We will awaken Sunday to yet another disturbance in the chronosphere — our twice-yearly jolt from resetting the clocks, mechanical and biological. Thanks to daylight saving time, we get a dose of jet lag without going anywhere.
Most people would be happy to dispense with this oddity of timekeeping, first imposed in Germany 100 years ago. But we can do better. We need to deep-six not just daylight saving time, but the whole jerry-rigged scheme of time zones that has ruled the world’s clocks for the last century and a half.
The time-zone map is a hodgepodge — a jigsaw puzzle by Dalí. Logically you might assume there are 24, one per hour. You would be wrong. There are 39, crossing and overlapping, defying the sun, some offset by 30 minutes or even 45, and fluctuating on the whims of local satraps.
Let us all — wherever and whenever — live on what the world’s timekeepers call Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C. (though “earth time” might be less presumptuous). When it’s noon in Greenwich, Britain, let it be 12 everywhere. No more resetting the clocks. No more wondering what time it is in Peoria or Petropavlovsk. Our biological clocks can stay with the sun, as they have from the dawn of history. Only the numerals will change, and they have always been arbitrary.
Some mental adjustment will be necessary at first. Every place will learn a new relationship with the hours. New York (with its longitudinal companions) will be the place where people breakfast at noon, where the sun reaches its zenith around 4 p.m., and where people start dinner close to midnight. (“Midnight” will come to seem a quaint word for the zero hour, where the sun still shines.) In Sydney, the sun will set around 7 a.m., but the Australians can handle it; after all, their winter comes in June.
The human relationship with time changed substantially with the arrival of modernity — trains and telegraphs and wristwatches all around — and we can see it changing yet again in our globally networked era. We should synchronize our watches for real.
I’m not the first to propose this seemingly radical notion. Aviation already uses U.T.C. (called Zulu Time) — fewer collisions that way — and so do many computer folk. The visionary novelist Arthur C. Clarke suggested a single all-earth time zone when he was pondering the future of global communication as far back as 1976.
Two Johns Hopkins University professors, Richard Conn Henry and Steve H. Hanke, an astrophysicist and an economist, have been advocating it for several years. As strange as earth time might seem at first, the awkwardness would soon pass and the benefits would be “immense,” Professors Henry and Hanke argue. “The economy — that’s all of us — would receive a permanent ‘harmonization dividend’ ”— the efficiency benefits that come from a unified time zone. Drawbacks? Those bar-crawler T-shirts that read “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” will go obsolete.
Perhaps you’re asking why the Greenwich meridian gets to define earth time. Why should only England keep the traditional hours? Yes, it’s unfair, but that ship has sailed. The French don’t like it either. “The U.K. would turn into a time theme park,” suggested an English Twitter user, John Powers, “where you could experience 9 o’clock as your grandparents knew it.”
People forget how recent is the development of our whole ungainly apparatus. A century and a half ago, time zones didn’t exist. They were a consequence of the invention of railroads. At first they were neither popular nor easy to understand. When New York reset its clocks to railway time on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883, this newspaper explained the messy affair as follows:
“When the reader of The Times consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be 9 o’clock in St. John, New Brunswick, 7 o’clock in Chicago, or rather in St. Louis — for Chicago authorities have refused to adopt the standard time, perhaps because the Chicago meridian was not selected as the one on which all time must be based — 6 o’clock in Denver, Col., and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell.”
Time, that most ancient and mysterious of our masters, seemed to be coming under human jurisdiction. Time seemed malleable. It was no coincidence that H. G. Wells invented his time machine then, nor that Einstein developed his theory of relativity soon after. With everything so unsettled, Germany created Sommerzeit, “summer time,” as daylight saving time is still called in Europe.
“There was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time,” wrote the French novelist Marcel Aymé in “The Problem of Summer Time,” a 1943 time-travel story. “It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.”
Aymé was reacting in part to the politicization of time zones: The Nazis imposed Berlin time on Paris when they occupied it in World War II. It is no less political today, no less arbitrary, and no less confusing. Last year North Korea set its clocks back 30 minutes to create an oddball time zone all its own, Pyongyang time — just to show that it could, apparently. China has established a single time zone across its breadth, overlapping six time zones in its northern and southern neighbors.
It might seem impossible to imagine all the world’s nations uniting behind an official earth time. We’re a country that can’t seem to get rid of the penny or embrace the meter. Still, the current system is unstable, a Rube Goldberg contraption ready to collapse from its own complexity.
The human relationship with time is changing again. We’re not living in the railroad world anymore. We’re living in a networked world — a zone of experience where the sun neither rises nor sets. What time zone governs Twitter? What time is it on Facebook? There’s plenty to argue about in cyberspace, as in the real world. We could at least agree on the time.
James Gleick is the author, most recently, of Time Travel: A History.