Time zones are a nec­es­sary evil, but isn’t it about time we got rid of them com­pletely?

Esquire Middle East - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY JOSH SIMS

TIME, AN AS­TRO-PHYSI­CIST WILL TELL YOU , is rel­a­tive. But any­one who has to phone the other side of the world, or en­sure they make a flight con­nec­tion, can tell you that. They will have ex­pe­ri­enced the archane com­plex­ity of time zones—jump­ing for­ward, jump­ing back, time travel with­out the di­nosaurs or in­ter­stel­lar space­flight but with plenty of headaches.

Time zones have be­come such a part of the fab­ric of a glob­al­ized world it’s hard to imag­ine they once never ex­isted. And yet they’re only 140 years old, this year in fact. In­deed, back when most peo­ple lived and died in the vil­lage they were also born in, time was very much a lo­cal af­fair. Vil­lagers could call the time what­ever they wanted, be­cause ev­ery­one they knew lived by roughly the same time. And, cer­tainly, time was very lo­cal. The time in one vil­lage—to many lit­tle more than an es­ti­mate rel­a­tive to the move­ment of the sun across the sky, since clocks were few and watches only for the very wealthy—could be dif­fer­ent to that of a vil­lage just a few hours ride away.

It was tech­nol­ogy—specif­i­cally the ad­vent of the rail­ways—that re­quired the im­po­si­tion of a time zone; one ei­ther re­gional or, if the ter­ri­tory was small enough to make a sin­gle zone func­tional, na­tional. In 1870, the U.S. had 75 dif­fer­ent rail­way times across the coun­try—this was when a city like St. Louis had six time zones it­self.

It was a mess. To make the rail­ways prac­ti­ca­ble time had to be fur­ther reg­u­lated.

For a good while what was called ‘rail­way time’ might have ex­isted as dis­tinct from the lo­cal time you’d al­ways known; but it was only, well, a mat­ter of time be­fore the for­mer sub­sumed the lat­ter. The Scot­tish­cana­dian rail­way en­gi­neer Sand­ford Flem­ing, the man who in 1879 first pro­posed a global sys­tem of time zones linked to the Green­wich Merid­ian in Lon­don, ar­gued that the “twin agen­cies of steam and elec­tric­ity” had vastly re­duced dis­tances and made such reg­u­la­tion nec­es­sary.

“You didn’t have to travel far by to­day’s terms—a cou­ple of hun­dred miles—for so­lar time to have changed, so [with­out reg­u­la­tion] co-or­di­na­tion quickly be­came im­pos­si­ble,” says

Dr. Louise Devoy, se­nior cu­ra­tor at the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory, in Green­wich, where the Green­wich Merid­ian Line is lit­er­ally sit­u­ated. It was be­cause

Great Bri­tain had long pub­lished the nav­i­ga­tor’s bi­ble ‘The Nau­ti­cal Almanac’, which used the Green­wich Merid­ian as its ref­er­ence point, and then pi­o­neered the rail­ways, that the merid­ian be­came the ‘start­ing point’ for time zones around the globe too, much to the cha­grin of the French in par­tic­u­lar.

“At­ti­tudes to time zones were very var­ied and de­bated right up un­til the 1960s,” adds Devoy. “And there are still el­e­ments of it that are il­log­i­cal. In a per­fect world you’d have 24 time zones —pic­ture the Earth as a great or­ange with each seg­ment a zone for each hour. But if you look at the map of time zones you of­ten see dif­fer­ent coun­tries within what would be the same seg­ment and yet in dif­fer­ent time zones. The cre­ation of time zones have tended to be very hu­man de­ci­sions.”

Of­ten these don’t make much sense. In­deed, there are cur­rently 38 dif­fer­ent lo­cal times around the world, not 24, as one might ex­pect. Rus­sia is a ter­ri­tory so vast it has 11 time zones alone, al­though it has some­times ad­hered to only nine. Yet China, also vast—3.6m square miles vast, in fact—has just one, a prod­uct, ar­guably, of the Com­mu­nist Party’s de­sire for uni­fied con­trol.

Time zones don’t even op­er­ate in whole hours. Some parts of the world are sev­eral hours-and-a-half apart. Some­times they’re just half an hour apart—as, since the dic­ta­tor­ship adopted Pyongyang Time in 2015,

North Korea is from China and Ja­pan, a de­ci­sion that per­haps smacks of na­tion­al­is­tic grand-stand­ing. But then In­dia and its neigh­bour Nepal are just 15 min­utes apart. Time zones make for some batty dis­par­i­ties: Eu­cla in south­ern Aus­tralia is eight hours and 45 min­utes ahead of UTC, or Co­or­di­nated Uni­ver­sal Time—tech­ni­cally the suc­ces­sor to Green­wich Mean Time— though the North­ern Ter­ri­tory is nine­and-a-half hours ahead.

