Image Credit: Arjan Richter
Image Credit: Arjan Richter

One of the things that I have always appreciated about the future is its tendency toward streamlining. One hundred books on my shelf become a convenient to read thirty gigabits on my kindle. Instead of having to wait for the news to broadcast, and then being chained to one station, I can peruse the entirety of world news from a convenient webpage at my leisure. We seem to be obsessed with the notion of contracting things; making them smaller, punchier, and more concentrated.

This is why the entire concept of how we keep time has me at an utter loss. Despite having incredible advancements in technology, our method of time keeping is so insanely disjointed. Given our species’ increasingly planetary nature, why do we still use a method of time keeping invented by an industry that has long been replaced as a major mover of people? Railroad companies in the United States were the first to popularize the notion of time zones. It was an advancement they needed as, prior to their intervention, each town would set their own time based on noon being whenever the sun was at the highest point in the sky. This meant that “high noon” was often different from town to town. Becoming increasingly frustrated, the railroads instituted time zones as they needed a more standard method of setting their schedules.

Daylight savings time was adopted for a similar reason; standardization. As the United States entered into World War I, fuel that would otherwise be used for artificial lighting was needed for the war effort. Thus, war-time was instituted that adjusted most people’s working days to coincide better with the sun. This practice was ended after the end of the war but was reinstated during World War II. The practice was merged with standard time after the end of our planets’ second great conflict and DST has been causing unnecessary mass confusion ever since.

Both of these time related anecdotes have a common thread. The method of timekeeping was adjusted to better suit societal requirements. There was a pressing need that could be effectively resolved by changing the way we organized things in the temporal dimension. Humans are once again faced with a challenge that can be easily resolved in a similar manner. We live at one of the first times in history where having to organize a meeting between groups of people in Los Angeles, Johannesburg, and Shanghai doesn’t sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, we are experiencing unnecessary resistance to this kind of progress because of our own refusal to adjust our time keeping methods. To organize this meeting you would have to first determine a time to meet that works for one location and then ask other locations if it fits in their schedule, adjusting for time zones. You then have to keep in mind daylight savings time which can differ not only from country to country but sometimes city to city. And if you wanted to have a meeting at the same time a month later, you would have to go through all of the conversions again because the daylight savings time situation may have changed.

There is social need for a change. Our global society needs a global time standard from which to operate; One time for one planet. This could be based off of Greenwich Mean Time as it typically considered the standard time already. The idea would be that at midnight GMT on January the first of a designated year, the entire world enters a unified time zone with the time 00:00. This time would be kept in a twenty-four hour style. Now, scheduling your meeting would be as easy as asking if 15:30 works for each group; no adjustments, no calculations, no confusion.

Typically the first question asked in protest to this suggestion is “If it is 11:00 where I am how will I know the time at city X?” It would also 11:00, but really what that person is addressing is the loss of an ability to relate sun positions to times. This would be technically lost, but knowing the time in a place doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about the sun there. If I asked you what the position of the sun is at 8am in Alaska, the answer would vary depending on the time of year. Under a global time standard, terms like morning, noon, and evening would take on the meanings that they had before time zones or DST were popularized. They would describe approximate sun positions, not approximate times.

There are several instances where a global standard is already observed. For starters, the internet runs on a Coordinated Universal Time or UTC (the initialism comes from French). Because of this, most tech companies use UTC for official business. Coincidentally, a lot of these companies have departments all over the world that have to be coordinated. The United States military also uses an international time standard when coordinating between time zones known as Zulu time. China has instituted a national time standard (UTC+08:00) which collapses its five geographic time zones into one standard time zone to avoid confusion. They also don’t observe DST. As a result, the entire economy can move as one unit with no temporal confusion despite vast distance.

As the world continues to become more interconnected the benefits of a universal time only become more obvious. It was estimated that in the US alone, the DST switch costs more than $400 million dollars each spring. I couldn’t find any estimates of global economic cost due to non-standard time, but I am almost certain they exist. With this system we could lessen the amount of confusion in our transactions and our encounters. Commerce, travel, and communication would all benefit from this change. There is also another important yet more ephemeral benefit to this idea. We as a people would benefit from a time standard that represents what we are becoming as a species; united.


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