That Time the World Ended: Our Obsession with Apocalypses

From Y2K to 2012, humans have had a history of Apocalyptic obsession.

Pop Culture
4 min
Jordan Neese
Jordan Neese
That Time the World Ended: Our Obsession with Apocalypses
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Pop Culture

Today, we are rewinding back and looking at the obsession humans have had over apocalyptic prophecies. We’re going to be taking a closer look at some of the biggest end-of-the-world scares and dive into some of the historical context involved in the obsession that humans cannot seem to get over.

Why Y2K?

Let’s start with Y2K. You may remember this instance of prophetic apocalypse like it was yesterday, or perhaps you were just an infant or not even alive yet. Y2K is the shorthand term for “the year 2000,” and the theory was driven around a series of computer bugs that threatened to shut down computer networks around the world — some of which being highly sensitive networks, such as nuclear facilities and financial institutions.

Best Buy Ad
Sticker used by Best Buy in 1999 recommending their customers turn off their computers ahead of January 1, 2000 to avoid any issues which may be caused by the Y2K problem. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Programmers at the time were often constrained by a shortage of computer storage and would do whatever they could to save space when writing code. One example of this was referring to years as the last two digits – ’62 instead of 1962 for example. Once records became digitized, the dates were never adjusted, and the question arose whether the computers would know when we eventually reached the year 2000. Would the time odometer flip over to 2000 or would the computer think the year is 1900?

Code Craze

As more companies began to take precautions on the backend of their digital security, headlines began to come out discussing the steps companies were frantically taking. With each new headline came exaggerated apocalyptic claims, and the idea of Y2K shutting down the world as we know it began to further.

Y2K was thankfully avoided thanks to companies and vocal individuals being proactive in taking the digital precautions needed to make the transition. Would financial markets have collapsed, or energy and nuclear networks shut down if these precautions were not taken? We will never truly know.

From Y2K to 2012, it didn’t take the world long to move on to the next apocalypse. But this time there was what some considered to be historical and archaeological precedent.

Mayan Mayhem

Let’s rewind back to the Mayans. Their creation myth states the gods formed the world when the Mayan calendar was at 0, which roughly translates to 3114 BCE our time. The Mayans go on to describe our world as the fourth created by the gods with the third world ending on its 13th Baktun (a metric by which the Mayan calendar was measured).

Believe It or Not!, the Mayan calendar goes well beyond the 13th Baktun, continuing all the way into the 15th, and even they did not believe that the world would necessarily end on the 13th Baktun.

Maya Calendar
Stone version of the Maya 260 calendar at the Smithsonian. Credit: MBisanz Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was a mix of misinterpreting the Mayan calendar alongside socio-culture running wild with the idea of the world ending that led so many to buy into the cultural moment. From movies to docu-series on television, fear had been instilled in the public for years leading up to 2012.

One notable aspect was that where you got your information determined the way in which the world was theorized to end. Some believed that that alignment of the planets would cause a pole shift leading to natural disasters that would destroy the planet. Others popularized the idea of a comet colliding with Earth and wiping out civilization as we know it. Some even theorized aliens would invade and seize control of the planet by force!

The World End Obsession

As you can see, the 2012 apocalypse was far less cohesive in comparison to Y2K. People and conspirators couldn’t agree on why or how the world would end, but instead were looking to confirm a misrepresented theory that the Mayan calendar predicted our world’s end.

The human obsession over the end of the world is seemingly one of the unique aspects of our species. Although we may not know how, why, or when life as we know it will end, we are all but sure it has an approaching expiration date. As long as there are movies, television shows, and the internet to conspire on the next apocalypse there will almost certainly be a portion of our society that hops on the next cycle of end times.

So, there you have it — from computer bugs to the Mayan calendar, humans have always obsessed over how and when the world will come to a crashing halt! Let us know in the comments below if you believed any of these apocalyptic prophecies and if there are any upcoming end times you are keeping your wits about!

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