Did you ‘spring for­ward’?

As clocks move ahead an hour, an ar­gu­ment against the tyranny of stan­dard­ized time

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @allthe­shapes Ryan Hagen Ryan Hagen, a doc­toral can­di­date in so­ci­ol­ogy at Columbia Univer­sity, stud­ies or­ga­ni­za­tions and the so­ci­ol­ogy of sci­ence, knowl­edge and tech­nol­ogy.

Day­light sav­ing time, which takes ef­fect this week­end, seems in­nocu­ous: a triv­ial ha­rass­ment, an an­noy­ing ves­tige of an ear­lier age, a point­less hard­ship im­posed on us by tech­nocrats. It is all of those things. The mea­sure was in­tro­duced to solve a prob­lem cre­ated by the shift from lo­cal so­lar time to stan­dard clock time — as day­time short­ened in win­ter, more pro­duc­tive ac­tiv­ity was locked into night­time hours, in an era when ar­ti­fi­cial light was far more ex­pen­sive than it is to­day. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son for­mally in­tro­duced the United States to day­light sav­ing time in 1918, jus­ti­fy­ing it as wartime thrift. Over the fol­low­ing cen­tury it was var­i­ously re­sisted, over­turned, rein­tro­duced and mod­i­fied, reach­ing its cur­rent di­men­sions with the En­ergy Pol­icy Act of 2005. Amid all that ef­fort, no­body has been able to demon­strate con­clu­sively that ad­just­ing clock time to the wax­ing and wan­ing of day­light hours saves en­ergy as in­tended. (In fact, the op­po­site seems to be true.)

As a ra­tio­nal pol­icy, day­light sav­ing time may be in­ef­fec­tive. But as a so­cial rit­ual, it re­tains real value. Our bian­nual clock-tun­ing is a slip of the mask, a glitch in the ma­trix that re­minds us that clock time is al­ways ar­ti­fi­cial and ar­bi­trary.

Stan­dard­ized clock time is im­mensely use­ful. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that the mod­ern world de­pends on it: Ships once re­quired it to nav­i­gate. The GPS sys­tems that guide our cars, planes and farm com­bines count on stan­dard time to cal­cu­late their po­si­tions. If you think set­ting up a phone call be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Lon­don is dif­fi­cult now be­cause of dif­fer­ing time zones, imag­ine if lo­cal time var­ied by a few min­utes be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Pitts­burgh, a few de­grees of lon­gi­tude west. In a so­ci­ety de­pen­dent on just-in-time sup­ply chains and au­to­mated trad­ing that works in mi­crosec­onds, ac­cu­rate, pre­cisely cal­i­brated time is as im­por­tant as elec­tric­ity.

But stan­dard­ized time can be, and has been, used against us. Whether you get more out of clock time than it gets out of you is largely a func­tion of your eco­nomic se­cu­rity. Al­most 90 years after John May­nard Keynes’s pre­dic­tion that the fu­ture would hold 15-hour work­weeks and lives of leisure, we feel in­creas­ingly times­tarved. So­ci­ol­o­gist Judy Wa­jc­man, in her book “Pressed for Time,” calls this the “time-pres­sure para­dox”: Stan­dard­ized time — in which DST is an ar­chaic wrin­kle — con­trib­utes to a world of la­bor-sav­ing in­no­va­tions. But the time they free up is im­me­di­ately filled by de­mands for more work, and greater and more var­ied de­mands on our at­ten­tion.

We can sketch out three dis­tinct eras of time reck­on­ing be­tween an­tiq­uity and the present. The ear­li­est cal­en­dars were linked to the move­ment of the sun, moon and plan­ets. An en­dur­ing legacy of this: Within the days of our week are en­coded the names of the sun, moon and five plan­ets vis­i­ble to an­cient Baby­lo­nian as­tronomers. The story of so­cial time since then has been a grad­ual de­cou­pling from nat­u­ral ref­er­ence points. First the seven-day week broke free of the lu­nar cy­cle, be­com­ing, so­ci­ol­o­gist Evi­atar Zerubavel ar­gues, the first “ma­jor rhythm of hu­man ac­tiv­ity that is to­tally obliv­i­ous to na­ture, rest­ing on math­e­mat­i­cal reg­u­lar­ity alone.” As such, he writes, the week “ought to be re­garded as one of the great­est break­throughs in the his­tory of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion.” With the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, clock time lib­er­ated the work­day from so­lar time and es­tab­lished la­bor rou­tines or­ga­nized by sched­ules — the 9-to-5 job be­ing the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of this. In the 21st cen­tury, work has es­caped the bounds of the 9-to-5 sched­ule, or­ga­nized in­stead around what me­dia scholar Robert Has­san calls “net­work time.” Un­der net­work time, we’re ex­pected to do our jobs when­ever the task de­mands it, no mat­ter what our lo­cal time is.