So why not just do away with time zones al­to­gether, re­plac­ing them with one global time zone? In­deed, some are push­ing for just that. Steve Hanke, a pro­fes­sor of ap­plied eco­nom­ics at John Hop­kins Univer­sity, Bal­ti­more and a se­nior fel­low at the CATO In­sti­tute think tank, to­gether with col­league Dick Henry, pro­fes­sor of physics and astron­omy, has pro­posed a sin­gle global time zone. It smacks of a kind of Star Trek fu­ture in which there are no na­tion states—in which what pre­vents us from think­ing of

hu­man­ity as a united, global species has been con­signed to his­tory. It makes sense from a sci­en­tific stand­point at least: in physics, af­ter all, there’s only one time.

Their pro­posal is based on the cur­rent mea­sure of UTC, which op­er­ates through zones up to 12 hours ahead or be­hind, tied to the 24 hour clock, but al­low­ing in­di­vid­ual states to choose their zone. Hanke and Henry, how­ever, want to go a step fur­ther and make it the same time the world over. This, they say, makes per­fect sense: com­mu­ni­ca­tions, trade, fi­nance, travel, lo­gis­tics all would be much, much smoother.

This is, af­ter all, why Amer­i­can Samoa jumped across the in­ter­na­tional date­line in 2011, thus of­fi­cially never see­ing De­cem­ber 30th of that year—so it could be bet­ter in sync with Aus­tralia and New Zealand, the na­tions it does most trade with. Not for noth­ing did Gen­eral Hel­muth von Moltke in 1891 claim that the rea­son he’d won two wars was that he’d ap­plied UTC to the Ger­man rail­ways, and hence to the sup­ply of troops.

“Time zones are a func­tion of dis­tance, of mov­ing slowly be­tween one point and an­other,” ex­plains Hanke. “But with the rapid move­ment of peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, lo­cal time zones be­came ob­so­lete. We once had hun­dreds of thou­sands of time zones around the world, and then we had 38. Our pro­posal is sim­ply to go from 38 to one, and for the same log­i­cal rea­son. This is a small world. The speed of travel, of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, has made those 38 ob­so­lete.”

“There are cur­rently 38 DIF­FER­ENT LO­CAL TIMES around the world, not 24, as one might ex­pect. RUS­SIA is a ter­ri­tory so vast it has 11 time zones alone. CHINA, also vast, has just ONE .”

AR­GUABLY, MUCH AS THE RAIL­WAYS ush­ered in time zones, so now an­other tech­nol­ogy, the in­ter­net, and the more global per­spec­tive it has fos­tered, in­vites the adop­tion of one global time zone too. It’s an idea al­ready in prac­tice too: since the early 1970s air­line pi­lots have used Uni­ver­sal Time wher­ever they are in flight, to help save air­craft crash­ing into each other.

But it’s the per­cep­tion at the lo­cal level that’s the prob­lem—and not just in the sense of com­ing to grips with the con­cep­tual change in how we mea­sure our days; un­der the sin­gle global time pro­posal, the work­ing day on the east coast of the United States, for ex­am­ple, would start at 1400 hours and end around 2200 hours; in Aus­tralia the day would be­gin at 0100 hours. The work­ing day would still be con­ducted through­out the lo­cal pe­riod of day­light—its hours just wouldn’t be called the same.

Sure, what we choose to la­bel a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in the revo­lu­tion of the Earth, and of its pas­sage around the sun, may only be a so­cial con­struct, eas­ily changed on paper—or on your watch. Dif­fer­ent parts of the world, af­ter all, still use dif­fer­ent cal­en­dars, such that it’s 2019 by the Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar—a west­ern, Chris­tian mea­sure­ment—mean­while it’s 1426 by the Ben­gali cal­en­dar, and the world keeps turn­ing. In fact, Hanke and Henry have pro­posed a new cal­en­dar too—they see date and time as be­ing the same is­sue—one in which ev­ery date falls on the same day of the week ev­ery year.

But it’s in­dica­tive of just how much we live by the clock—when we get up or go to bed, when we eat, our com­mute, our bed­time—and give struc­ture to our day by the clock too, that what looks to be a sim­ple re-la­belling may feel so un­nat­u­ral as to be vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble. That’s even if Hanke ar­gues we’d soon get used to the change, much as many of us have the shift from fahren­heit to cel­sius, or miles to kilo­me­tres—ar­guably both much big­ger switches.

