Can I recognize the person I was in 1999, and would she recognize me?
In the last weeks of 1999, I was working as a newspaper reporter in Honolulu, diligently putting together a story on the possibility that computer networks worldwide might crash because of a phenomenon known as Y2K.
The theory behind Y2K was simple, yet alarming: Nearly all computer programs had been set up decades before to read the month, day and year as two-digit numbers. But no one seemed to know what would happen to those programs when, just after midnight on 12/31/99, the year column would flip from two nines to two zeroes, and the date would be 01/01/00.
Would the computers correctly interpret the two sequential zeroes as “2000?” Or would they see them as something else—a kind of double null that would cause their internal circuits to go berserk and short out completely?
Some of my sources explained that planned obsolescence was the culprit: Computer manufacturers had naively assumed their equipment would be replaced long before the year 2000. Thus, they didn’t need to program any fail-safes for that distant date when the 20th century ended and the 21st century began.
Unfortunately for the civilized world, a surprising number of vital services still depended on electronic equipment built decades earlier that might or might not screech to a halt just as Happy 2000 champagne corks were popping all over the globe.
I recalled my Y2K reporting experience recently as I reflected on the coming New Year and a new decade. In my own private nod to this momentous occasion, I have been trying to put the last 20 years of my life in context and anticipate what the next 20 might bring.
Twenty years ago I was, as I just described, living in Honolulu and working as a journalist. I was in my 40s and still fairly oblivious to the ticking down of my life’s internal time clock.
In December 1999, I could not have known that three years later I would quit my job and move from Honolulu—where I had lived for nearly 15 years—back home to Pennsylvania to help care for my mother, who had developed Parkinson’s disease.
I could not have known I would live near my mother and my brother; delight in watching my brother’s two sons grow up; and be at my mother’s side when she died in September of 2009.
In December 1999 I could not have known about Facebook, or smartphones, or my pride in voting—twice—for our country’s first African American president. I couldn’t possibly have imagined my despair about the current crisis in our national political system.
I have been gone from Hawaii for so long now, nearly 17 years, that I look back on my life there with something like incredulity. Did I really live for so long in that magical, maddening place, reporting and writing with such devotion on issues affecting its residents and visitors?
Did I really spend so much time on long flights between my family in Pennsylvania and my Honolulu home thousands of miles away, where I had many close friends I still revere although I have not seen most of them in years?
In my attempts this week to look back and forward in time, I have accepted the common wisdom that the future is unknowable: It is a land we have not inhabited yet.
But I am also coming to understand that the past can be unrecognizable, too, even though we have traveled through it. Time plays so many tricks on our memories that the past can seem as foreign as the future.
And so, after all these years, I am renewing my respect for those nerve-wracked computer engineers and programmers hunched over their keyboards in the last days and hours of 1999.
They, too, were bewildered by the past. How could “planned obsolescence” ever have been considered an acceptable approach when designing sophisticated computer systems? And they were extremely wary of the future—especially the first seconds of the year 2000.
But they muddled through, and, in those first moments of January 1, 2000, they were greatly relieved to see that the part of the civilized world linked to computers did not collapse.
As we prepare to greet 2020, I am going to take a page from the Y2K troubleshooters’ coffee-stained 1999 notebooks. Walk toward the unknown future with courage. Be aware that the past can be puzzling and hard to pin down. And perhaps plan a trip back to Honolulu soon—to renew the best of those cherished 20th-century memories.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Hooper