Futurist Thomas Frey: Humans think about the underlying systems we use for keeping time in much the same way that fish think about water. We simply don’t.
The numbers on the clock are a constant reminder of our daily schedule, where we should be, and what happens next. We eat, sleep, and breathe according to a framework of time established by ancient humans.
Without ever stopping to ask “why,” we have built our entire social structure for planet earth around some guy saying, “Hey, let’s do it this way.”
We now have the ability to shift from a system-centric approach to something with a far better human interface. The convergence of atomic clock technology, GPS, and an increasingly pervasive Internet will give us the tools we need to reinvent our core systems thinking about time.
In the following narrative, I will introduce you to a series of new concepts including Circadian Time, Continuous Daybreak, Micro-Banding Time Zones, and Virtual Moments.
This is far more than a Mensa exercise. As we explore these options we can begin to uncover some of the true imperatives for our human-to-time relationship.
A Clock-Centric World
Why do we hold meetings at 3:15 pm in the afternoon? The short answer is “because we can.”
Time, as we know it today, was invented by ancient humanity as a way of organizing the day. What began as tools for charting months, days, and years eventually turned into devices for mapping hours, minutes, and seconds.
The first mechanical clock movements began showing up in 13th century Europe, predating other key inventions such as the piano and the printing press. Spring powered clocks showed up in the 15th century and over time evolved into pocket watches a couple hundred years later.
Patek Phillipe created the first wristwatch in 1868, but it wouldn’t be until the 1920s when they became popular, setting the stage for a far more time-centric lifestyle.
In 1959 Seiko started developing their first quartz wristwatch and by the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, they had a working prototype.
The first atomic clock was built in 1949 at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. It was less accurate than quartz clocks, but served to demonstrate the concept.
Today, atomic clocks and wrist watches have become very affordable, and by extension, quite ubiquitous. This technology has set the stage for new innovations which will push our notion of time far beyond anything we’ve considered so far.
History of Daylight Savings Time
In 1784 when he was working as an American diplomat in France, Ben Franklin published a letter suggesting that people in Paris could save money on candles by waking earlier to use morning sunlight. He went on to propose taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. The idea didn’t go very far.
In 1895, New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson proposed the idea of a 2-hour daylight shift to the Wellington Philosophical Society so he could have more time to collect and study insects during the evening hours. This was followed up 3 years later with a paper describing the benefits.
Most people, however, attribute the invention of daylight savings time to William Willett, a prominent British outdoorsman who noticed that many Londoners slept through a large part of their summer days. As an avid golfer, Willett was frustrated when he couldn’t complete a game simply because of the shortened evening hours. His solution was to advance the clock during the summer months, written up in a paper which he published in 1905.
But the idea went nowhere until war broke out. Starting on April 30, 1916, Germany and its World War I allies were the first to use daylight savings time as a way to save on coal during wartime. In short order, Britain, most of its allies, and other European countries soon followed suit. Russia and a few others waited until the next year and the United States formally adopted it in 1918. Since then, the world has seen it evolve with multiple changes and repeals along the way.
History of Time Zones
Time zones, as we know them today, are all oriented around Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). GMT starts at 0 degree longitude – the Prime Meridian.
Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1675 when the Royal Observatory was constructed to help English ship captains determine longitude at sea. During that time, each town’s local clock was calibrated so 12:00 noon would coincide with the sun at its peak – high noon. As a result, every village had a slightly different time.
The first time zone in the world was established by British railway companies in 1847, with GMT certified by portable chronometers. This quickly became known as Railway Time. Later, other railroads around the world began using their own brand of time zones to better manage their own operations..
In 1879, a Canadian, Sir Sandford Fleming, first proposed a worldwide system for time zones. He promoted this concept at several international conferences including the International Meridian Conference held in 1884.
The International Meridian Conference was put together at the request of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur in October 1884 in Washington, D.C. The primary objective was to officially determine the Prime Meridian of the world.
The conference did not adopt Fleming’s time zones because they felt it was an issue outside of their mandate. However, they did adopt a universal day of 24 hours beginning at Greenwich midnight. Beyond that, however, they were reluctant to interfere with other time-related issues they felt were better decided by local people in local communities.
The notion of a 24-hour day had been understood and heavily used for many centuries, but it didn’t become a global standard until 1884.
Motivations behind Daylight Savings Time
When clocks became widely used during the industrial age, people were forced to orient their lives around the specific start and stop times of their jobs. Regardless of how sunny or dark it was, the workday demanded people comply with the numbers on the clock.
As in the tradition of sundials, clocks today are oriented around 12:00 noon, the median point of daylight hours, when the sun is highest in the sky. With time zones, this varies a bit from one side of a time zone to the other, but life on planet earth has been oriented around the “center point of daylight.”
With 12:00 noon occurring when the sun is at its highest, the times for sunrise and sunset are constantly moving.