“You get peo­ple say­ing the likes of ‘does this mean I have to open my shop at mid­night?’. But no, our cir­ca­dian clock fights against that. We’d still live by our nat­u­ral rhythms,” says Hanke. “A sin­gle time zone wouldn’t do away with the cir­ca­dian clock we’re all hard-wired with. It just means that ev­ery­one’s watch would show the same po­si­tion on the dial. The tran­si­tion wouldn’t take long – we’d soon get used to it, though for some it is a hard thing to grasp at first. The prob­lem is that his­tor­i­cally time zones have tended to be a po­lit­i­cal is­sue. Some­times na­tions are at­tached to their time zone in the way they are to their cur­rency.”

It’s for this rea­son that there is typ­i­cally ma­jor de­bate sur­round­ing pro­pos­als to amend zon­ing. Last year the pres­i­dent of the Eu­ro­pean Union, Jean-claude Juncker, called for an end to sum­mer and win­ter times across the block—leg­is­la­tion is now pro­ceed­ing though Brus­sels. “Clock-chang­ing must stop,” said Juncker, as he an­nounced what is ef­fec­tively a step to­wards a sin­gle Eu­ro­pean time zone.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how far Juncker gets. Like­wise, Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev made moves to­wards the con­sol­i­da­tion of Rus­sian time in 2010 but then four years later the Rus­sian par­lia­ment de­cided against it. It was less both­ered about the change of time zones it im­posed on Crimea when Rus­sia an­nexed it the same year. Sim­i­larly, a cam­paign two years ago for the UK to per­ma­nently adopt Day­light Sav­ings Time—also known as British Sum­mer Time—and so put it in the same time zone as the rest of the Eu­ro­pean con­ti­nent, just 21 miles away at its near­est point, was re­buffed by then Scot­tish Par­lia­ment’s

First Min­is­ter. Why? For lo­cal rea­sons: it would mean that, in the north of the coun­try, the morn­ings would be light un­til 10am dur­ing the win­ter (though, of course, it would en­joy much lighter evenings).

Cer­tainly there’s recog­ni­tion that do­ing away with time zones—or at least re­duc­ing them—brings eco­nomic ben­e­fits; In­done­sia, for ex­am­ple, has pro­posed cut­ting back its zones from three to two, be­cause it fig­ures it will be bet­ter for busi­ness. But good busi­ness sense is not al­ways enough to trump the hu­man re­ac­tion. And some­times that’s a deeply hu­man re­ac­tion: the ris­ing and set­ting of the sun—more specif­i­cally our ex­po­sure to day­light—af­fects said cir­ca­dian rhythms and thus our sleep pat­terns; the more one is forced to live by a less lo­calised time zone, it’s ar­gued, the big­ger the im­pact on the qual­ity of our sleep—which has a knock-on ef­fect for health, ed­u­ca­tion, pro­duc­tiv­ity and, all told, the na­tional well-be­ing.

In some places that’s mak­ing for a call for more, not fewer, time zones. Take the sit­u­a­tion in In­dia, a vast na­tion, stretching 1,864 miles east to west and cov­er­ing more than a bil­lion peo­ple – it has a sin­gle time zone (IST or In­dian Stan­dard Time) as a legacy of British colo­nial rule. The sun rises in the east of the coun­try al­most two hours ear­lier than it does in the west. Those who start their days in dark­ness use more elec­tric­ity – a cost that would be spared were In­dia to split its ter­ri­tory across two zones.

But the cost is more than fi­nan­cial. Take the school day, for ex­am­ple— this starts at roughly the same time across In­dia, and yet chil­dren who ex­pe­ri­ence lighter evenings in­vari­ably have a longer wak­ing day; or, in other words, they get less sleep.

Stud­ies sug­gest these chil­dren are less likely com­plete pri­mary and mid­dle school. Small won­der then that, while the sug­ges­tion that two time zones, sep­a­rated by an hour, has been made by re­searchers be­fore – and in 2002 was re­jected by the gov­ern­ment on the grounds that it would cause too much con­fu­sion for the rail­ways – last year even In­dia’s of­fi­cial time­keep­ers at the Na­tional Phys­i­cal Lab­o­ra­tory rec­om­mended it.

There’s sim­i­lar talk in Spain— a recog­ni­tion that the coun­try is stuck in the wrong time zone, in line with that of Poland and Hun­gary, leav­ing its pop­u­lace al­ways tired. It’s been ar­gued that this lies be­hind Spain’s com­par­a­tively high sui­cide rate, and low birth rate. And if you want pol­i­tics, try the fact that Spain’s odd time zone was cho­sen by the fas­cist Gen­eral Franco in 1942 as a show of al­le­giance to Nazi Ger­many.

