It's Time Again To Change The Way We Tell Time

Perhaps it should be called "Zoom time."

Sundial in the Forbidden City
Carl & Ann Purcell / Getty Images

Every year when the time changes I complain about time, and the silliness of our system of Railway Time, as it was called after it was developed by Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming. Also known as Standard Time, it was created to make it easier to schedule trains and deal with times on telegrams. And every year, the logic for dumping it gets stronger. This year, the pandemic has given us new reasons to reconsider the way we deal with time.

One thing that has changed is the increasing concern with wellness and the influence of circadian rhythms, how our bodies adapt and attune to the color of natural light, from reddish in the morning to bluish at noon and back to red. My colleague Ilanna Strauss wrote about how critical they are to our wellbeing:

Circadian rhythm issues are a huge problem for many people. But that's not because they don't have enough light therapy lamps. The problem is that much of our society and infrastructure was designed before anyone knew or cared about circadian rhythms.
Your Circadian Rhythms
Your Circadian Rhythms.  YassineMrabet on Wikipedia 

Our rigid adherence to time zones ignores this; because of the combination of Railway Time and War Time (now called Daylight Saving), solar noon on the day that I write this is at 12:48 p.m. in Boston and 13:36 p.m. in Detroit. No wonder our bodies are confused about when to eat lunch. Messing up our circadian rhythms has been blamed for "an increased chance of cardiovascular events, obesity, and a correlation with neurological problems like depression and bipolar disorder." As I noted a few years ago, what works for the convenience of Sandford Fleming and the railroads (and later, Walter Cronkite and the TV networks) doesn't work for our bodies.

Before we had Railway Time, every town and city had its own time zone, calculated with a sundial; there were over 300 time zones in the United States. Because everyone worked by the light of the sun, our bodies were all in sync with the rhythms of the sun. And it worked fine until the railroads and Walter Cronkite came along. When offices were invented, they ran on railway time, the old 9-to-5 thing; that's how it was done.

As Ilana notes, "people have different circadian rhythms, but society demands everyone keep the same schedule." If your personal clock doesn't work like this, you are in trouble.

Businesses and medical professionals often pathologize these problems, making them about individuals. But if you can fix a medical condition by simply not threatening someone with expulsion or joblessness, then it's not a medical condition. It's exploitation.

But now there is another factor: with so many people working from home or from mom's, time zones are becoming a real impediment. People are Zooming and videoconferencing in from all over the country and the world, having to coordinate time zones and find times that work for everyone. Many of us have had to learn how to disassociate our work times from our personal times.

This creates a real opportunity, to get really fine-grained and forget about the 9-to-5, and work the times that are right for our bodies, not our boss, and to solve all our coordination issues.

It's happy hour!
It's Happy Hour!.  Passive House Accelerator

It's not only the office that has changed; our social lives have as well. Every Wednesday evening I join the Global Passive House Happy Hour, which lists the starting times as:

4 p.m. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, LA
6 p.m. Chicago
7 p.m. New York, Toronto
12 Midnight London (Thursday)
1 a.m. Darmstadt (Thursday)
9 a.m. Melbourne (Thursday)

They could just put in the Pacific Daylight Time but then people like me would get it wrong (I always do). They tried once starting it earlier so that Passivhaus Central in Darmstadt would have an easier time of it, but people on the West Coast can't start partying at 1:00 in the afternoon, so they found a time that inconvenienced the fewest number of people, which happens to be at 1100 Universal Time Coordinated (UTC). Businesses have found that late morning on the east coast works best from California to Europe.

Sundial, Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence
Sundial, Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence.  Public Domain Carlo Raso on Flickr

Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times claims that the system is breaking down and calls for a high-tech fix.

If the “robber barons” of the railways were able to impose their timetable on the world, perhaps it is time for today’s “cyber barons” to abolish time zones altogether. From video chat to virtual reality, Silicon Valley has given us the tools to conquer space. But time is proving a tougher adversary, even within the tech companies themselves.

It doesn't need to be so complicated. Just plant a sundial in front of City Hall and declare Local Time wherever you live and we can run our shops restaurants, schools, and all the stuff of our daily lives on the time that suits our natural circadian rhythms. If your air is too polluted (like that sundial below in the Forbidden City in Beijing) or it's cloudy, you can also figure it out with a solar calculator.

Sundial in the Forbidden City
Sundial in the Forbidden City.  Lloyd Alter

For conference calls, zoom happy hours, for baseball games, for airplanes, all those things where everyone needs to coordinate the times, use UTC, that's why it's called coordinated. As economist Stephen Hanke noted in the Washington Post about how the railway and the telegraph created the need for Standard Time,

“the twin agencies steam and electricity” annihilated distances and made reform necessary. Today the agency of the Internet has annihilated time and space completely, and has set us up for adoption of world-wide time.

Let's do away with Railway Time and War Time and demand OUR time, what's right for our bodies, and make everything else UTC. Our computers and our smartwatches can cope and so can we. It's about time.