If time can be used to com­mand our at­ten­tion and im­pose or­der on our lives, then the abil­ity to set it, and ul­ti­mately to de­cide how oth­ers use it, is a source of tremen­dous power. When clocks be­came fix­tures in 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish fac­to­ries, work­ers com­plained that their bosses un­fairly set the clocks ahead in the morn­ing and back at night, to squeeze more la­bor out of the day. Work­men, his­to­rian E.P. Thomp­son noted, feared car­ry­ing their own watches, since it was “no un­com­mon event” for man­agers to fire any worker “who pre­sumed to know too much about the sci­ence of horol­ogy.”

In 1880, Bri­tain adopted Green­wich Mean Time as le­gal stan­dard time. Four years later, an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence named GMT as the global prime merid­ian, against which all other times would be set. The Royal Ob­ser­va­tory in Green­wich be­came a key tool of im­pe­rial ad­min­is­tra­tion: The time of day in any given place would now be dic­tated by tech­nocrats in Lon­don, rather than by the po­si­tion of the sun over­head, as it had been for thou­sands of years. In this way, postal routes, train travel, work­days, mar­kets and meet­ings could be co­or­di­nated. But many found the idea alien­at­ing. In 1894, Mar­tial Bour­din, a 26-year-old French an­ar­chist, died in Lon­don after a home­made bomb he was car­ry­ing ex­ploded in his hands. Po­lice spec­u­lated that his tar­get was the Green­wich ob­ser­va­tory. It would have been, in the lan­guage of mod­ern coun­tert­er­ror­ism, a highly sym­bolic soft tar­get for an an­ar­chist.

In the United States, the adop­tion of stan­dard time was pushed by the pro­gres­sive move­ment as a civ­i­liz­ing project, but it was also cham­pi­oned by rail­road ti­tans and busi­ness in­ter­ests for whom co­or­di­nat­ing eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity across large dis­tances was a ma­jor ad­van­tage. Stan­dard time met op­po­si­tion from la­bor­ers who wor­ried “that their time of re­cre­ation would be cur­tailed,” the Detroit Free Press re­ported. Oth­ers, wor­ried about eco­nomic ex­pe­di­ency su­per­sed­ing tra­di­tional lo­cal con­trol, protested the sub­sti­tu­tion of rail­road ty­coon “Jay Gould’s time for God’s time.”

Time clocks re­main a site of bat­tle be­tween work­ers and em­ploy­ers. In 2013, ware­house work­ers at Ama­zon (whose owner, Jeff Be­zos, also owns this news­pa­per) sued over rules that re­quired them to clock out be­fore wait­ing up to 25 min­utes for a manda­tory anti-shoplift­ing screen­ing on their way out the door. The Supreme Court sided with Ama­zon. Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, as part of a long-run­ning cam­paign to curb the power of aca­demics, has pro­posed a rule re­quir­ing pro­fes­sors to re­port the num­ber of hours they spend teach­ing, as op­posed to con­duct­ing other ac­tiv­i­ties such as re­search. Em­ploy­ers, for their part, worry about hourly em­ploy­ees com­mit­ting time­clock fraud — for ex­am­ple, by tak­ing breaks while clocked in or clock­ing in for a worker who hasn’t yet ar­rived.

In a move that would com­plete the de­cou­pling of so­cial time from nat­u­ral rhythms, econ­o­mist Steve Hanke and physi­cist Dick Henry think we should abol­ish time zones al­to­gether, in fa­vor of a sin­gle global time. Noon in Lon­don would be noon in Bei­jing, re­gard­less of whether it was night or day. That would ease global com­merce. But the in­ter­ests it would serve are mostly those of peo­ple who, by ad­van­tage or by ne­ces­sity, carry out work over great dis­tances, re­gard­less of their lo­cal tem­po­ral con­text.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Ge­org Sim­mel wrote that the ma­jor prob­lem of mod­ern life was how to pre­serve one’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity and in­de­pen­dence against the over­whelm­ing pres­sure of so­ci­ety — ev­ery­one’s in­di­vid­ual strug­gle to avoid “be­ing lev­elled, swal­lowed up in the so­cial-tech­no­log­i­cal mech­a­nism.” Stan­dard time, with all the de­vices and peo­ple that make it pos­si­ble and rely on it, is part of that mech­a­nism.

We’ve come a long way from Bour­din and the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory. The war for time is over. The an­ar­chists and lo­cal­ists lost. It’s telling that th­ese days our ma­jor com­plaint about day­light sav­ing time is that it fouls up stan­dard time, when stan­dard time is the rea­son we tend to feel rushed in the first place. Com­plain­ing about the clock spring­ing ahead or fall­ing back is like grous­ing about Ap­ple’s stupid head­phone don­gle you ab­so­lutely need for your iPhone but will im­me­di­ately lose. It pro­vides a good ex­cuse to grip­ing about the near prob­lem as a way of avoid­ing the far prob­lem — the fear that we’re frit­ter­ing away our lives into a black mir­ror. Or a tick­ing clock.


The stan­dard­iza­tion of time is es­sen­tial to mod­ern so­ci­ety, but it’s also an ar­bi­trary in­ven­tion. Its adop­tion in the 19th cen­tury sparked re­sis­tance from la­bor­ers and an­ar­chists.

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