The time of panic, chaos and anarchy is almost upon us. While that may aptly describe last-minute Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, I am referring to Y2K, the new century, the new millennium.
Many dire warnings have been made about what might happen when the calendar rolls over on New Year’s Eve. Will the clocks in our computers roll over as well? Or will we discover the world we thought was built on silicon chips is really built on loose sand?
Speaking as one who works with computers every day, part of me hopes the whole system collapses into rubble and we go back to scribes sitting cross-legged on the floor chiseling away on clay tablets. A clay tablet is much easier to fix then wonky TCP/IP code.
Honestly though, I don’t think there is much to worry about. What I do think about is this other hue and cry that has risen above the noise about the coming millennium. That is the question of whether January 1 really is the start of the next millennium.
Some people apparently hold strong feelings on the matter. The point has even been discussed in these pages. There are those who argue that the next millennium actually doesn’t begin till January 1, 2001, and are quite adamant about pointing out how they will let this coming New Year’s pass by with little more than a tepid Auld Lange Syne.
Technically, these people are quite correct. Our current calendar was first devised in the sixth century by a learned monk named Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian by birth. Dionysius was looking for better ways to determine the dates of Easter, and he thought it more appropriate to reckon the years from the birth of Christ, instead of by the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, the ‘Great Persecutor of Christians’.
However, since the concept of zero had not yet arrived from the Arab world, Dionysius counted the first year as one. Hence, the first millennium runs from the year 1 to the year 1000 A.D., and the next millennium runs from the year 1001 to the end of the year 2000.
Strictly speaking, the third millennium won’t begin till the year 2001.
But the calendar curmudgeons who view the passing of this year as merely a counting exercise are missing what I think is the true reason for celebrating the coming of the new year, and that is this.
For only the second time in history, and for the first time in one thousand years, the first digit in the year as we reckon them is changing.
That single digit ties us to a thousand years of history. Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, wrote letters describing his experiences in the Crusades. He dated those letters, the year of course beginning with a one. The Declaration of Independence bears a date, and the year begins with a one. The surrender documents the Japanese signed to end WWII bear a date, and the year begins with a one.
For ten centuries, people have written the year beginning with the same digit we use, and now we are severing that link to the past. That is something worth noting.
These thousand years gone by have seen enormous changes, from paper to the computer, from the printing press to the Internet, from candles to nuclear reactors, from horses to the space shuttle, from empires and feudal manors to flourishing democracies. What will the next thousand years bring?
There has been too much hype surrounding the coming millennium. I have seen far too many Century and Millennium lists. But while January 1 may not exactly be the start of the next millennium, it is the beginning of a new era. Soon the years by which we measure our history will begin with a new digit, the same digit that all else being equal, people one thousand years from now will still be using.
Not much will change as December 31 turns into January 1. We’ll still need to let the dog out, we’ll still have to pay taxes, we will still have to go to work. As you watch the ball come down in Times Square though, think on this. It is not often we are witness to the weaving of a tapestry whose threads run so far into the future. We will soon be using a new digit in our dates, and that may be the only real reason for all the millennium madness.