New Worlds: Time and Society

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Beyond the question of how time gets measured is the issue of how people interact with it: how they conceptualize it and use it to shape their daily lives.

The arc of our history is, among other things, the story of how we have increasingly standardized and regulated time, and allowed it to regulate how we live. In our modern, industrialized society, it’s difficult to truly understand how different time was, and still is, for people who live without ever-present clocks, people for whom time elapses in units of mornings and days and seasons, rather than hours and minutes and seconds.

We’re accustomed to having time at our fingertips — quite literally, in the case of a smartphone. But individualized timekeeping devices have historically been fairly rare. Pocket watches got started circa the sixteenth century, and were quite expensive; even having a clock in your house was a luxury. Most people depended on clock towers or, before that, wall-mounted sundials, making timekeeping a public service rather than a personal one.

This isn’t solely a matter of clocks, though. Other types of technology play a role, too. It isn’t uncommon for me to get wrapped up in some task, then surface and discover to my surprise that the sun has set — a type of surprise that is literally inconceivable for people who rely on natural illumination. And when travel is by train or airplane, arrival times are predicted down to the minute, but when it’s by ship or horse or foot, the margin or error can be anything from hours to weeks. When your technological world is not precise, you don’t plan your life around precise times for anything, except maybe waking with the dawn.

In fact, travel was the driving force behind some of what we take for granted about time nowadays. When railroads started to stretch across the landscape, it became necessary to standardize time between multiple locations, so that people would know when to expect the arrival or departure of a train. For millennia, apparent solar time — based on observations of the sun — had been enough, and as mechanical clocks came into wider usage that got adjusted slightly to mean solar time, which makes all days of equal length. Each town would set its clocks to their own particular mean solar noon, and if that differed from a neighboring town by a few minutes, eh, who cares. But if a train departs from one town at 11:15 and arrives in the next town at 11:13 . . .

This led to the Great Western Railway in Britain adopting railway time in 1840. As other railroads followed suit, Greenwich Mean Time was established as the standard across all of Britain — saving travelers the effort of using almanacs to work out the time differences between London, Oxford, Leeds, and so on. The electric telegraph assisted in this process, sending a time signal along the lines to help synchronize the clocks.

But that required the railroads to agree on one standard. In the U.S. they didn’t, which meant stations might have multiple clocks set to the times of the different lines that passed through them. And while you can say it’s noon at the same time across all of the UK and not be too wildly off-target, doing that across the entirety of North America is absurd. With increasing improvements in travel and communication, that became a significant issue.

The U.S. first implemented time zones in 1883, but they weren’t the ones we know today. (For starters, the borders between them often ran through major cities.) The current American system wasn’t instituted until 1918, with the Calder Act. Standardizing time around the world was a piecemeal and haphazard process, full of odd decisions and mistakes (the Calder Act accidentally put most of Idaho on Central time instead of Mountain; they apparently ignored that for almost ninety years, until the error got officially corrected in 2007). These days, most parts of the world are organized into time zones set some number of hours off Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), but there are still exceptions; India, for example, is +5 1/2 hours off UTC, and the entirety of China is at +8, despite the country’s large east-west sweep.

Daylight saving time is at once an ancient and very new idea. Before we started standardizing time so much, people naturally adjusted their schedules based on daylight hours, especially if they couldn’t afford the expense of candles or lamps to work before dawn or after sunset. As industrialization made time a matter of machines rather than the sky, though, that changed. Proposals to adjust the clock to suit seasonal conditions began in the late nineteenth century, and got a large boost from the two world wars, during which the conservation of resources became a pressing concern.

Nowadays it’s a contentious topic: we’re unsure of the energy-saving effects, and many people loathe having to change their schedules in spring and autumn. Personal feelings aside, we’ve got evidence that DST benefits retailers but hurts farmers and TV broadcasters, and that the act of shifting the clocks, especially in the spring, has negative health effects. As a result, some people argue for abolishing DST, and others for adopting it year-round.

Back when time was locally and astronomically determined, and in places where that’s still true, all of this would be incomprehensible. But our society as it’s currently structured would not be able to run without standardized time: we need to clock the hours people are at work, know when to expect plane arrivals, set things to run for very precise durations and make sure our computers agree on what time it is. When those things don’t match up the way they’re supposed to, we have problems.

And that means that even when we’re not “on the clock,” we often think in clock terms. If you’ve ever tried to cook from one of your grandmother’s recipes, you may have been frustrated by instructions like “bake until done.” We look for a timer, not physical markers of readiness. We promise punctuality, and consider it a failing when we don’t deliver — though the extent to which that’s true still varies from culture to culture. Our awareness of time is incredibly heightened.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to schedule this post, so that it will go live at the usual time.

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