The world was supposed to end 18 years ago. The lead-up to the turn of the millennium was clouded by the specter of the Y2K bug, an existential computing flaw that was supposedly poised to threaten society when the clock hit midnight on December 31, 1999. It was said that the bug would take down critical infrastructures in an increasingly computer-reliant modern civilization. This, of course, didn’t happen. But why? And what happened instead?
Those questions lie at the heart of Surviving Y2K, a new six-part audio documentary from Dan Taberski, the guy who tried to track down the now-reclusive fitness guru Richard Simmons, whom he considered a friend. That 2017 podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, was a minor sensation that drew controversy: Amanda Hess, writing for the New York Times, called the production “morally suspect.” By the end of its run, the series drew millions of listeners, countless takes, and briefly brought Simmons back into the public. (He’s doing fine, apparently.) For what it’s worth, I thought the podcast was questionable but not cruel, and also brilliant in places.
Surviving Y2K debuts next Tuesday, and it promises to bring back Taberski’s unique take on the audio documentary. The series is being positioned as the follow-up to Missing Richard Simmons, which is being folded under the umbrella of a broader anthology series called Headlong. Surviving Y2K is described as the anthology’s second season. Topic Studio and Pineapple Street Media are producing the show (with Pineapple’s Henry Molofsky returning to lead production), and Stitcher will be distributing the show. New episodes will drop every Tuesday, but subscribers to Stitcher Premium can access all six episodes right off the bat.
Here’s the trailer:
I spoke with Taberski late last month to learn more about what we should expect from the season ahead.
Let’s start from the top. What is Headlong?
Headlong is … this is the first time I’m giving this pitch, by the way. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it for years so I don’t know why I’m having trouble. [Laughs.] Headlong is basically an anthology series where each season takes a person, moment, or story from the culture that we’ve been getting wrong, and goes back to explore it. Think of Missing Richard Simmons as the first season, and we have a new season out on November 13 called Surviving Y2K. It’s about the millennium — a moment that people said nothing happened, that people came to think as a joke. And I’ve always thought it wasn’t.
Why follow up Richard Simmons with the millennium?
Well, [the millennium is] always something that’s been a big deal for me, and I’ll tell you why in a second. But basically, this computer bug was supposed to affect 75 percent of all microchips in the world in 1999, and many thought it was going to create this existential threat. This doomsday bug just happens to coincide with the turn of millennium, which was one of the most anticipated events in human history. That combination of things creates this stew of incredible stories about people who were expecting the end. Some of those people actually wanted the end to come and be this moment when they could start over. I, personally, was one of those people. All that talk of the future, the next thousand year, a new day one — it stirred something in me as well.
Could you talk a bit more about the end of the world?
So, CNN ran a poll at the time that found one in five Americans believe the second coming of Jesus Christ was going to happen in 2000. One in five. That’s 20 percent! Take that finding, mix it with all the survivalists out there and all those people who were listening to alternative radio that was drumming up the existential threat of Y2K at the time, and you have this concoction that made people either fear the end and therefore change their lives in preparation for it, or want the end, which they saw as an opportunity. Those people didn’t like the way things were going right now in the world, and thought: You know what? Apocalypse, I’m here. I’ll take my odds on what happens after.
Some of those people tried to make the end happen sooner. We talked to a religious family who went to Israel and tried to find the Ark of the Covenant because they believe that was going to bring on the end times faster. But what’s incredible is that they go and end up find something completely different that changes their lives in a way that they didn’t expect at all. So what starts as a story about Y2K, the millennium, and the apocalypse ends up as a dive into the lives of these characters — about what happens when the end doesn’t come, and what happens after that.
Did anything you found remind you of where we are today?
Oh yeah, for sure. So, think about the Y2K situation. One of two things happened there: either (a) the world spent upwards of half a trillion dollars in public and private money to mitigate the bug, and nothing happened because we fixed the bug and saved ourselves, or (b) we got scammed into getting caught up in the hype of something that was never really a problem to begin with.
If we did save ourselves, I think it’s a crystal-clear example of collective action — the public, the private, and the people coming together to spend time, resources, and energy on facing an existential problem, and beating it. It’s something that’s not happening now with climate change, and so whether or not we’re capable of that collective action again remains to be seen. But it’s useful looking back and seeing Y2K as a possible example of a moment when we made our way forward.
There’s another thing that’s really interesting about that moment when people first started hearing about the bug. It was about the same time that people started realizing just how dependent on technology we were becoming. Think about it: Just when we were recognizing how much we relied on computers, the experts came out and said, Oh, by the way, all of this? It’s a time bomb. It’s a weird bait and switch. This thing that’s become a huge part of your life, it’s going to explode on January 1, 2000. I think it resonates with the way people feel about social media and technology and all these things we use for fun, and for likes, and all that shit.
I don’t actually know whether Y2K was a solved problem or a thing that didn’t happen. I was really young when all that went down, and so it’s wild to me that this could’ve been a situation where people were super-worried about something that never happened at all, and then we just forgot about it.
That’s one of the two possibilities, right? Part of what the podcast is trying to do is figure out which of the two is correct. But I’ll tell you: What’s really amazing is going back and realizing it wasn’t actually a bug at all. A bug implies a mistake, but it wasn’t a mistake. It was in the design. There just wasn’t enough memory [on these microchips] and everybody just said, Let’s only use two spaces to define the years instead of four years because we all know there’s a 19 in front of the two numbers. People literally programmed computers in such a way that the 21st century didn’t exist, and the fallout of that problem crept up on us.
Do you feel like there are heavy expectations moving in this new season, given that Missing Richard Simmons was such a hit?
[Laughs.] Well, what do you think?
Well, I have high expectations, personally speaking.
Yeah man, I mean, [the first season] was such a fucking thrill, and it was so wonderful for it to happen. So I hope it’ll happen again. I hope people will give me a listen because of it. But even if it’s a total failure, spending the last year diving so deep into something, meeting characters who are incredibly fascinating, finding stories that are hilarious and heartbreaking, and then exploring my own story through their lens — even if it was a total failure, it would have been worth it to me. But I don’t want it to be a failure. [Laughs.]