Of course, a set­ting of the work­ing day by lo­cal so­lar mea­sure­ment, com­bined with adop­tion of a global time zone, would solve such is­sues. If only we could get our col­lec­tive heads around the idea. “It does sound very ex­treme,” says the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory’s Louise Devoy when it is put to her. “As a cul­ture we’re deeply at­tached to the mean­ing of cer­tain times – and so it be­comes a weird con­cept to get to bed at, say, two o’clock in the af­ter­noon. As such I can’t see this idea be­ing taken up any time soon.”

Of course, Hanke dis­agrees.

The sin­gle global time zone is, he says, lit­tle more than a re­turn to the way lo­cal mat­ters were handled be­fore the rail­ways, with the ad­di­tion of a world clock en­sur­ing that in­ter­na­tional af­fairs con­tin­ued un­heeded: there would be work­ing time and there would be uni­ver­sal time. This is pretty much what al­ready hap­pens in China.

It, re­call, is a huge land with one time zone. So, al­though of­fi­cially the sin­gle zone set up means some in­sti­tu­tions and busi­nesses, and so peo­ple, have to op­er­ate at odd hours—pre­cisely what many fear when they hear talk of a sin­gle time zone—un­of­fi­cially many Chi­nese tend to set their daily sched­ules by some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing so­lar time and over­look the state­sanc­tioned time un­til it’s needed.

“Lo­cal cus­toms would still be recog­nised—in some places shops would open ear­lier and in oth­ers later. There would be a dis­tri­bu­tion. Just be­cause there’s a sin­gle global uni­fied time zone doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for com­plete diversity at the lo­cal level,” ex­plains Hanke. “Peo­ple will still get up when the sun comes up and still go to bed at night. There’s just no point tin­ker­ing with the messy cur­rent time zone ar­range­ments any more. We should just go for it and make the change.”

He con­cedes that get­ting the world’s na­tions to all agree to do­ing so is a stretch. Cer­tainly, pre­vi­ous, com­par­a­tively triv­ial at­tempts at sim­i­lar ideas have not fared well:

Swatch’s in­tro­duc­tion in 1999 of what it called In­ter­net Time, with watches that dis­played lo­cal so­lar time but also mea­sured a day out in 1,000 ‘beats’, was phased out just two years later. And some have voiced con­cern that it’s the fi­nal step to­wards a truly 24 hour so­ci­ety—in which your col­league on the other side of the planet won’t think any­thing of call­ing you in the mid­dle of what is your night (and, if he’s more con­sid­er­ate, will have to calculate what the sun is do­ing where you are to avoid do­ing so; which is to say that he’ll have to use some kind of time zon­ing).

Just mov­ing clocks back or for­ward an hour twice a year with the sea­sons is enough to be­fud­dle many of us—not hav­ing to do so is one good rea­son to live in the Mid­dle East, which, like much, but not all, of South Amer­ica, and much, but not all, of Africa, ig­nores day­light sav­ing time. Truly, this in­con­sis­tency is all enough to make your head spin.

It’s enough to make you long for a sin­gle time zone. Rest easy. Hanke reck­ons it’s go­ing to hap­pen any­way. It’s just the way of the world now.

“Get­ting in­ter­na­tional agree­ment might be pos­si­ble but I think it’s us­age that’s go­ing to call the tune,” he says. “Things are or­dered spon­ta­neously, by hu­man ac­tions, be­cause they’re de­sir­able, be­cause they’re ben­e­fi­cial. There was no cen­tralised de­sign for lan­guage, money or mar­kets.

They came about be­cause they’re use­ful, they make sense. And the same is true of uni­ver­sal time.

“The fact is that a uni­ver­sal time zone just creeps into the tech­nol­ogy we use and has to be­cause oth­er­wise there’s chaos in the sys­tem—it’s al­ready what al­lows the in­ter­net to func­tion. And we can ex­pect that a uni­ver­sal time zone will nat­u­rally creep into so many ar­eas that we’ll adopt it with­out hav­ing even re­alised it,” Hanke adds. “Back with the rail­ways it took 20 years for the process of co­or­di­nat­ing time zones to be ef­fected. And we’ll see the same with the idea of a sin­gle global time zone too. It’s com­ing. And, re­ally, I just don’t see any valid ar­gu­ment against it.”

“AS A CUL­TURE we’re deeply at­tached to the mean­ing of CER­TAIN TIMES –and so it be­comes a weird con­cept to get to bed at, say, TWO O’CLOCK inthe af­ter­noon.”

Pi­lots use­u­ni­ver­sal Time wher­ever they are in flight

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