Modest Proposal Saving Time

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’re probably aware that that Daylight Saving Time (note the lack of a terminal “s” anywhere) has been bumped up to this weekend instead of the first Sunday in April, and that people are predicting all sorts of doom and gloom as computers that are smart enough to self-adjust for DST but not smart enough to be aware of the rule change will not only not adjust themselves not, but will adjust themselves on the wrong day from now until heat death or the repeal of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, whichever comes first.

For some reason, people have ridiculously strong feelings about DST. Or at least, people in Indiana do, where believe it or not it’s a significant political issue, with the state having recently joined all the ones around it in observing it. Of course, this is a state where people voluntarily call themselves hoosiers, so, you know, there’s that.

As for myself, I could go either way on the issue. What’s important is that there’s some consistency. If everyone uses DST, fine. If nobody does, that’s also OK. When some people do and some people don’t, that’s where you have a problem, as there’s a period of at least several weeks where you have no idea what time it is where those other people are — are they still an hour behind, or are they the same as us now? What about next week?

If you ever try traveling from one part of the state that doesn’t observe DST to one that does, at a point near the boundary of DST observance, over the course of a weekend where DST goes into effect, well, you will have no idea whatsoever what time it is. I can speak from experience on this. And don’t think your cell phone’s clock will bail you out, either; its clock will depend on which tower happens to be closest at any given moment.

At times like these (or possibly at times like an hour ago, depending on whether you remembered to change your clock yet or not), you might wonder why we bother with DST to begin with. Ostensibly, the main reason is energy conservation. Aligning human activity cycles with daylight in principle results in lower energy use, as you don’t have to turn as many lights on to see. Since people are far too stubborn and set in their ways to voluntarily adjust their schedules as the times the sun rises and sets change along with the seasons (stupid axial tilt), the government tricks us into doing so by shifting our entire temporal reference frame by an hour twice a year.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the matter. Our reckoning of time is pretty much arbitrary anyway. Sure, the notion of a “day” is largely determined by our planet’s orbital and rotational parameters, and seems pretty cut-and-dried (until you start worrying about solar days versus sidereal days, at least). But once you start subdividing that, things get pretty arbitrary. Why divide the day into 24 hours? Tradition, and the fact that 24 is divisible by almost anything you can throw at it, which makes the math work more easily. How do we decide when one hour ends and the next begins?

Traditionally, we’ve used solar noon, the time the sun is at its highest, as the reference point. Of course, the time of solar noon varies with longitude, which becomes confusing once you start interacting with people outside your own town, where the difference in your local noons starts being measurable. One of the factors leading to defining standard time zones, after all, was the confusion in trying to figure out what those times in train schedules actually meant. But with time zones, 12:00 pm only corresponds roughly with local noon, and not even very well if you’re a country like China that insists it’s a single time zone despite being wide enough for five.

But if some of us are willing to go that far for consistency, then why shouldn’t we be willing to drop the fiction that 12:00 pm means anything anyway, aside from some arbitrary reference point to start ticking off the hours from? Why don’t we drop time zones altogether and all use the same time reference?

In other words, why not have one worldwide time zone?

It certainly makes managing clocks a lot easier — they’re all set to the same time. Most computers do this internally anyway; “local time” is just an adjustment the computer applies before displaying it to you, which is why it’s able to adjust for DST automatically without getting hopelessly confused even if it runs continuously through a certain weekend in fall. And with the time our clocks display divorced from any local astronomical phenomena, DST is pointless.

Plus, you get the benefit of always knowing what time it is, anywhere on the planet — just look at the closest clock.

Sure, it might sound weird for your day shift to be from, say, 1:00 pm to 9:30 pm, but that’s just because we used to call it 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. The only reason you associate 8:00 am with morning currently is because that’s when 8:00 am happens to be. If you were raised under a unified time reference, the first system would seem just as nutty.

And there’s no more confusion with the solar time-of-day under a unified clock than we have with time zones now. Someone being two hours behind is just as valid — their morning is still two hours after yours. It’s just a matter of their morning being at 3:00 pm instead of 1:00 pm like yours is. There’s no fundamental difference in they way you think of the solar time difference, but now you have the advantage of a stated time being interpreted unambiguously worldwide.

So, this weekend, take a stand for restoring sanity and reason to our temporal reference. Don’t set your clocks ahead an hour. Set them to Coordinated Universal Time and take comfort in the fact that you’ll never have to set your clock forward or back ever again, regardless of where you go or what time of year it is.

And while we’re at it, can we please drop this whole am/pm nonsense and go with 24-hour time too?