The build-up to the year 2000 was a strange and consuming time. This landmark date was an inescapable event in the Western calendar, however much emphasis one put upon it personally. Normally rational people with no general tendencies towards superstitions would find themselves prone to musings on possible catastrophic events, religious and secular, daydreaming about technological meltdowns and social chaos, if not fantasies about haemorrhaging rocks or rains of fire.
As the marked day approached ever nearer, pub and office conversations across the UK increasingly concerned the possible effects of Y2K. Even those impervious to doomsday anticipations would discuss this historic date, if only to mock the apparent ‘Millennium Fever’ gripping mortal minds. Whether you had chosen to hole yourself up in a cave for the coming of the four horsemen, were merely concerned your PC may have a digital tantrum due to too many zeros in the annum, or thought it all a bunch of bullshit, the approach of this Gregorian milestone loomed large in daily life.
So, after years of speculation, expectation and occasional flagellation, in capital cities around the world, in houses and huts, on watches and on television screens, the clock struck midnight 24 times, rippling across the planet like a global Mexican wave and - nothing happened... Or did it?
Before the 90s ended, the West was still on top of the world as countries of the East quietly built their populations, economies and power. Shopping meant browsing in stores, not on the Internet. Food was not yet more expensive than items of clothing and for most people, switching on the power or heating was done without thinking.
The growth of the World Wide Web since 2000 has been incredible. Today it’s not just a useful business, communication or research tool, but stretches into almost every area of life, floating through the air via mobile phones and tablets, an essential part of our daily work and social lives. The Internet, and the rapid communication and social networking made available on it, now allows the dissemination of thoughts and ideas to spread at incredible speed, uniting people consciously, even physically at rallies and demonstrations.
Our choices of entertainment and the way we consume them have also altered dramatically with technological developments. Since the first series of Big Brother aired in the UK in the summer of 2001, reality TV has overtaken the pre-Millennium staple of soap operas in popularity, and there seem to be more ‘celebrities’ in existence than non-celebrities nowadays. International Poker tournaments can be won from armchairs, computer games played for fitness rather than just exercising thumbs, millions of people record and broadcast their own talents, thoughts and lives via YouTube and Facebook--you can even watch your home television channels via your mobile phone on a beach in Mexico.
As for hardware, I remember the days, pre-Y2K of course, when there was no such thing as an iPod, a touch-screen was a futuristic concept, Wiis were done in private, not with the whole family in the sitting room, and Apple were the under-dog creating computers favoured by graphic designers. CCTV wasn't ubiquitous. If you needed to get somewhere you used a map, and supermarket chickens were not security tagged.
Shortly after the Millennium turned, the rise of Islamic extremism leapt into the lives of billions of people with the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the subsequent attacks on civilians and governments around the world. Since then it seems a kind of background unease has entered the consciousness, an indiscriminate, global threat to lives and ways of life that seems to be here for the foreseeable future.
Post-2000, America has its first mixed-race President, the BRIC countries have become a force to be reckoned with, if not the next super-powers, and Iran has apparently gone nuclear. For millions of Arabs in North Africa and the Middle East, the thought of regime change in their countries was only that, a brutally repressed thought, but the uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt show that things can change, if only the people’s willingness to accept oppression in some cases as the struggles continue.
Some say the world really did nearly end in 2007 with the Credit Crunch, when the house of cards, or sub-prime mortgages of cards, came crashing down. The shaky foundations were laid in the 1990s but things started to go really wild around the year 2000. The world banking system is truly global nowadays, with investment funds, banks and economies so interlinked that one crisis affects all. We have yet to see how the current debt crises in America and within the Eurozone pan out, but countries outside those countries are watching and awaiting the outcomes just as tensely as those within.
Climate change has really started to be felt since the Millennium turned. Whether it’s down to natural weather cycles or man’s exploitation of the earth coming home to roost, the effects of increasingly frequent droughts, floods, tsunami’s and hurricanes are being felt in every corner of the world, adding to pressures on food supplies and upward pressures on food prices. Research by the North Dakota State University shows that food prices have been increasing dramatically since 2000. Unprecedented oil prices, commodities speculation, demand for water and population growth are all contributors to the soaring cost of simply staying alive these days.
Through the scientific and technological advances of the previous centuries, mankind’s ability to nourish, procreate and medicate itself saw the world’s population reach 6 billion in October 1999. By October 2011 we hit around 7 billion, with debates raging about just how many people this planet can sustain. At the same time, urbanisation has seen unprecedented and accelerating growth over the past few decades. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas for the first time in 2008.
Predicting the end of the world is nothing new; the earliest recorded eschatology (end of days) theory comes from Zoroastrianism in around 500BC, and a brief look on the Internet will turn up hundreds of different dates of doom which we have managed to survive. We are of course due a long-standing one courtesy of the Mayans on the 21st of December, in just a few days time.
So perhaps Y2K was not just another failed prediction or a nice round number, but a significant marker for the beginning of the end of our familiar ways of life. Whether you hold an optimistic or a pessimistic view of the current state of affairs, so much has changed in the way we communicate, travel, spend our money, watch entertainment, interact with each other, shop for goods and conduct our business. Political boundaries are breaking down and power bases shifting. New alliances are forming as old conflicts recur, and our expectations for the future are altering so radically that although life on this planet was not annihilated, the world did end: it just happened to be the world as we knew it.