, self-referentiality, and stories inside stories, they must ask themselves what larger symbolic meaning this hacker fantasy holds. One explanation is that Astrakhan’s story represents the vengeance of a younger generation upon an older one. As someone barely out of his teens (or so he says at the beginning of the play), Astrakhan stands in for what marketing demographers sometime refer to as Generation Y, those born between 1979 and 1994. The children of baby boomers, they are also sometimes referred to as Echo Boomers, or the Millennium Generation. Even more so than Generation X, which preceded them, Generation Y has something to prove. Often raised by parents who espouse the idealistic values of the 1960s, but with all the material privilege that the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s have given them, Generation Y’ers are the literal embodiment of deeply rooted contradictions.

Carving out their own identities, then, means grappling with the identity of their parents. Astrakhan, then, as hacker and playwright, “solves” this problem by first creating his parents, the Elliots, then destroying them, and then, in the play’s final image, holding himself out as their possible salvation. As a Generation Y son of boomers, he creates the family he never had, and on his own terms. The fact that it is a virtual family is apropos for a generation raised on the (for Kopit, ironic) promise of computer technology to improve the quality of human life.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Y2K, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Katie Hafner

In the following interview, based on e-mail exchanges, Arthur Kopit discusses the ideas behind, research for, and technological context of his play Y2K.

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Source: Katie Hafner and Arthur Kopit, “Going Online and Finding a Window on the Times,” in the New York Times, December 5, 1999, p. 7, section 2.

“I’M USING Y2K METAPHORICALLY, HOPING IT WILL SUGGEST THE DEEPER, MORE PROFOUND YEAR 2000 PROBLEM: OUR POTENTIAL LOSS OF PERSONAL AND POLITICAL FREEDOM THROUGH TECHNOLOGY.”

SOURCES

Hafner, Katie and Arthur Kopit, “Going Online and Finding a Window on the Times,” in the New York Times, December 5, 1999, p. 7 section 2.

Hoover, Calvin B., Dictators and Democracies, Macmillan, 1937.

Isherwood, Charles, Review of Y2K, in Variety, December 13, 1999.

Jenkins, Jeffrey Eric, “Humana Fest Puts Its Stamp on a Fresh Crop of Plays,” in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 25, 1999.

Kohn, Martin F., “Next Stop: Detroit,” in the Detroit Free Press, April 4, 1999.

Lahr, John, “Open Secrets,” in the New Yorker, Vol. 75, No. 39, December 20, 1999, pp. 100–101.

Marks, Peter, “He’s Mad, He’s Bad and He’s Got Their Passwords,” in the New York Times, December 8, 1999, p. 7.

McNulty, Charles, “On the Verge,” in the Village Voice, March 31–April6, 1999.

Regan, Keith, “Is Internet Privacy an Oxymoron,” in E-Commerce Times (http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/9318.html), April 27, 2001.

Simon, John, “Mystery Science Theatre 2000,” in New York Magazine, December 20, 1999.

Sommer, Elyse, “A CurtainUp Review: Y2K,” in CurtainUp, July 27, 2000.

Yourdon, Edward, and Jennifer Yourdon, Time Bomb 2000, Macmillan, 1997, pp. 506.

FURTHER READING

Berlant, Lauren, and Lisa Duggan, eds., Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the Public Interest (Sexual Cultures), New York University Press, 2001.

This anthology criticizes the relationship between politics and sensationalism.

Eatwell, Roger, Fascism: A History, Allen Lane, 1996.

Eatwell shows how fascist ideology succeeded in Italy and Germany and failed in France and England. He suggests that the preconditions for the future rise of fascism exist.

McLean, Deckle, Privacy and Its Invasion, Praeger, 1995.

McLean uses his background in communications to look at the erosion of privacy in the United States by corporations and institutions.

Peterson, Chris, I Love the Internet, but I Want My Privacy, Too!, Prima Publishing, 1998.

The author explores the advantages and disadvantages of shared information and looks at steps government and corporations are taking to ensure privacy.

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Y2K

Y2K

The millennium

Landmarks on the calendar

The millennium bug and its origins

The potential for disaster

Realities of compliance

Y2K: the aftermath

Resources

As 1999 approached, the world became preoccupied with the coming of the Year 2000, nicknamed Y2K (Y for year and 2 times K, a standard designation for one thousand). Some people were superstitious about the turning of year numbers to 2000, but many focused on a predicted technological problem commonly known as the Y2K Glitch, or the millennium bug (which is a misnomer), feared to cause computers and computer-assisted devices to malfunction.

