Reconnecting Time and Place

Continuous Time and the Obsolescence of Time Zones

These ideas were spurred to introduction by pieces from Lloyd Alter and, more recently, Matthew Yglesias. Each make the case that time zones are no longer necessary.

Time zones are a compromise from the Industrial Age. When railroads and telegraphs gave us the capacity to travel and communicate over large distances quickly — when we began to dominate time and place — coordination using local time became confusing and time zones were adopted. The decades since brought ever swifter machines and recently gave rise to an unanticipated connectedness. Today, the abrupt jump of an hour at a time zone boundary is analogous to a color change between pixels, or the audible distortion of an early digital audio file. Time zones are low resolution. As far as individual experience, they will soon be obsolete — or at least optional — as will any mass clock synchronization.

When discussing a better system for the Postdigital Age, it is good to begin with consideration of what was discarded when time zones were adopted. The true loss was the disconnect between time and place induced by our clock synchronization. For millennia an imprecise but natural time had prevailed; the cycle of day and night imbued a simultaneous awareness of where we were, and when we were. This connection was compromised when inhabitants of vast swaths of geography snapped to synchronicity and shifted their attention from changing shadows to mechanical devices.

Imagine a traveler on an airliner. She looks out the window and watches the ground move below her. She sees the clouds pass and hears and feels the engines carrying her quickly over great distances. She is aware of her speed, her changing location, and the total time she is in the air. When she steps onto concrete on the opposite side of the earth, she is not jarred by place. She has an awareness of where she is because she continuously perceived her position during her flight.

She is largely unaware, however, of her movement in time in relation to her location. This is not the same as total flight time. Travelers experience an expansion and contraction of day and night. If she departs to the east before dawn, the sun rises in front of her, passes overhead, and sets behind her to the west. Since she is moving away from the setting sun, her day is shorter than it would be if she remained stationary. Similarly, if she travels west she chases the sunset and her day lengthens. Time zone boundary crossings are not the cause of this expansion and contraction. The connection between time and place on our planet is very real. It exists with or without movement. Time zones are a compromise between maintaining this connection and synchronizing our clocks.

The length of the base unit of time — the second — has been usefully defined with incredible precision, but it originated from the terra cycle of day and night. We’re intimately connected to this cycle because we evolved under its influence, and many of the difficulties we experience with time zones are exacerbated by our neglect of its importance. There’s a sinking feeling familiar to workers in some geographical locations who begin and end the day in darkness because the schedule of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. persists without consideration for location and season. It is unnerving, to a degree, that New York and Detroit maintain an identical time even though the sun sets in the former before the latter. Daylight savings time jostles our bodies and minds, and we only justify it because our rigid timekeeping system does not evolve with the day-night cycle. Jetlag has remarkably negative effects in part because we move unaware of time in the way we are of place.

Universal time systems do away with the connection between time and place altogether by reducing the number of time zones to one and synchronizing everyone. While the drawbacks of time zones are significant, and while universal time systems are a clear solution for device communication, the argument for choosing a single universal time system for human use is unconvincing — it is a reduction of resolution, a single pixel, a more distorted digital audio file. That 3:00 a.m. in Tokyo means roughly the same time of night as it does in Los Angeles is meaningful for human interaction, especially in a world that is increasingly connected. To discard something meaningful seems a move in the wrong direction.

The deus ex machina is the rise of mobile devices with powerful processors and GPS functionality. The time systems we use need not be identical to the underlying systems our devices use. An app could give individuals a continuously varying time system as a function of their location on the earth and some reference, such as the location of the sun or a universal time. For our traveler flying east, her clock would tick more quickly until she arrives at her destination, then it would revert to standard pace. Her new time would be based on her new location and not an entire zone. When she travels west her clock would move more slowly and would even tick in reverse whenever her trajectory gives her an arrival time that precedes her departure time. Each point on the earth could effectively be its own miniscule time zone — a high resolution system that accounts for movement. Continuous Time would reconnect time and place.

Time zones have proven functional, if not ideal, and at first blush the idea of enabling each individual with her own structure would seem to compound the scheduling problems we already have. The devices and apps of Continuous Time would need to be accessible, intuitive, and integral with our lives. They would require thoughtful design with the unwavering goal of a better quality of life. This is the most critical juncture. Our calendars could be simple and sophisticated liaisons between users. Our alarms could wake us up thirty minutes before sunrise during the workweek and we could have variable length workdays. A son could take a photo of a sunset and send it to his mother and it could be delivered to her not instantly, but at the time of her sunset, when her moment aligns with his. Each city could have an identity in place and time — what is currently :00 across an entire zone becomes :17 in one city and :31 in another. Local time could be re-embraced with pride the way that area codes sometimes are.

Any given large city, from eastern to western edge, would vary in Continuous Time by no more than one minute, so those who are near each other in place would remain near each other in time. Coordinating local meetings would be as effortless as it’s always been. Stationary clocks, including traditional watches that are used locally, would work as well as they always have. Slow movement of a driver in an automobile with a traditional watch would require the same sensitivity as always: if traveling a significant distance, reset the watch to match local clocks.

The goal is simple: we each need to know where to be and when, and if we develop apps and devices that enable individuality while seamlessly negotiating our differences, we will no longer need to agree on any one timekeeping system. Continuous Time itself would be only one option. A person recovering from an injury could structure their time for the most expedient recovery. A research team could synchronize for a common goal. A composer writing a score could structure her time to influence the music itself. One person may prefer a non-numeric, gradually fading and brightening screen of light. A second may prefer a grid of blocks disappearing one by one as summer progresses. A third may prefer Continuous Time. With the right tools, there’s no reason the three can’t schedule an internet meeting from opposite corners of the earth. Unconfined personalization with unparalleled connectivity is possible.

If there has ever been a time to be courageous about our potential to connect with our planet and with each other, it may be now. The collision between our evolutionary past and our technologic future can be reconciled.

Continuous Time is local time with movement and connectivity built in. Such a solution wasn’t needed before the Industrial Age, and wasn’t possible until now. I eagerly await the day when I depart from one location, west to east, and my business partner departs from another, east to west. My watch will display one time, hers another, and they won’t differ by a round number of hours. I’ll peer out the window at the clouds passing below, and gaze at my digital watch as the minutes tick by quickly. She’ll feel the force of jet engines press her back and marvel as her GPS-enabled analog watch hands move slowly in reverse. When we touch down and greet each other with smiles and a hug, our watches will be synchronized — not because of a forced snap to a zone, but because we moved continuously toward each other over the surface of our planet. We’ll be in the same place and we’ll be at the same time, as it should be. Time zones will be relegated to the annals, remembered as a temporary system that evolved into something better.

Thank you to SB Smith, Leah Rico, Lana Bernberg, Kate Sweater, Misha Volf, Jessica Bennett, and Michael Hahn.