Will the Real Y2K Stand Up?

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Will the Real Y2K Stand Up? by Farhad Manjoo 2:00 a.m. Dec. 12, 2000 PST

Sometimes, during a crusade, you're forced to accept the futility of your efforts. You just have to let it go: Step off your soapbox, turn off your mike, hang it up, because nobody is listening.

That's what Ian Chadwick, a Web designer in Ontario, Canada, decided at the end of 1999, when he realized that his grumbling about the start-date of the third millennium -- it begins in 2001, he says, not 2000 -- wasn't convincing anybody.

He realized that "getting upset about these things wouldn't make a wit of difference to the way world works," and for his troubles, on New Year's Eve 2000 he "was seriously chided all night long."

Others like Chadwick -- slaves to math who couldn't shake the feeling that the whole world was conspiring against logic itself in accepting a millennial date that defied reasonable scientific thought -- did the same in 2000. They went softly into New Year's Eve without so much as a peep about how calendar-creator Dionysius Exiguus hadn't considered the Year Zero.

But a lot of the millennial questioners, if one remembers correctly, promised that they'd be back; they might partake in some of the 2000 festivities so others didn't think they were being snooty, but only in 2001 would they put their hands in the air and party like they just didn't care.

Here we are at the cusp of the real third millennium, though, and it seems the geeks aren't doing anything special this year. There are no earth-shattering parties planned, no globe-trotting, we-are-the-world TV specials, no orgies or frenzies or even a tribute to, say, an abacus.

There's a small soiree planned at the U.S. Naval Observatory, America's master timepiece, but the rules there are so tame -- no coolers? -- that it hardly seems Millennial.

A similar event is planned at the world's ticker, in Greenwich, England, but as in the rest of the world, the big party there occurred last year.

December 31, 2000, then, seems destined to be a New Year's Eve like any other, an anticlimax of Dick Clark at Times Square, some bubbly, a kazoo, and Auld Lang Syne.

"Really there is no story," said Jeff DeTray, an amateur astronomer and millennium questioner who put up a Web page making clear his dissent of the 2000 date.

"I've been really surprised -- most of the people who have contacted me this year have been reporters wondering if anything was going on. I got e-mails from the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Enquirer on consecutive days."

But DeTray isn't doing anything special. "Really, we are pretty boring people," he said, explaining that he didn't do much last year, either. "I checked in with the ABC special that was on for 24 hours. It was a fantastic program."

The exhilaration of last year's New Year's Eve -- fueled by a booming new economy that promised eternal prosperity for all, Y2K silliness that kept us holding our breath, and the world's media machine picking its Men of the Century and Inventions of the Millennium and so on -- is apparently not to be repeated.

This year there are political and economic worries; there seems less cause for celebration.

But unsteadiness about the future isn't the reason there are no Real Millennium bashes this year, DeTray and Chadwick said. These millennium contrarians blame the situation on that scorned shaper of public opinion, the Media.

Two years ago or more, when people began publicly associating the new millennium with the year 2000, DeTray said that he thought that people would soon realize the folly of their ways. "I thought, 'Certainly all the smart people out there will let the reporters and the news organizations know the real date,'" DeTray said.

But if the "smart people" put in calls to the media, the reporters clearly didn't let on. "I was surprised, as we got closer to the date, to see the huge phenomenon unfold and nobody saying anything about the real date," DeTray said.

"The assumption that most people had was, 'Of course the millennium begins in 2000.' It made sense to people, it just felt right to them," he said. But the media, DeTray said, should have corrected the people's error.

But instead of correcting people, Chadwick said, TV, newspapers and magazines propagated the misinformation. "When the advertisers got on the bandwagon, there was no stopping it. I mean, Cuervo put out a Millennium Tequila!"

He added: "It annoys me that there was this bandwagon -- and normally some people get out of the way and say, 'We're not getting on this bandwagon. We're not gonna get with The Backstreet Boys.' But the normal wall of skepticism didn't seem to come up this time."

But Chadwick's guerrilla efforts to change the thinking in his small Canadian town only made him a kind of a public figure of ridicule. As the editor of the local newspaper, he had published an op-ed column a few years ago that explained why the 2000 date was wrong. "So after that, whenever they mentioned the millennium on the radio or something, they would say, 'Well Ian Chadwick might not be celebrating it, but....'"

But Chadwick wasn't really too upset about his notoriety. "Most of them think I'm obsessive to the point of being an anal retentive. But I try to do it with a certain sense of humor," he said.

DeTray, on the other hand, did see some larger significance to the world's myopia. "The danger of it is that people will get used to the idea that if enough people believe something, it's true," he said. "And that takes away any reason to actually think about things. Critical thinking is really beginning to fade away as an attribute of many people. I worry about kids -- about the idea that they would just look around and say that if most of my friends believe that X is true, it must be true."

Still, he said, he's forgotten all that millennium hoopla by now. A year has mellowed him: "Really, I only think about this now when I talk to reporters."

Chadwick, too, said that the date thing doesn't really worry him that much anymore. "It was really just about math -- it's just counting. And it bothered me that the whole thing got steamrolled by the media attention."

But, Chadwick added, "It also bothers me that buildings don't have a 13th floor."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), December 12, 2000


Silly people -- it's just that the first "millennium" was one year short. Why should the rest of our millennia suffer? :-)

-- L. Hunter Cassells (mellyrn@nist.gov), December 12, 2000.

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