Can we get rid of timezones now, please?

For over 100 years, we’ve had a rough international agreement about at what point the sun is directly overhead, because this is when we assign an arbitrary time known as “noon”. We’ve divided the world into “zones”, which for some reason makes sense.

Like most international agreements, it’s not perfect, and many governments have gone well out of their way to thoroughly botch and/or screw around with the implementation — so much so that, in some cases, the concept of a time zone really makes no sense at all. Given the rise of the internet, the massive synchronisation between continents in real-time, and the presence of global companies, it’s frankly a wonder why we even think time zones are a good idea anymore.

So let’s get rid of them!

For anyone who’s ever had the challenge of scheduling meetings across time zones, you know the story:

Them: Let’s meet at 1pm.

You: Is that 1pm your time?

Them: I thought you were on the same time?

You: No, I’m two hours behind you.

Them: Oh, so 3pm?

You: You mean 11am.

Them: No, I mean 1pm.

You: [Commits sepuku to end the suffering.]

I’ve done this more times than I dare to think about. And things get doubly worse when you have to deal with the equally inane concept of Daylight Savings Time. Yes, we northern countries would like to take advantage of additional daylight. So why don’t we just get our asses out of bed an hour earlier? No, changing the clocks for everyone on the planet makes much more sense!

The internet runs off UTC — Universal Coordinated Time, what we humans refer to as Greenwich Mean Time. (If you’ve ever heard a military person refer to a time in “zulu”, that’s the same thing.) Yes, differences are applied, but everything starts in UTC. Because one time makes sense.

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this…

Does it matter what the hour is when you get up? As a parent, I’ve learned that the numbers on the clock don’t matter — if I’m up, I’m up, and I’ll motor through. Having travelled enough, I know that the hours on the clock don’t matter in the slightest, because my body thinks it’s not where it actually is (and adjusting watches is not a fun task either, I might add).

Time is — literally — arbitrary. The concept of an “hour” came from observations by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks. They decided the divisions (they originally had 10, believe it or not), and Ancient Sumer, India, and China created the 24/60 divisions we’re familiar with (the 24 came as a result of two 12s — one day, one night — because 12 was attributed to the number of lunar cycles in a year).

So you can blame civilisations long gone (and dead, in some cases) for our current mess. Then add in the railroads who were obsessed with noon, not because it was handy to know when to eat lunch, but to keep the railroad schedules in sync. (Later, the idea of “high noon” was replaced with a synchronised clock, with the time sent over telegraph wires.) But it all comes back to why on Earth should I care about getting up at 6:15 every morning. Why not 00:15? Does it really matter?

When I lived in Costa Rica, I got up at 6:00. The sun had been shining quite well for over an hour at that point. Costa Rica, again for whatever reason, is in the “wrong” time zone. Because it’s arbitrary, and someone decided badly. Venezuela moved it’s clock 30 minutes to get a “better distribution” for poor children going to school.

That concept of “better distribution” is also how we ended up with that abhorrent Daylight Savings Time. Originally, it was for farmers, who needed the light to work their fields. Okay, fine. But if you’ve ever driven out into the country at midnight these days, you’ll see terribly bright lights from the modern tractors illuminating things. Now we defer Daylight Savings to — of all things — saving energy, a dubious point at best. Most of the planet has dropped the concept of Daylight Savings (or never used it at all), and there’s little reason it should continue.

Same with time zones. They serve no purpose, when it comes down to it. They made sense at a time when global synchronisation of time was difficult, when messages took days to arrive, rather than our current milliseconds. We are a global people, having extended beyond our nations, using services that span every continent, and learn of events mere seconds after they transpire. A “local time” is absolutely irrelevant.

Global time. One time. Everyone uses the same clock. You choose when to rise, when to sleep, when to eat. Yes, there will be adjustment — we’ve spend a hundred years fixating on the idea of “noon”. We don’t need “noon”, we just need a time. A local agreement that the work day starts at, say 04:00, or 22:30, or 11:00. We eat at our midday, we sleep after it gets dark (mostly; extreme northern and southern climbs notwithstanding). Yes, it’ll take adjustment, but within a year it would seem so much simpler than it ever did before.

Metric time? A waste of time, I think. Yes, we’ve got the opportunity, but rolling both together will cause chaos. Humanity has observed a 24/60 division for nearly two thousand years. Changing that habit will be a lot harder than just picking one common time.

So what say you? Why shouldn’t we change? Let the debate begin!

