An Irishman's Diary
Reports that the world may end this coming December 21st – based on readings of an ancient Mayan calendar – have evoked embarrassing memories of my own membership of a doomsday sect, back in the late 20th century.
“Membership” is perhaps overstating it. My involvement in the cult was never more than peripheral. But I was certainly a believer, because like many vulnerable people back then, I had fallen under the spell of a group of mysterious New-Age types known as “information technologists” or “techies”.
These communicated in a language of their own, which none of the rest of us understood. Yet they had great power over normal humans then, thanks to computers. We had hardly noticed it at the time but, during the 1990s, everyone had suddenly become dependent on these machines.
The problem now was that, frequently, they would malfunction for no apparent reason. When they did, their screens would flash strange messages, apparently from another world: eg “404 error not found” or – “this program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down”. On such occasions, techies would be sent for and they would interpret the messages, or just make them go away.
Nobody asked how they did it. But there was at least a quasi-religious aspect. Whenever a computer crashed, one of the first questions they would always ask was whether the document you were working on had been “saved”. If it hadn’t been “saved”, often, it was deemed “lost”.
Anyway, we grew to depend on these people. And it must have been about 1998, having first gained our trust, that the elders of the techie movement began warning us about something called “Y2K”.
Its arrival was imminent, we were told. When it came, it would cause widespread chaos, if not the apocalypse. In worst-cased scenarios, planes would fall from the sky. At best, ATMs would freeze, resulting in a global panic.
As with the current scare, the Y2K prediction was based on interpretation of a calendar. Now it’s the “Mesoamerican Long-Count Calendar”, which is apparently edging towards the end of its 5125-year cycle. But in the 1990s, it was a short-count calendar that caused the problem.
Back at the dawn of techie civilisation, it emerged, the founders of the cult had seen fit to record the passing years with only two digits. We’re talking about the mists of 1960s antiquity, after all. And so far away did the next century seem then that the “19” part of dates had been considered unnecessary. Thus, come January 1st, 2000, it was believed, computers would assume it was “1900”. Which, in ATMs, for example, would have a disastrous effect on interest calculations.
Fortunately, most IT elders believed the catastrophe could be averted, if the computer gods were appeased. This could be achieved, apparently, with vast amounts of consultancy fees and overtime. And so, in the months before armageddon, many companies hired the services of the techie high priests, who attempted to cleanse the computer systems in elaborate but mysterious exorcism ceremonies.
After that, we held our breath and waited. And as often happens with Doomsday predictions, there was a mixture of embarrassment and relief when the date passed without incident. Inevitably, there also followed some recrimination. Members of the cult quickly divided between those who believed the whole thing to have been a con and those who insisted the predictions had been fully accurate, but that the necessary exorcisms had just done their job.
Either way, it’s estimated the cult cost several hundred billion dollars worldwide. And by some counts, at least half of it was spent unnecessarily.
In fairness to Mayan mystics, most of them are not predicting the end of anything next week. It’s just the closing of one cycle, they say, and the beginning of a new one. To prove which point, Mexico’s Yucatan state – home to many Mayans – is having a celebratory festival this December and plans another in 12 months’ time.
And maybe, looking back at it now, the Y2K thing also just marked a cyclical change. Ireland was still in the midst of the boom then, and would be for a while yet. But the end of that was certainly nigh.
I read recently about a tech consultant who worked with the banking system through 1999 to forestall the feared disaster. On New Year’s Eve, he stayed up all night in case of a computer crash. Which didn’t happen in the end, fortunately; although of course, based on what we now know, it was the bankers themselves that needed reprogramming.