Computer experts predicted that older computers and several large data systemsincluding those controlling bank transactions, transportation networks, and government datawere not equipped to process dates beyond December 31, 1999. Though the problem was discovered decades earlier, the Y2K Glitch did not become widely known until the mid-1990s when media sources began reporting on the computer bug and its possible consequences. Some technological experts and lay-persons feared widespread computer failures, especially in regions dependent on older technology. Most experts, companies, and governments however implemented detailed programs to fix the suspected problem in their computer systems well before January 1, 2000. As the date recognition problem was relatively simple to correct, such fixes were highly successful, and the millennium bug was averted. Though its effects were not largely realized, the Y2K Bug did highlight the pervasiveness of computer systems and their importance in everyday commerce and industry.

The millennium

In the modern era, the word millennium was appropriated to signify the largest metric division of calendar years on the French Republican calendar. The Republican calendar, implemented in France during the French Revolution (17891804) utilized metric divisions (groups of 10) to divide hours, days, weeks, months, and years. The use of the term millennium to describe a 1,000-year-long span of time remains.

Landmarks on the calendar

There are many types of calendars in the world with different systems of measuring time, distinct origins (religious or cultural), and various chronologies (starting events and dates). The Gregorian or Christian calendar (decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) has become an accepted international standard. This calendar begins with the birth of Christ; the years before Christ (BC) increase back in time from the year of Christs birth. The years since Christs birth (in 1 BC) are the year(s) of Our Lord in Latin, anno domini or AD and have grown larger in number from one forward. No year zero separates BC from AD. As another example, the Hebrew calendar uses 3761 BC, which was the year of the creation of the world (according to Old Testament interpretations), as its beginning (or 1 AM anno mundi, the year of the world).

In the past, landmark centuries have also had great significance. When the second millennium was (supposedly) reached in 1000 AD, in Medieval Europe, various events were predicted, from the return of Christ to a solar eclipse, from a plague to the obliteration of the world. Others chose to forgo doomsday predictions in favor of celebration.

Similarly, as the year 2000 was commonly thought to begin the third millennium, many superstitious persons, numerologists, and others attached unusual significance to a simple tick of the clock. Technically, the new millennium did not begin until January 1, 2001 (because the Christian calendar begins with the year 1 AD; thus the end of the first millennium ended on December 31, 1000, the beginning of the second millennium started on January 1, 1001, the end of the second millennium occurred on December 31, 2000, and the beginning of the third millennium started on January 1, 2001). While this event was marked by many, it did not have the mass appeal of the turning from the year 1999 to the year 2000.

The millennium bug and its origins

The year 2000, Y2K, did have another association. Some feared the so-called Y2K bug, or millennium bug, would be devastating. The Y2K bug was a fault built into computers. It came about because early developers of computer programs were uncertain that computers would have a future. American computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper (19061992) and American computer scientist Robert William Berner (19202004) created COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a standard programming language that began one of the keystones of computer languages and software. One of their purposes was to keep the language simple so anyone could use it.

To cut corners wherever possible, they built in standardized dates with two digits each for the day, month, and year, as in 061458 for June 14, 1958. This short form could also mean 1558 or 2058. Berner accidentally solved the problem without recognizing it in the late 1950s when the Mormons asked him to adapt the computers storage capability to the massive genealogical library in Salt Lake City. Genealogical records embrace centuries, so Berner created a picture clause in COBOL that allowed years to be written with four digits. When others adapted COBOL, they ignored Berners saving device. Notably, IBM made the two-digit-year formula part of its System/360 computers, which were as pervasive in the 1960s as Windows systems and software are today.

By the mid-1970s, organizations and programmers were beginning to recognize the potential obstacle. The Pentagon promised adjustments for the coming century beginning in 1974, but the transition reportedly proceeded slowly. Programmers began experimenting with plugging 2000-plus dates into their systems and software and found they did not compute. It was not until 1995, however, that the U.S. Congress, the media, and the public all seemed to discover the problem. As of 1999, 1.2 trillion lines of computer code still needed to be fixed, and up to $600 billion was reportedly spent to reprogram and test vulnerable computers.

The Y2K phenomenon was put to an early test on September 9, 1999. Computer shorthand used to include the messages 0000 at the start of a file and 9999 to end or delete a file. Those predicting the worst for Y2K also expected computer files to disappear on September 9, 1999 but few incidents were reported.

