Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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Millennium Bugs
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kevin O'Malley

I can imagine a scene many years from now. An angelic little girl looks up at the wrinkled face of an elderly man and asks, "Gramps, where were you when the new millennium began?" If it were a normal New Year and a real scene, the response would be, "I don't remember," "Can't hear you," or, in my case, "Asleep." But this isn't going to be a normal New Year. This is an event where everyone will remember where he or she was. For some of my neighbors, that alone will distinguish it from a normal New Year's Eve.

The rational side of us knows it is silly to be excited about beginning a new millennium. As a reader reminded me many months ago, if we were purists, we would celebrate the following year, New Year's Eve 2000. (I forgot the reasoning but bought extra champagne anyway). Besides, there are other calendars than our own and the folks who created this one may not have picked the right starting date. We don't make a big deal about other numbers that have religious significance, so why such a fuss about multiples of 1000? For many of us the most cosmic consequence of the new year is that we will finally date our checks correctly in January.

That's the voice of reason. The reality is that lots of people are excited about the New Year and I am fascinated by their responses, especially by a split between paranoids and partyers, neither of whom is much concerned about the religious connotations of the event.

The paranoids don't usually conjure a good, old-fashioned apocalypse. That would be nothing special: tabloids have been predicting one for years and their sources have sighted the Devil as often as Elvis. It is computer glitches that have paranoids worried, perhaps for good reason. Especially sinister are the little computer chips that now run just about everything, including cars and household appliances. I once met someone ahead of the curve on this issue. Never mind the Y2K problem, he was convinced that the Japanese never forgave Americans for World War II and that they implanted sinister devices in everything they sold in the U.S. At a set time, probably the stroke of midnight 1999, every Japanese product would attack. He was fuzzy on details--the concept of a homicidal Nikon was baffling--and I can't ask for clarification because I lost track of him, although I occasionally imagine hearing him on talk radio. Delete the part about Japan, though, and his game plan now sounds familiar. A recent computer magazine listed 10 things to do to prepare for the millennium. Number five was "Brace yourself for lawsuits."

The most visible partyers are celebrities, who--according to hard news sources like Entertainment Tonight--are renting whole islands for themselves and thousands of close, photogenic friends to greet the millennium. For the rest of us, less grand alternatives are everywhere. We recently stayed in a pretty turn-of-the-century hotel in Colorado. It offers New Year's Eve packages ranging from $1,299 to $1,699, complete with "Etched Millennium Champagne Flutes" and a "Souvenir photograph in a Millennium frame." If you linger a few days, the going rate drops to $100 a night. It should be a pretty special party.

From the condescending tone, you might think I am immune to the millennium bug. That's just the way academics write. I've been pumped about the millennium since I was a little kid and realized I might live to see it, although that would make me older than my parents, who were ancient. By the turn of the century, I would be the age of my grandmother, and nobody lived to be that old. (She lasted another 45 years.) Now I know that people of such an age remain in full possession of all their powers, subject to occasional voltage reductions and outages. It is not clear what I expected the millennium to bring. It just sounded cool. It still does.

The problem is that if how you respond to the millennium is a personality test--and I think it is--my spouse and I have flunked. We are neither partyers nor paranoid. If we ever rent a grandchild and I am asked what I was doing when the millennium began, it will be a short story. Excited as I am about the turn of the century, our plans keep returning to the usual New Year's Eve ritual: staying home, fixing a favorite dish with a garlic sauce that kills vampires and social lives, and watching a movie on the VCR. Our daughter compares such an evening unfavorably to going to the prom with an older brother. We will leave island parties to high rollers (not that we were invited) and millennium champagne flutes to people with healthy credit cards. Serious contemplation of the past century will also wait for another day. The millennium will end in our house with Fred and Ginger dancing cheek-to-cheek. Until the appliances attack.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.