The world didn’t end.
I suspect you know that already, even if you were too young to see the ball drop at the end of 1999. But for a while there– for a few years, right up until that final countdown– it really felt like it might. Every day it seemed like a new dire warning was issued, that everything from toaster ovens to jumbo jets would suddenly be rendered inert, that bank accounts would suddenly be emptied and social security numbers would blink out of existence (this is, of course, in addition to your evergreen slate of garden-variety biblical prophecies and the still-bubbling-under threat of international terrorism). I can remember watching as a teenager as the earliest time zones ticked past midnight, and being faintly disappointed at the lack of calamity. I didn’t want anything bad to happen, of course– but after all that, it couldn’t help like a bit of a letdown that we didn’t at least get a little bit of apocalypse.
For those who missed the hoopla around the so-called Y2K crisis– or those looking for a return to those heady end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it days– Time Bomb Y2K, the new documentary by Brian Becker and Marley McDonald, will serve as a handy time capsule. Constructed entirely from contemporaneous news footage, home movies, and other ephemera, Time Bomb perfectly captures the cocktail of looming dread and nervous optimism that was the order of the day at the turn of the millennium– and picks up on a few harbingers of how things got this bad.
At the crux of the matter was that 20th century computer programmers, looking to save precious memory and unaware of (or uninterested in) the long-term ramifications of their actions, logged years using two digits rather than four– that is, “99” for “1999.” By the late ‘90s, it became apparent that this would wreak havoc on our increasingly digital recordkeeping; as far as the computers were concerned, we would be back to the year 1900, and almost no one in any of their databases would be born yet. The problem was severe enough that President Clinton appointed a “Y2K Czar,” and computer programmers across the world worked overtime to avoid sending us all back to the Stone Age.
The term “Y2K” is now so associated with ‘90s-kid kitsch that I went into Time Bomb Y2K half expecting it to be a “found comedy” video mixtape in the vein of Everything Is Terrible or TV Carnage. There is a bit of that, to be sure– we are treated to grave words of warning from press junkets with Matt Damon and Busta Rhymes, as well as a trailer for the infamously hysterical NBC production Y2K: The Movie. But it’s easy to forget that Y2K was more than mere hysteria; it was an actual crisis that was averted through diligent work, and Becker and McDonald treat it seriously as such. Watching Time Bomb brought back that feeling of creeping uncertainty and ticking-clock suspense that accompanied those years, and by the time the ball drops you’ll feel just as relieved as those revelers in Times Square.
Of course, there was quite a bit of hysteria as well, which provides Time Bomb with both its most arch and its most chilling moments. Running parallel to the programmers’ rush to avert disaster is the steady evolution of the “Y2K survivalist” movement, which Becker and McDonald document with chilling clarity. It began innocently enough, with hippie-dippy earth-mothers and woo-woo Aquarians quitting their jobs and forming farmstead communes; to these survivalists, the crisis almost seemed to be a blessing in disguise, a chance to reject the corporate conformity of the 20th century, raising goats and rebuilding fractured communities. Things took a darker turn, however, when the megaphone was grabbed by the “militia” movement. Militias had gained traction in the 1990s as a reaction against the Clinton era, with cadres of far-right lunatics building remote compounds and stockpiling guns and ammunition for an impending but nebulously defined armageddon. In Y2K, the militias suddenly had something concrete on which to hang their bandoliers, and membership and public interest skyrocketed. Media attention followed, bringing this militant mix of bloodlust and conspiracism into the mainstream, and… well, here we are now. Becker and McDonald present this progression without comment, but the point is clear: Y2K was an important step in how we got to this moment.*
Knowing what we know now lends extra poignancy to the film’s final passage, which consists largely of home movie footage of families watching the countdown and man-on-the-street interviews with partiers who braved the crowds to ring in the ‘aughts in person. By this point, it’s mostly clear that nothing bad is going to happen, and nervy paranoia gives way, if only briefly, to wide-eyed optimism. The revelers hope for peace in the new millennium; they no longer see the numbers ticking over as a crisis, but as a blank slate. The fact that the world came together and solved this problem seemed to indicate a new age of communication and cooperation. Of course, we know what happened next: Bush and 9/11, Trump and Brexit, a whole mess of wars and recessions and various and sundry traumas for which the seeds had already been planted (I had forgotten that 1/31/99 also marked the day Russian President Boris Yeltsin passed the reins to a young PM named Vladimir Putin). The promise of the Age of Information congealed into the Sludge of Social Media. The world didn’t end– but, as Becker and McDonald implicitly argue, Y2K set some balls in motion that may get us there yet.
* – A personal aside: when we were children, my best friend lived on a farmstead, complete with wood heating, hand-pumped water, and a corral for livestock. In the late ‘90s, his family moved to more modern accommodations and rented the farmhouse out to a survivalist commune, who saw in its self-sufficiency the ideal means to survive the coming disaster. On the very first night of their tenancy, these “survivalists” carelessly dumped a mound of stove ash into a wooden box, which ignited and burned the place half to the ground. I think of this memory every time I hear a McMansion-dwelling yuppie brag about their “stockpile.”
Time Bomb Y2K
dir. Brian Becker & Marley McDonald
Part of the 2023 Independent Film Festival Boston – keep watching the site for the Hassle’s continuing coverage!