The potential for disaster

The U.S. federal government prepared for Y2K for years, but the actual progress made by the dawning of 2000 was uncertain. Credit card companies Visa, American Express, and MasterCard invested millions of dollars in solving the problem together, assisted merchants who carry their cards, and time-proofed the VeriFone system that authorizes transactions. Among the gloomiest predictions were worries that air traffic control systems would fail, major utilities would be unable to supply water and power, and banks would not acknowledge mortgage payments or social security checks. The heritage of the original COBOL programming was passed down through generations of computers to the personal computer, or PC, and computer chips that control the workings of some of the simplest devices like coffeemakers that display the date also control automobiles, heavy machinery, building security systems, and space satellites. Such built-in processors are called embedded systems, and those that are date-dependent were not expected to function properly or to shut down as 1999 rolled over to 2000.

Realities of compliance

Companies in the United States and many other countries encouraged businesses to share compliance information regarding the potential Y2K problem. The Year 2000 Readiness and Disclosure Act made businesses liable if they provided consumers with inaccurate information regarding their Y2K readiness. Businesses typically did not provide free upgrades to make computers and other products Y2K-compliant, but they did furnish information on their Web sites, including corrections that could be downloaded.

Perhaps the greatest fears were focused on developing countries. Pacific Rim and Western countries publicized Y2Ks associations well, but, according to the World Bank, many key systems and emerging economies were at risk in the Third World. Fewer and larger computers control a range of systems, the systems of several countries are often interdependent, emergency management is short-handed for day-today problems aside from Y2K, and funds were scarce for buying emergency help and repairs.

Y2K: the aftermath

As the year 2000 became a reality, most all major computer systems were fully Y2K compliant. There were no widespread failures, and industries from

KEY TERMS

Bug An error in software that causes a computer to operate incorrectly, produce wrong results, or shut down. Synonym: glitch.

Embedded system A computer chip or processor built into an appliance or mechanical device that is not a computer itself.

Millennium A time period of 1000 years.

Millennium bug or Y2K bug A software or computer programming error in which 00 as the year is read as a mistake or a symbol for the year 1900 instead of 2000, causing the computer to reject the information or stop operating.

airlines to power plants, functioned normally. Even in developing regions, the predicted effects of the millennium bug, for the most part, were successfully prevented. Newspapers and pundits pronounced the Y2K bug a complete bust. The total estimated cost in the United States to prepare for Y2K was $300 billion. Most problems that were predicted to happen on January 1, 2000, did not happen. Proponents said that the United States was prepared for the date. However, critics, said other countries did not prepare to the extent that the United States did, and they, also, did not have major problems with computers in 2000.

Resources

BOOKS

Parise, Frank, ed. The Book of Calendars. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2002.

PERIODICALS

Teresi, Dick. Zero. The Atlantic Monthly, (July 1997): 88.

Woodward, Kenneth L. Uh-oh, Maybe We Missed the Big Day. Newsweek, (Aug. 11, 1997): 51.

OTHER

United States Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. Y2K Aftermath: Crisis Averted, Final Committee Report. February, 29, 2000.

United States Department of Defense. The Year 2000 Problem. <http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/y2k/y2k_back.htm> (accessed November 7, 2006).

Gillian S. Holmes

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Y2K

Y2K

The expression Y2K, shorthand for the year 2000 (Y=year; 2=two; K=the symbol for 1,000), helped define the closing days of the twentieth century by spotlighting some pitfalls of the computer age. Y2K represented a major problem—some called it a crisis of global proportions—caused mainly by older computers whose programmers and software designers failed to foresee what could happen in the year 2000. Often called "the Y2K bug," this problem came about because early computer designers used only a two-digit year—uniformly dropping the "19" that stands at the beginning of every year from 1900 to 1999. What the designers failed to take into consideration was the problem posed by the year 2000. Computer logic meant the machines would translate the numbers 00 not as the year 2000 but as 1900. In the closing days of the century, the world was put on notice that computers using the two-digit formulation could malfunction because of this inability to distinguish years belonging to different centuries.

Because computers had become intertwined with almost every facet of life in America and virtually the rest of the world, some doomsayers predicted that banks would fail, military systems would become paralyzed, planes would fall out of the sky, elevators would stop, stock exchanges would collapse, and life in general would be dramatically disrupted.

Although the problem had been known about for years, governments and businesses waited until the last few years of the twentieth century to tackle the potential crisis. For example, it was not until September 1997 that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the U.S. government watchdog over the stock exchange markets, issued a notice to investors to pressure investment companies to make their computers "Y2K compliant"—a phrase meaning that computers had been checked and fixed, if necessary, to avoid any year 2000 problems when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999. The SEC also urged investors to press publicly traded companies to take steps to avoid a Y2K disaster, including assessing the cost of fixing their computers and making sure their officers and board members took out personal liability insurance for what could be an avalanche of lawsuits.

