Edmonton

20 years later, a Y2K skeptic reflects on millennium hysteria

A former Edmonton computer programmer who tried to stem the tide of Y2K panic reflects the phenomenon that gripped the world 20 years ago.

Anti-Y2K bug website built in 1997 is still online

David Robert Loblaw, pictured in early 2000 (left), and today. Loblaw, a former computer programmer, published a website in 1997 to refute Y2K hysteria. The website is still online today. (David Robert Loblaw)

When the world didn't end 20 years ago, David Robert Loblaw cracked a beer.

In 1999, Loblaw was employed as a computer programmer for the federal government based in Edmonton. He was also a zealous skeptic of Y2K bug fears.

He sat at his computer in his home office in Glenora and watched the clock turn to midnight in time zones around the world. When the year finally flipped in Edmonton and all was well, he went to go join the party at his wife's restaurant.

As the new millennium approached, some people and institutions worried that when the date changed from 1999 to 2000, computers would crash and the world would descend into chaos.

Fears ranged from power outages to biblical catastrophe with airplanes falling from the sky. 

Public institutions in Canada and across the world took the threat seriously: in early 2000, CBC reported that the federal government had spent about $2.5 billion preparing to battle the millennium bug.

An emergency command centre was opened, operating 24 hours a day, through the early days of January 2000 — just in case computer problems arose when people went back to work after the holidays.

Loblaw thought it was a bunch of hooey. 

Sure, there were some issues with how computers would respond to the date change. But Loblaw said programmers largely had it under control by 1997.

When the hysteria failed to subside, Loblaw was disturbed. 

At work, all other projects were put on hold, and Loblaw was told to focus on the millennium bug.

"It just kept going, that was the weirdest part of it," he said.

Fed up, in the fall of 1997, he launched an anonymous website, denouncing what he described as the Y2K "circus."

A website built by David Robert Loblaw in 1997 to refute hysteria about Y2K lives on, untouched, online. (Year 2000 Computer Bug Hoax)

Over two decades later, the site, Year 2000 Computer Bug Hoax, lives on: partly, because Loblaw wanted to maintain it as a relic of a phenomenon he doesn't think the world will see again, and partly because he forgot about it and misplaced the password.

When he decided to leave it as is, he added a postscript.

"This website was frozen on December 31, 1999, as a permanent document on how all of us acted and reacted to the Y2K myth from 1997 to 1999. There will be no updates," reads the message.

'May God have mercy on your miserable soul'

The site attracted quite a bit of response, much of which is still archived on it today. Some writers were supportive or thankful for his perspective. Others were mad.

"Why should anyone believe you? The overwhelming mass of evidence is increasingly pointing to an 'end of life as we know it,'" wrote one reader.

"If you are wrong and mislead one person from taking action to provide for their survival, may God have mercy on your miserable soul," wrote another.

Loblaw said a particularly memorable message came from a preacher in the state of Georgia who cursed him and his family.

A website built by David Robert Loblaw in 1997 to refute hysteria about Y2K lives on, untouched, online. Loblaw posted a number of the emails he recieved from readers. (Year 2000 Computer Bug Hoax)

When nothing happened, he was troubled that there wasn't a fulsome reckoning, by governments and the media, about how much money and attention had been poured into Y2K preparedness.

"No one wanted to talk about, it was taboo," he said. "It just disappeared."

Irritated by the lack of response, Loblaw outed himself as the author of the site in an opinion piece published in the Globe and Mail. He said his contract with the federal government was terminated a short time later. 

Disillusioned with the programming industry, he changed course. In the years that followed, Loblaw and his wife moved back to their hometown of Regina, where they own a chocolate shop.

"Handmade chocolates. I can't go further from computers than what I am today," he said.

Loblaw said even when he was in the middle of his attempted Y2K hysteria take-down, he knew he would never be able to win everyone over to his way of thinking.

"They had everything going for them. They had the hysteria, and they had the mysterious 'What if? What if computers don't work on Jan. 1, 2000?'"

This year, Loblaw plans to spend New Year's Eve at a table instead of at a computer.

"A bare-bones dinner party. No computers whatsoever," he said.

About the Author

Paige Parsons is an Edmonton-based reporter and web editor. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.

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