That time I flew to New Zealand 20 years ago to witness the Y2K non-apocalypse
The fearmongering surrounding the Year 2000 Problem — or the Y2K bug, as it was better known — may have faded from memory for most people. But for me it remains a personal and professional touchstone, marking the transformation being wrought by technology at the time and profound upheaval over the past 2 decades.
Even if the world did not end in a fiery meltdown of computers, it’s worth reflecting on this bizarre moment in the evolution of humanity’s relationship to technology.
Let us step into the Wayback Machine and set the dials for the summer of 1999. I had been working at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina for more than 7 years. Most of that time I had covered the classic beats, such as cops and courts and local government. But the rise of the internet led to an expansion of interest in all things tech, and as the paper expanded its coverage, I was pulled into writing about networking and communications.
This was a heady moment for American newspapers and me. After graduating from college in 1991, I struggled to find a full-time newspaper gig. The Bush recession was crimping ad budgets. And the last of many major afternoon newspapers were closing, flooding the market with seasoned journalists. A bad combination for an aspiring journalist.
Still, I landed a part-time gig with the N&O that eventually became a full-time one. And over the next few years, the economy recovered. And then it started to really cook as the internet began to touch everything. As a tech reporter in North Carolina, I was writing stories about a young, hot-shot tech startup named Cisco Systems that had just opened its first office outside Silicon Valley in the central part of our state. It was hoping to pilfer talent from two other major local employers: IBM’s network enterprise team and Nortel’s telecommunications equipment division.
IBM’s division was struggling as companies began replacing their green-screen computer terminals that connected to a mainframe in the basement with PCs and servers that would eventually connect to the internet. Nortel was doing better as phone companies were starting to shift from analog to digital equipment that would eventually dramatically lower the cost of phone calls, which to me meant I wouldn’t have to call my parents (who lived in Kansas) after 11 p.m. to avoid going bankrupt.
The dot-com surge made terms like “entrepreneurs” and “startups” sexy and in turn dramatically expanded the media interest in the sector. Wired magazine launched, followed by the Industry Standard, while newspapers saw their help wanted sections swell and began to invest more in business coverage.
Perhaps no American newspaper benefited from the tech boom as much as the San Jose Mercury News. Amid massive plans to expand its technology coverage to more than 40 reporters, the Merc went on a recruiting binge that eventually included offering me a job covering networking and communication in July 1999.
Upon arriving in San Jose, one of the more veteran tech reporters politely informed me that while I had done some decent work in the past, I had now been “called up to the NBA.” I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to working at the Merc or reporting from ground zero of the tech revolution. Either way, the pressure felt immense.
The Big Leagues
In the middle of startups IPOing every day and secretaries becoming millionaires, my big story at the start was … the controversy over Pac Bell’s decision to split the local area code. The number of cell phones was straining the system, and the growing density of phone lines threatened to overtake the volume of phone numbers available that started with 408.
Local residents, however, were pissed that 408 would no longer be the default. The 408 area code had been around for decades and was tightly interwoven into the notion of the community. The march of technology threatened to erase this small but emotional marker of the region’s identity. Laugh it up and roll your eyes, but this story repeatedly landed me on the front page as a revolt forced Pac Bell to back down.
Over my first few months, this tale and other quirky stories helped me move up the ranks that were rapidly churning as reporters were recruited away to other media amid a bidding war for talent. By December 1999, as the dot-com bubble continued to inflate and tech geniuses insisted this was not a bubble but a NEW ECONOMY, I was less of a newbie and more of an established face.
So when the Mercury News was tapped by its parent company, Knight-Ridder, to lead coverage of the Y2K bug across its chain of newspapers, I got pulled onto the team.
Like every tech reporter of the era, I had written my share of stories about Y2K. Simply put, the fear was that many outdated systems had software that had not been written to handle dates past the year 1999. Would internal clocks that read ’99 go to ’00 and believe it was 1900? Nobody seemed to know for sure. But plenty of doomsayers were urging companies and governments to spend vast sums of money to upgrade to new hardware or rewrite old software. Governments around the world established Y2K task forces and international agreements were established to encourage cooperation.
Amid the stock market rise, and IPOs, and heavy debt borrowing, Y2K contributed its share to the financial hysteria surrounding tech. Economists at the time were split about whether Y2K chaos would sink the economy into recession, or whether investments to address the issue would raise the GDP. One Cap Gemini study in 1999 pegged the cost of Y2K fixes at $858 billion.