With great fanfare, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced in December 1998 that the Social Security Administration, which then handled some 40 million checks each month for pensioners, disabled people, and widows, was Y2K compliant. Nevertheless, some Republicans took issue with the Democratic president's claims that checks would go out on time, noting that some banks that receive checks for recipients and are vital to the system might be noncompliant.

Later, the Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, announced at a Senate hearing on the Y2K problem that there would not be widespread food shortages in the United States because of the millennium bug. "There are some fear-mongers there," Glickman said, as he urged people to avoid stockpiling or hoarding food as the year 2000 approached. Glickman conceded, however, that although he did not see major food shortages, "there will be some glitches" and disruptions in the marketplace.

While American businesses and local, state, and federal governments were spending millions of dollars to correct the problem with computers, some developing countries lagged. The World Bank reported that some areas, notably sub-Sahara Africa, could run into major problems with electricity, food, and health care. In early 1999, with less than a year to go before the 2000 bug might hit, the Bank found in a survey of 139 countries that only 21 had taken major steps to solve the problem, although 54 had some kind of national policy to deal with the bug.

By the end of 1999, observers hoped that the steps taken by companies and governments would prevent Y2K from causing any major disasters. The fear of Y2K ebbed and swelled in different areas across the globe, depending on whether the most important computer systems had become Y2K compliant. But certainly, Y2K had done more than create a global panic; it deflated the esteem some held for the early designers of software machinery, who had been looked upon as geniuses and had become millionaires and billionaires virtually overnight. Their use of the two-digit code saved steps in millions of computer applications, but at the same time lobbed a gigantic, ticking time bomb into the next century.

—Michael Posner

Further Reading:

De Jaeger, Peter, and Richard Bergeon and Robin Guenier. Countdown Y2K: Business Survival Planning for the Year 2000. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1998.

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Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

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Y2K

Y2K

As the end of the 1990s approached, the world became preoccupied with the coming of the Year 2000, nicknamed "Y2K" (Y for year and 2 times K, a standard designation for a thousand). Some were superstitious about the turning of year numbers to 2000, but many focused on a predicted technological problem commonly known as the"Y2K Glitch" or the "millennium bug" feared to cause computers and computer-assisted devices to malfunction. Computer experts predicted that older computers and several large data systems—including those controlling bank transactions, transportation networks, and government data—were not equipped to process dates beyond December 31, 1999. Though the problem was discovered decades earlier, the "Y2K Glitch" did not become widely known until the mid-1990s when media sources began reporting on the computer bug and its possible consequences. Some technological experts and lay-persons feared widespread computer failures, especially in regions dependent on older technology. Most experts, companies, and governments however implemented detailed programs to fix the suspected problem in their computer systems well before January 1, 2000. As the date recognition problem was relatively simple to correct, such fixes were highly successful, and the "millennium bug" was averted. Though its effects were not largely realized, the "Y2K Bug" did highlight the pervasiveness of computer systems and their importance in everyday commerce and industry.

The millennium

In the modern era, the word millennium was appropriated to signify the largest metric division of calendar years on the French Republican calendar. The Republican calendar, implemented in France during the French Revolution (1789–1804) utilized metric divisions (groups of 10) to divide hours, days, weeks, months, and years. The use of the term millennium to describe a 1,000-year-long span of time remains.


Landmarks on the calendar

There are many types of calendars in the world with different systems of measuring time, distinct origins (religious or cultural), and various chronologies (starting events and dates). The Gregorian or Christian calendar (decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) has become an accepted international standard. This calendar begins with the birth of Christ; the years before Christ (b.c.) increase back in time from the year of Christ's birth. The years since Christ's birth (in 1 b.c.) are "the year(s) of Our Lord" in Latin, anno domini or a.d. and have grown larger in number from one forward. No year zero separates b.c. from a.d. As another example, the Hebrew calendar uses 3761 b.c., which was the year of the creation of the world (according to Old Testament interpretations), as its beginning (or 1 a.m., anno mundi, "the year of the world").

In the past, landmark centuries have also had great significance. When the first millennium was reached in a.d. 1000, in Medieval Europe , various events were predicted, from the return of Christ to a solar eclipse, from a plague to the obliteration of the world. Others chose to forgo doomsday predictions in favor of celebration.

Similarly, as the year 2000 was commonly thought to begin the third millennium, some superstitious persons, numerologists, and others attached unusual significance to a simple tick of the clock. Technically, the new millennium did not begin until January 1, 2001 (because the Christian calendar begins with the year a.d. 1). While this event was marked by many, it did not have the mass appeal of the turning of the year 2000.

