The End Of The World As We Know It?

The millennium bug could bite VCRs, ICBMs and more. Doomsayers say it's all in God's endgame

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To begin with, it's based on a misunderstanding. Whenever the millennium is, it's not really next year, even if that's when just about everybody will be marking it. The party crowd pounding back beers in Times Square, the doomsayers bunched in armored yurts, all of them will greet the millennium at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. But by more careful calculations, the millennium began a few years ago. A large part of the misunderstanding stems from Dionysius Exiguus--Latin for "Dennis the Short"--a 6th century monk who should be thought of as the original millennium bug. Dennis laid down the basis for the calendars we use today by figuring how far in the past Christ's birth was. As it turns out, he was off by several years. Historians now place the Nativity no later than 4 B.C., the year King Herod died. By that reckoning, the 3rd millennium would have commenced no later than 1997. You missed it.

All the same, the year just getting under way will bring 12 months of millennial thinking, hoping and, in many circles, worrying. Especially worrying--about The End of the World as We Know It (or TEOTWAWKI, the acronym in use on some Internet gloomsites). Apocalyptic fantasies, which have always been freely available in an atomic-age Christian culture, are about to reach another climax. Beyond the obvious reason that the year 2000 is at hand, there's the end of the cold war, which threatened for a while to deprive us of the sheer glamour of imagined annihilation. Even Hollywood has had to resort lately to wayward asteroids, space invaders and Godzilla as a way to provide that strangely agreeable image, civilization getting wrecked. "Yeah," we tell ourselves, as the space rock/laser beam/Japanese reptile whacks another ugly office building. "That should only happen to everything."

But as death-wish fantasies go, none of those is anywhere near as satisfying as our fading images of nuclear war, which had the great advantage of plausibility. By comparison, most religious versions of Armageddon (the biblical episode) seem as unreal as Armageddon (the sci-fi film). Even most devout Christians don't expect that any time soon they will see the seven-headed beast from The Revelation of St. John, the New Testament's dense and cryptic vision of the last things. But in these final days of the 20th century, religious millennialism has once again found a real world problem on which to hang its visions of doom--the Y2K (that's the year 2000) computer bug.

The Y2K problem is this. Many of the world's computers and microchip circuitry, the ones that run everything from cash machines and VCRs to interstate electric-power grids and intercontinental ballistic missiles, contain a programming oversight that makes them incapable of reading the date 2000. To represent years, computers generally use just the last two digits. When 1999--that's 99 in computer language--rolls over at midnight to 00, computers that have not had the glitch repaired will conclude that the date is 1900. That can lead to a surprising range of malfunctions, and not just in such obviously date-sensitive tasks as billing.

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