The End of the 00s: New Year's Eve and the Rise of the Machines, by Richard Lawson

by The End of the 00s


I have a friend who just moved to Valparaiso, Chile-a beautifully-situated stutter of city teeming with feral dogs and nefarious purse snatchers. It’s sad for me that this friend, a Best Friend if ever there was one, will be spending the last glimmering twitches of this decade in a place so thief-ridden and faraway, because we spent the first early ticks of it together, freezing and sick in the Boston Common. It was actually the night that we first became real friends, not just two kids working on a play together, not just two people who occasionally passed each other in the same lazy social orbit. We bonded that night, felt a first giddy fear and excitement together. It was New Year’s Eve 1999, that heady night when it felt like the world could maybe, just maybe, end entirely. Because of some glitch—something to do with nothing more mundane or simple but oddly poetic as the changing numbers of the date—all the computers in the world could explode and we’d be tossed into darkness, forced to reignite primordial fires and warily navigate a reset world.

Of course that didn’t happen. Didn’t happen in Sydney, didn’t happen in Hong Kong, and certainly didn’t happen in cobbled old Boston. Rather the date ticked forward and we all sorta shrugged our shoulders and, let’s be honest, felt a little cheated. Mad Max coulda been kinda fun for a few days, right? But, oh well, it was time to go off and finish the night, to trudge off to a friend’s house and watch the original pilot of Buffy on VHS. (This is actually what we, nerdy and painfully sober theater losers, did in the first wee hours of the millennium. The old Willow was so weird!) In the days afterward there was some brief breathless coverage about how we narrowly avoided catastrophe, but mostly everyone just sort of shuffled on with the business of living and the whole hysteria was soon forgotten, just a little antiquity of fear, like the original War of the Worlds broadcast or Steve Guttenberg. How silly we were to worry!

Though now, ten steely years later, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe Y2K did get us after all. Maybe it really did happen, just in a far quieter and more insidious way than we’d imagined then. Here I am sitting in a cafe where not only is magical internet available without a plug, but it’s fast, so fast. And some of you might be reading this on a little phone, rumbling home or away on a train, or waiting dully for a bus. Maybe the computers really did destroy us at the start of, and continued to do throughout, this decade of surreal wonders and gut-wrenching, grimly terrestrial horrors.

The essential fear of Y2K was that something we’d created, and had come to so heavily depend on, could suddenly fail us—that we could plunge into chaos because we’d built our tower of techno-Babel too precariously high. Y2K was viewed by some as something of a possible corrective, a stern slap on the wrist for ceding so much of our innate human power to whirring processors and cold electronic blips. If all systems had, indeed gone down that night, then it would have been proof that we had gotten too ahead of ourselves, too outside of ourselves. The tin-foil-hatters among us would have been proven right to have been demanding a return to nature. We needed to learn to not trust these machines, to finally determine if they worked for us or we for them. But that didn’t happen, so we breathed a sigh of relief, and sallied forth and created this gizmo decade.

But perhaps this was the machines’ plan all along! Maybe it was SkyNet’s grand stratagem—to instill in us a rising anti-tech mania, only to alleviate it and show us that there is nothing to be so scared of after all. Just like kidnappers first have to strike fear into their captives’ hearts before Stockholm Syndrome can set in and a strange new trust is born, the machines needed us to first doubt their goodness, and then be blessedly reassured of their good intentions in the end. It was a catharsis that was entirely necessary if we were to embrace these mechanical creatures as fully as we have these past ten years. Orgo-Techno hybrids are mostly thought of as the fantasy stuff of Battlestar Galatica, except they’re really not. How subsumed and swaddled we have become this past decade! We’ve our glowing and app-filled iThings—external organs!—clutched firmly in hand, and we are braying and shrieking for more, always more. It’s exactly what those damn ‘puters wanted us to do. They knew that if they threatened to break down and leave us all alone on this bitter shit-rock of a planet, but then in the eleventh hour reappeared and said “Just kidding!”-well, they’d have us forever. And have us they do.

Y2K happened, y’all. The computers actually did destroy us, they just did it more slowly and smoothly—a gradual, bloodless coup. I don’t own an email-computer-phone yet, but I will. Of course I will. Of course all of us will. And then we’ll own whatever comes next. Nowadays watching people freak out and tear at their hair when the Internet goes down in a coffee shop isn’t scary in the way it would be in a movie from the 80s (or in a recent South Park episode), it’s just sort of a funny indicator of humanity’s big, silly loss. Yeah, we got beat and beat good.

And that’s OK, I suppose. Years are years, decades decades. Things change. Civilization rises and falls like body and breath. This is just the thrum and dip and recede of living. This year for New Year’s Ima-be drunk, not in Boston, and, sadly, probably not watching Buffy. But you know what I might do? I might open this laptop and, through a few quick easy finger taps, have my old friend there, live on screen. We can talk, smoke cigarettes, tell jokes, and genuinely celebrate (for the only night of the year, really) the passing of time.

Though we won’t actually be huddled close, cursing New England or other cold climes, we’ll still be together. Bonded and woven together by new invisible threads, reaching out across this cool blue planet, saying silent thank you’s—humbly grateful for the magic moment it has given us—to the great conquering Computer. That creature we watched—ten years ago now, wide-eyed and sixteen and unaware—as it raised its steel-gray head and, with a wise smirk, did nothing at all.

Richard Lawson works with, or maybe for, the machines.