The millennium bug and its origins

The year 2000, Y2K, did have another association. Some feared the so-called Y2K bug or millennium bug would be devastating. The Y2K bug was a fault built into computers. It came about because early developers of computer programs were uncertain that computers would have a future. Grace Murray Hopper and Robert Berner created COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a standard programming language that began one of the keystones of computer languages and software. One of their purposes was to keep the language simple so anyone could use it.

To cut corners wherever possible, they built in standardized dates with two digits each for the day, month, and year, as in 061458 for June 14, 1958. This short form could also mean 1558 or 2058. Berner accidentally solved the problem without recognizing it in the late 1950s when the Mormons asked him to adapt the computer's storage capability to the massive genealogical library in Salt Lake City. Genealogical records embrace centuries, so Berner created a "picture clause" in COBOL that allowed years to be written with four digits. When others adapted COBOL, they ignored Berner's saving device. Notably, IBM made the two-digit-year formula part of its System/360 computers, which were as pervasive in the 1960s as Windows systems and software are today.

By the mid-1970s, organizations and programmers were beginning to recognize the potential obstacle. The Pentagon promised adjustments for the coming century beginning in 1974, but the transition reportedly proceeded slowly. Programmers began experimenting with plugging 2000-plus dates into their systems and software and found they did not compute. It was not until 1995, however, that Congress, the media, and the public all seemed to "discover" the problem. As of 1999, 1.2 trillion lines of computer code still needed fixed, and up to $600 billion were reportedly spent to reprogram and test vulnerable computers.

The Y2K phenomenon was put to an early test on September 9, 1999. Computer shorthand used to include the messages "0000" at the start of a file and "9999" to end or delete a file. Those predicting the worst for Y2K also expected computer files to disappear on September 9, 1999. Few incidents were reported in the days following 9999.


The potential for disaster

The U.S. Government prepared for Y2K for years, but the actual progress made by the dawning of 2000 was uncertain. The credit card giants Visa, American Express, and MasterCard invested millions of dollars in solving the problem together, assisted merchants who carry their cards, and time-proofed the VeriFone system that authorizes transactions. Among the gloomiest predictions were worries that air traffic control systems would fail, major utilities would be unable to supply water and power, and banks would not acknowledge mortgage payments or social security checks. The heritage of the original COBOL programming was passed down through generations of computers to the personal computer or PC, and computer chips that control the workings of some of our simplest devices like coffeemakers that display the date also control automobiles, heavy machinery, building security systems, and space satellites. Such built-in processors are called embedded systems, and those that are date-dependent were not expected to function properly or to shut down as 1999 rolled over to 2000.

Realities of compliance

Companies in the United States and many other countries encouraged businesses to share compliance information regarding the potential Y2K problem. The Year 2000 Readiness and Disclosure Act made businesses liable if they provided consumers with inaccurate information regarding their Y2K readiness. Businesses typically did not provide free upgrades to make computers and other products Y2K-compliant, but they did furnish information on their Web sites, including corrections that could be downloaded.

Perhaps the greatest fears were focused on developing countries. Pacific Rim and Western countries publicized Y2K's associations well, but, according to the World Bank, many key systems and emerging economies were at risk in the Third World. Fewer and larger computers control a range of systems, the systems of several countries are often interdependent, emergency management is short-handed for day-to-day problems aside from Y2K, and funds were scarce for buying emergency help and repairs.


Y2K: The aftermath

As the year 2000 became a reality, most all major computer systems were fully Y2K compliant. There were no widespread failures, and industries from airlines to power plants, functioned normally. Even in developing regions, the predicted effects of the millennium bug, for the most part, were successfully prevented. Newspapers and pundits pronounced the Y2K bug a complete bust. So much money and so many technological hours were spent anticipating the Y2K bug, and protecting against it, that the possible scope of its effects will remain unknown.

Resources

periodicals

Teresi, Dick. "Zero." The Atlantic Monthly (July 1997): 88.

Woodward, Kenneth L. "Uh-oh, Maybe We Missed the Big Day." Newsweek (August 11, 1997): 51.

other

United States General Services Administration, National Y2K Clearinghouse. [cited October 18, 2002] <http://www.y2k.gov>.

United States Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. Y2K Aftermath: Crisis Averted, Final Committee Report. February, 29, 2000.


Gillian S. Holmes

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Bug

—An error in software that causes a computer to operate incorrectly, produce wrong results, or shut down. Synonym: glitch.

Embedded system

—A computer chip or processor built into an appliance or mechanical device that is not a computer itself.

Millennium

—A time period of 1000 years.

Millennium bug or Y2K bug

—A software or computer programming error in which 00 as the year is read as a mistake or a symbol for the year 1900 instead of 2000, causing the computer to reject the information or stop operating.

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Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

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Notes:
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