More than the dot-com boom and the internet, Y2K created a fundamental existential angst because it forced everyone to take a digital inventory. And in doing so, it brought into sharp relief just how digitized our world had become. Everything seemed to be connected to a microchip somehow and featured some aspect of computing. The whole planet had grown smaller and more tightly connected. It had happened step by almost imperceptible step and then all of a sudden there we stood, on the brink of a techno disaster that could bring all down together.
Probably not. But when you work in newspapers, you have to have a plan in place to cover Armageddon. You know, just in case. And so, the Merc’s Y2K team began to take shape, with huge ambitions and cash flooding over the transom thanks to the 10,000 help wanted ads being purchased by Cisco Systems.
About 10 days before the end of the millennium, a brainstorming session for coverage led to a discussion about how the looming tragedy would likely unfold and which developed nation it would hit first. The answer: New Zealand. Of course, “developed” is a relative term. The country was still heavily rural, and if people thought about anything when they thought about New Zealand, it was probably sheep.
Nevertheless, it suddenly became imperative to send someone to New Zealand as soon as humanly possible. That someone, for reasons I don’t fully remember, was me.
Making travel plans on the cusp of a new century was bonkers. My passport had lapsed, and the paper paid an ungodly sum to one of those services that can get your passport renewed in 72 hours. Meanwhile, the company’s travel agency somehow booked a roundtrip flight to Wellington that cost around $8,000. One hiccup: All flights coming back were booked, so I would have to stay two weeks no matter what happened. Or didn’t happen.
I packed a suitcase, and with my head spinning, boarded a plane to Hawaii, where I had a several hour layover in the middle of the night. Then I caught a connection to Auckland, NZ.
While I had since overcome it, at the time I was terrified of flying. To survive almost 18 hours of flying, including hurtling through a thunderstorm over the ocean, I popped an unhealthy amount of Dramamine along with a few alcoholic beverages. I lost track of time and location and just remember an interminable, fear-soaked floating feeling anchored by a death grip on the seat ahead of me.
Further adding to my confusion was crossing the international dateline for the first time in my life. Traveling almost an entire day had somehow jettisoned me into the future. When I landed in Auckland, I had to make a connection to Wellington, the nation’s capital, and only managed to navigate the airport after posing a series of delirious questions to local airport workers.
Finally, I landed in Wellington, and checked into a hotel just 36 hours before the end of civilization. I had brought a fancy laptop, by which I meant it had a 56k modem. After rigging a number of wires and adapters, I was able to dial into the local phone system and to connect to the internet.
The editors were eager for an update. What was happening on the ground? What was the mood like? I wasn’t even sure what day it was.
Afraid to go asleep and lacking any creative impulses, I decided to pursue the time-honored practice of conducting man-on-the-street interviews. My own mood was total disorientation. It was summer, and so it was warm and toasty out, but also the Christmas holidays. Everyone in New Zealand apparently takes several weeks off around this time to celebrate this strange mingling of seasons.
While there were lots of people wandering around, my attempts to interview them yielded little in the way of helpful journalistic material. Most people seemed nonplussed about Y2K even though the government had been pressing hard on the issue for two years. Its own Y2K task force in August 1998 declared:
We began our task with some skepticism regarding the degree to which such threats were being represented. As we progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that the Year 2000 problem, if not effectively managed, has the potential to have a significant impact on the lives of many New Zealanders. It also became increasingly clear that some public and private organizations in vital parts of our infrastructure are not well prepared to meet the challenges presented by the Year 2000.
Among the solutions was fixing its own systems and pressuring businesses to do the same. There was an infamous public awareness campaign featuring a mascot named Ken the Cockroach. Chosen because, well, cockroaches survive pretty much any disaster. The government spent $1.3 million on a publicity campaign organized by its Y2K Readiness Commission.
The grim message was that residents should prepare for three days of just about anything: power outages, financial systems crashing, utilities such as water and gas being cut off. Just in case, residents were told to put together emergency kits, including water, flashlights, and radios that ran on batteries. Maybe get some extra buckets in case toilets stop working. Non-perishable food. And withdraw some cash just in case. Real end-of-the world scenario type stuff.
Still, I didn’t detect any real panic about Y2K. Far more exciting to locals was the massive filming taking place by local hero Peter Jackson. He had constructed a big studio in Wellington, and hordes of cast and crew from all over the world had been flooding the city in recent weeks as part of the making of Lord of the Rings.