As soon as clocks became a permanent fixture in human life, the 12-noon orientation became problematic because valuable daylight hours would be lost on the front and back end of work schedules based on the seasonal length of days.
The idea of Circadian Time started with me asking the question, “What if our clocks were oriented around sunrise instead of 12:00 noon?”
What if we started every day with sunrise occurring at exactly 6:00 am?
Virtually everything on earth works according to our natural circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms involve the patterns, movements, and cycles stemming from the light and dark cycles of the earth’s rotation.
Circadian Time is based on the notion that our system for timekeeping no longer has to be the rigidly pulsing overlord of humanity that constantly demands compliance. Rather, our time systems need to be oriented around people, molded to the natural flow of humanity, creating fluid structures rather than our current, abrasively rigid ones.
As I explain the following three concepts – continuous daybreak, micro-banding time zones, and virtual moments – some of the opportunities will become clearer.
Working with self-correcting atomic clocks, having sunrise being recalibrated on a daily basis, how would society change if we reoriented life around daybreak, with the end of day doing all the fluctuating?
In Colorado, where I live, sunrise fluctuates by nearly 3 hours between the longest days of summer and the shortest days of winter. If we were to reorient our days so sunrise would happened consistently at 6:00 am every day, then sunset would fluctuate twice as much as normal, close to 6 hours between seasons.
Admittedly, it would also be possible to orient all of our days around a 9:00 pm sunset, and push all of the daylight variations onto the beginning of each day, and I’m sure some people would prefer that option. However, there is something critically important about beginning each day with the rising sun.
Perhaps a better way to orient our time structure would be to make the moment of sunrise “zero time” with our days building through a natural progression of our current 24-hour day. As an example, since people wake most naturally when the sun rises, work would start 1-hour later at 1:00, ending at 9:00 or 10:00.
Since I’m already introducing several new concepts, I won’t get into the lunacy of using 12-hour clocks to manage our 24-hour days. Nor will I attempt to think through the merits of metric time where we convert to 10-hour days.
Instead, my goal is to focus on using sunrise as the starting point for every day, and this concept is strengthened when we consider moving towards Micro-Banding Time Zones.
Micro-Banding Time Zones
Currently our time zones are structured around a 1-hour wide geographical bands that runs from the North to the South Pole.
So what if our current 1-hour time zones were reduced from broad well-defined pieces of geography with exacting borders, to 1-second time zones based on virtual longitudinal lines.
If we add GPS technology to our existing atomic clocks, then wherever we travel, our clocks will automatically adjust to the local time.
At first blush, this sounds very confusing. With 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day, that would mean we would have a total of 86,400 time zones. Yes, a crazy big number to work with.
But keep in mind that this is a system oriented around humans, not clocks and time zones.
Today if we schedule a call between someone in New York and San Francisco, we have to work through the mental calculation of compensating for the time zone differential between these two cities. When talking to people on the other side of the earth it becomes even more problematic with some time zones being 30 minutes of even 15 minutes out of sync with the rest of the world.
Technology could easily be developed to work with a system of 86,400 time zones, and that is where the concept of Virtual Moments comes into play.
People to people interactions are only important to the parties involved. The timing of a phone call, web conference, or virtual meeting can easily be oriented around the time that works best for the person instigating the call.
Any link between two people can instantly compensate for the time differential.
Scheduling physical meetings and conferences will always take place in local time, with planning and preparation leading up to the event automatically calculated into the planning cycle.
All timing will still be based on some derivative of GMT, but with far more gradients to consider and far more dependency on technological assistance. But what appears on the surface to be a massively confusing system will suddenly seem totally natural to everyone immersed in it.
We suddenly become far less reliant on clocks and far more reliant on the natural order of the day.
I have no naive expectations that people will want to quickly throw in the towel on our current system for time, clocks, and time zones. We can’t even decide what to do with daylight savings time, let alone invoke some massive new global change to rewrite the course of history.
That said, every avalanche begins with the movement of a single snowflake, and my hope in writing this is to move a snowflake.
For people on ships, the context of time zones becomes meaningless, with an orientation of “ship time” having far more relevance to those onboard. As a way to experiment with the idea of Circadian Time, it may work well to use a floating community onboard a ship to test the theories of new social structures that will result from reinventing time.
My hope is that others will find inspiration from these ideas and add to the thinking. I’m sure many of my ideas are wrong and, at best, very primitive. But our current system for timekeeping is also very primitive.
My sense is that our current clock-centric systems are a major contributor to human health problems. We live shorter lives, produce less, and are involved in more high-stress and high-anxiety situations simply because of our rigid dedication to a time system that governs every single moment of our lives.
As a species, we can never know where our true potential lies until we confront the systems that keep us tied to the past. And that is where the true adventure will begin.