5 Replies to “Can we get rid of timezones now, please?”

  1. What if local time was defined arbitrarily as “06:00:00 is where the sun rises at this point on the earth”?

    Obviously, local time would vary as you move about, very roughly by about 3 seconds per km. But it would be close enough that trying to get your kid to school for 8:30 would get you there within a few seconds of the bell.

    Watches would have to be fitted with GPS receivers, or else the cell towers could broadcast (approximate) local time.

    Some impacts of this:
    (1) no matter where you live you would get the maximum amount of daylight (the point of DST)
    (2) no jetlag-like symptoms from DST, because the local day would shift a few seconds each day, rather than 1 hour twice a year
    (3) for “local business”, everyone is pretty much in the same time zone – it won’t be exact, but is that much exactness good for us?
    (4) you’ll still have to use UTC for some things, like teleconferences (but Outlook would do that for you), and TV schedules (which TiVo will do for you)

    For the sake of argument, locations beyond the arctic circle that get 24h sun/darkness for part of the year would “freeze” their 6:00am start at the first/last sunrise.

    The programmer in me loves this idea, it seems optimal. But the fact of the matter is that people love simplifications. Time zones let people ignore the fact that the time can be different somewhere else.

    1. Hey Roger!

      Well, the problem setting a local time time in any form — no matter the basis for that time — it creates exactly the same problem we had 100 years ago. (And since, as you know, the sun also rises at a different relative time every day, it multiplies the complication on the 3 secs/km thing.)

      As a fellow programmer, I’m actually struggling to see how this would be better than our current situation. Right now, we at least have the benefit if knowing that within a region of the planet, we can confidently set our computer’s clock to a known standard. With your suggestion, it would vary by both longitude and latitude, and day of the year. Imagine trying to schedule a meeting with a town a mere 100 kms away, let alone on a different continent!

      I’m with you on the DST, though. That’s just a system that needs to die. Period. End of story. There is ZERO benefit from it (I don’t buy the “energy savings” argument one iota), and it causes more trouble than it saves.

      From a business perspective, a single global time (with absolutely no variation for your location on the planet) means less finagling for knowing what time it is elsewhere (though knowing when a different office is open remains an important point; that’ll never change). Imagine the millions saved just from not having to negotiate through different time zones and DST nonsense! Not to mention sanity preserved!

      As for having maximum daylight, that is most definitely a local need, but it should in no way be tied to a time, I think. Does it really matter that it’s 6:00 when the sun comes up? If you want to get up earlier, get up earlier. 😉 Then if business starts five hours after the sun rises rather than four, you get an extra hour of sunlight where you’re not working! Same goes with school! We as a civilization become too fixated with the “get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work/school” paradigm that we have trouble considering anything else. I see no reason why business/school/whatever couldn’t be at a set time, and you get to enjoy the time around it as desired.

      But then, I like to be periodically naive… 😉

  2. 100 km away = 5 minutes difference, less than the standard deviation in driving time. Have your car clock and watch adjust based on GPS reading, and you GPS’s ETA as well, and you’ll never see the difference.

    We all need to relax a bit on the clock watching anyway.

    And yes, your body does care what position the sun is in when it wakes up. Our melatonin levels are tuned to sunlight on the skin. That’s one of the reasons jetlag sucks.

    1. Agreed with the body needing sunlight — but that wasn’t my point.

      My point is that your body doesn’t care what the TIME is. So what if the sun comes up at 01:30, and that’s the time you get up? Does it matter what the HOUR is?

      Problem still remains on how you would coordinate global synchronization. How would I, living in … say … Golden, British Columbia, figure out what time I need to schedule a meeting with someone living in Dubai? Yes, we can write extensive libraries for that, but it seems like gross overkill to maintain a (largely) arbitrary time of 06:00 tied to when the sun rises. Even worse if you have to do multiple locations. And, as you mentioned early, a nightmare if they’re above the Arctic Circle. 😉

  3. Yes, I’ve been proposing this idea over and over also! It comes down to

    ‘Does it matter what time you get up (on the clock), eat lunch, start work’ , as you say. Funny because I a programmer too, and I think any programmer who has to deal with time zone conversions (I work with flights), it becomes frustrating!

    I found another article which discusses benefits and challenges of doing this. A lot of the challenges are similar to adopting to METRIC (Why haven’t we yet!?!?) One commenter even proposes making a day 10 hours, 100 minutes in an hour, 100 seconds in a minute!

    http://smidg.in/2010/01/17/abolish-time-zones/

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