When Y2K Sent Us Into a Digital Depression

iStock.com/Laspi
iStock.com/Laspi

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the paranoia first began to creep in. Sometime during the late 1990s, consumers noticed that their credit cards with expiration dates in the year 2000 were being declined by merchants. Shortly thereafter, people began stocking up on shelf-stable food and water, potentially condemning themselves to months of all-SPAM diets. A number of concerned citizens outside of Toronto, Canada, flocked to the Ark Two Survival Community, a nuclear fallout shelter-turned-bunker comprised of dozens of decommissioned school buses buried several feet below the Earth and protected by a layer of reinforced concrete.

In the months leading into New Year's Day 2000, millions of people steeled themselves for a worst-case scenario of computers succumbing to a programming glitch that would render them useless. Banking institutions might collapse; power grids could shut down. Anarchy would take over. The media had the perfect shorthand for the potential catastrophe: Y2K, for Year 2000. The term was used exhaustively in their coverage of a situation some believed had the potential to become one of the worst man-made disasters in history—if not the collapse of modern civilization as we knew it.

In the end, it was neither. But that doesn't mean it didn't have some far-reaching consequences.

John Koskinen of the President's Council on Y2K Conversion makes a public address
Michael Smith, Getty Images

The anticipatory anxiety of Y2K was rooted in the programs that had been written for the ginormous computers of the late 1960s. In an effort to conserve memory and speed up software, programmers truncated the date system to use two digits for the year instead of four. When the calendar was set to roll over to the year 2000, the belief was that "00" would be a proverbial wrench in the system, with computers unable to decipher 2000 from 1900. Their calculations would be thrown. Using "98" for 1998 was a positive value; using "00" would result in negative equations. How computers would react was based mostly on theories.

That ambiguity was quickly seized upon by two factions: third-party software consultants and doomsday preppers. For the former, rewriting code became a cottage industry, with corporations large and small racing to revise antiquated systems and spending significant amounts of money and manpower in doing so. General Motors estimated the cost of upgrading their systems would be about $626 million. The federal government, which began preparing for possible doom in 1995, ended up with an $8.4 billion bill.

Some of that cost was eaten up by soliciting analyses of the potential problems. The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study looking at the potential for problems with the nation's energy supply if computers went haywire. The North American Electric Reliability Council thought the risks were manageable, but cautioned that a single outage could have a domino effect on connected power grids.

As a result, many newspaper stories were a mixture of practical thinking with a disclaimer: More than likely nothing will happen … but if something does happen, we're all screwed.

"Figuring out how seriously to take the Y2K problem is a problem in itself," wrote Leslie Nicholson in the January 17, 1999 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "There is simply no precedent."

Pending economic and societal collapse fueled the second pop-up industry: survivalist suppliers. As people stocked up on canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, and generators, miniature societies like Ark Two began to spring up.

While the panic surrounding Y2K was dismissed by some as unwarranted, there was always fuel to add to the fire. The United States and Russia convened to monitor ballistic missile activity in the event a glitch inadvertently launched a devastating weapon. People were warned checks might bounce and banking institutions could freeze. The Federal Reserve printed $70 billion in cash in case people began hoarding currency. Even the Red Cross chimed in, advising Americans to stock up on supplies. Y2K was being treated like a moderate-category storm.

Adding to the concern was the fact that credible sources were sounding alarms. Edward E. Yardeni, then-chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell/C.J. Lawrence, predicted that there was a 60 percent chance of a major worldwide recession.

As New Year's Eve 2000 approached, it became clear that Y2K had evolved beyond a software hiccup. Outside of war and natural disasters, it represented one of the few times society seemed poised for a dystopian future. People watched their televisions as clocks hovered close to midnight, waiting to see if their lights would flicker or their landline phones would continue to ring.

A software program is represented by a series of ones and zeroes
iStock.com/alengo

Of course, nothing happened. So many resources had been extended toward the problem that the majority of software-reliant businesses and infrastructures were prepared. There were no power outages, no looting, and no hazards. The only notable event of January 1, 2000 was the reporting of the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and the arrival of Vladimir Putin as Russia's new president.

With the benefit of hindsight, pundits would later observe that much of the Y2K concern was an expression of a more deeply rooted fear of technology. Subconsciously, we may have been primed to recoil at the thought of computers dominating our society to the extent that their failure could have catastrophic consequences.

All told, it's estimated that approximately $100 billion was spent making upgrades to offset any potential issues. To put that into context: South Florida spent $15.5 billion rebuilding after the mass destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Was it all worth it? Experts seem to think so, citing the expedited upgrades of old software and hardware in federal and corporate environments.

That may be some small comfort to Japan, which could be facing its own version of Y2K in April 2019. That's when Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate the throne to his son, Naruhito, the first such transition since the dawn of the information age. (Akihito has been in power since January 1989, following the death of his father.) That's significant because the Japanese calendar counts up from the coronation of a new emperor and uses the name of each emperor's era. Akihito's is known as the Heisei era. Naruhito's is not yet named, which means that things could get tricky as the change in leadership—and the need for a calendar update—comes closer.

It's hard to predict what the extent of the country's problems will be as Akihito steps down. If history is any guide, though, it's likely to mean a lot of software upgrades, and possibly some SPAM.

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

While discussing the Heenes' misguided flight, one Cleveland outlet recalled that Falcon wasn't the first "Balloon Boy." In 1931, 4-year-old Bill Crawford's father strapped him to a seat attached to a helium-filled balloon and allowed the child to float up to 50 feet in the air, much to the amazement of onlookers. For willfully endangering his son, the elder Crawford was cheered by crowds desperate for any sort of amusement during the Great Depression.

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