It was December 31, 1999, and the 32-year-old version of me found himself working the night shift. How did I let this happen to me on New Year’s Eve? I had largely been a 9 to 5 guy since going to work for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission almost five years earlier. But my young family made “partying” like it was 1999 the way Prince recommended a fleeting dream. I didn’t break any big plans to be there.
Like the giant comet racing toward Earth in the new Netflix film, “Don’t Look Up,” the world was staring down another potential catastrophe that year known as “Y2K.”
For those of you who don’t recall or weren’t born yet, the frightening Y2K phenomenon was the concern that a vast array of embedded computer technology vital to all kinds of systems, from banking to utilities, would shut down when their programmed, two-digit calendars rolled over from “99” to “00.” Those systems might misinterpret this number in a variety of ways and shut down.
Why would Indiana need a spokesperson type like me on the job at midnight because the century was turning? Because of the unknown peril lurking ahead, of course.
Lights would go out! Financial markets would collapse! Run America! Flee! Mayhem is on the horizon!
The last half of 1999 saw me attending gatherings of all kinds, giving speeches that were designed to accomplish two things: convince the public that the Y2K problem existed, and convince them we were on the job and doing all we could to keep people safe. That last part was why I was in Indiana’s control center of the State Emergency Management Agency that night. Just in case.
The reason why so few people even remember any of this is because almost nothing happened when the clock struck twelve. We weren’t just lucky, and the concerns weren’t a hoax. What needed corrected had been done in the months leading up to the event.
Looking back through the lens of 2022 technology, the mere suggestion that Y2K was actually a thing seems far-fetched. But I do not recall the potential disaster and real-life preparation needed to avoid it, being unreasonably difficult to convince the public either was real. No one called me crazy. No one accused the agency of fear mongering. There was no partisan or cultural divide that impacted the issue at all. Nor should there have been.
In “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral student in astronomy at Michigan State. She discovers a comet speeding toward Earth. Her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, runs the calculations that confirm the “Dibiasky Comet” will crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chilé. These scientists even knew the exact time the certain impact would occur, and every other scientist in the field confirmed the data to be correct.
What turns out to be the satirical challenge in the movie is getting anyone, including the President of the United States to take the certain disaster seriously. Its threat is only viewed through the lens of how it can serve the politics or profit of the moment, no matter how those shallow interests might change. Not through a lens of humanity, science or service.
In an interview on December 17 with WSBT 22 in South Bend, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said regarding the current COVID-19 surge, “I don’t believe any numbers anymore.” Luckily, the oft misspoken politico has taken a good amount of heat for this ludicrous statement from hospital CEOs, Governor Eric Holcomb and countless rational Hoosiers. Rokita’s stunningly ignorant remarks sounded very much like President Orlean in the movie, played by Meryl Streep, when she says telling people that they are going to die is “just nuts.”
51 countries have a higher percentage of their populations vaccinated than the United States. Countries like Cambodia and Nicaragua are better at this than we have been. Not because we don’t have the resources or ability to do better, but because more than a third of our population chooses not to believe an undeniable truth.
Neil deGrasse Tyson commented about the satirical film on Tuesday via Twitter. He said, “Everything I know about news cycles, talk shows, social media and politics tells me the film was instead a documentary.”
People gambling against COVID-19 have been repeatedly making a bad bet. It’s a bad bet because even in their fantasy world of personal choices, they win almost nothing if they are right. They lose possibly everything if they are wrong.
Many already have. Many more still will.