That sounded more interesting to me too, but I couldn’t get distracted. I eventually arrived at a New Zealand government office to pick up some press credentials. The government was aware that it would be in the Y2K spotlight and was busy welcoming international journalists like myself. I filed a few paragraphs via my prehistoric laptop with some comments from a government spokesperson, though I can’t honestly say whether they were published or not.
The next day or so was a blur of stumbling around and eating at odd moments, napping, and then waking up in a sweat afraid I’d missed the whole damn thing. Eventually, I made my way to the city center and the New Zealand parliament building that was nicknamed “The Beehive.” It was named such because the circular steel structure really did have the misbegotten shape of a beehive. No doubt it was one of those ideas that seemed like a bold architectural statement on paper but caused one to wince every time one had to look up on it.
Set on top of the hill, the Beehive offered wonderful views of the city below with the additional benefit that we couldn’t see the exterior of the Beehive while inside of it. We entered the building and were led to a kind of war room the government had set up. There were computers and boards with flashing lights and lots of telephones being manned by people with furrowed brows and fax machines spitting out documents.
I barely had time to settle in and take in the scene. I plugged in my laptop, with fingers at the ready. The room grew quiet as the clocked ticked toward midnight.
As the minute hand finally reached 12, there was a big explosion and a flash of light. Alas, just the fireworks over the bay below welcoming the new millennium.
Inside, there was almost total silence and stillness, waiting for calls and alarms that never came. Brows became more furrowed. A phone rang. Reports of a power outage at some remote corner. No, wait, scratch that. A drunk driver hit a utility pole.
After about 30 minutes, the sense of anti-climax began to settle in. No ATMs spewing money into the streets. No hospital life support systems failing. No big power surges. No death. No mayhem.
At 8 a.m. local time, the Y2K commission issued a press release declaring victory. According to David Henry, deputy chairman of the New Zealand Y2K Readiness Commission, all 12 sectors being monitored were reporting no problems. Time for a victory lap. “This is an excellent result and is testimony to the hard work sectors have put in,” Henry said in the statement.
By March, the commission would be disbanded. As for me, my head was still spinning, lost in a strange time zone and trying to think of how to write a few paragraphs to capture the weirdness of the whole thing. I sent along a few lines fed to a team in distant San Jose where they disappeared into a vortex. By the time most people reported for work 12 hours later at the Mercury News, and most time zones had welcomed 2000, the whole Y2K affair had already become an afterthought.
I had 10 more days before my return flight.
The End of the End
To this day, there is some debate about whether the Y2K bug was simply overblown nonsense or whether it was thwarted by the huge efforts to fix systems around the globe. But at the time, after months of hype, the whole thing simply vanished from the news cycle. Too much other tech news was ready to replace it.
Just 10 days into the new millennium, AOL announced it was acquiring Time Warner. While the merger is now considered an epic catastrophe, at the time was the seen as The Triumph of the New Economy. This dial-up behemoth was swallowing an old-timey corporation for $182 billion. Yowza!
The merger was possible because the Internet Bubble had reached its peak. Just a few weeks later, the markets would begin to crash, a slide lasting several weeks that would send Silicon Valley plunging back to reality. It was a disaster that would shape the next generation of entrepreneurs, who became more wary of Wall Street and instead created a whole different set of venture capital-funded excesses known as unicorns.
Unfortunately, this would also turn out to be the last great gasp of the golden age of newspapers. My trip to New Zealand was my junket of junkets, a money waster born of another age. For nine months, Merc editors tried furiously to spend travel budgets each quarter fearing the party would end, as it eventually did that summer when dot-com help wanted ads crashed and corporate turned off the spending spigot.
Within 18 months, a drumbeat of layoffs began that never stopped, gutting the newsroom until only a husk remained. Knight-Ridder collapsed, was sold, then broken into pieces and crumbled out of existence.
All these lessons would come eventually, for me and many other journalists writing about tech and money and the often unholy intersection between the two.
My only silver lining was the 10 days of being relatively unconnected in a far-off land where the exchange rate was ridiculously favorable. I hiked a volcano. Bathed in natural hot springs. And in a fit of inexplicably foolish judgment, gave in to New Zealand’s obsession with extreme sports and did my first and only bungee jump.
When it was time to return, I had finally acclimated to the time zone and the upside-down seasons. Returning to the buzzing newsroom at the Mercury News, I was immediately swept back into the craze of the dot-com whirlwind. What little I had to tell of my New Zealand escape was hardly the stuff of great foreign correspondent war stories and certainly impressed no one. “Welcome back from New Zealand,” said that same veteran tech reporter who had greeted me six months earlier. “So, I guess none of their sheep crashed?”