Friday, June 25, 2010

A State of Timelessness

I talked about Standard Time from a somewhat political standpoint, but there's a fair bit of history involved in the standardization of Time. And I promised you a little more information, but I've been a bit wary about lecturing. There's a ton of information on this topic (and I'm not even planning to touch daylight savings time—we really couldn't leave well enough alone, could we?) I've decided to give you a fly-by history. If you have any questions, post them in the comments and I'll be glad to try and get you some answers.

Here's an overview of some of what I've learned:
  • Standard Time refers to the syncing of clocks within a specific area, known as a time zone.
  • Time zones were developed to deal with the discrepancies that resulted from Local Times.
  • Local Time, also known as Solar Time, is time designation along lines of longitude, spaced approximately 15 degrees apart. It is measured in accordance to the movement of the sun. Sundials were often used to track Solar Time.
  • Local Times could not be easily reconciled—latitudinal position often contributed to different experiences of Solar Time.
  • This became problematic as communication and transportation became better established. The discrepancies made scheduling difficult, and meant that clocks and timepieces would need to be constantly reset. Time was more of a geographical marker and less important in its own right.
  • Time zones reduce the latitudinal effect. They generally follow lines of longitude, with a few exceptions. China, for example, has one time zone for the entire country even though it extends beyond the accepted 15 degrees measurement for longitudinal boundaries. Time zones minimize the effects of local time.
  • In 1847, the British rail began to make use of Standard Time, known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), so named because Time was calculated relative to the Greenwich Meridian. The Greenwich Meridian was chosen because many of the world's maps were already identifying this longitude as the prime meridian.
  • Americans followed suit. William Allen conceived of five time zones in 1883. The fifth, the Intercolonial Time Zone was created for a rail company in Canada. In 1918, the US passed the Standard Time Act
  • However, GMT could not account for the earth's uneven rotation, and the fact that it is slowing down. Atomic clock provide a truer measurement of the passing of Time.
  • In the 1970s, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) was adopted. UTC allows for the addition of leap seconds to account for Earth's increasingly slowing rotation.
None of this seems to matter online.

UTC is often utilized online to synchronize users—or rather their computers to an atomic clock. This allows for the scheduling of meetings, chats, news, etc. It also allows users to interact online without leaving their "local" time. Consider email, for example, which may be sent in one time zone, but registered by the receiving party in another time zone. While CNN International and BBC News have GMT stamps on their homepages—BBC News also displays UK local time.

Could the Internet be a timeless state?
Timeless (adj):
1 archaic : premature, untimely
2 a : having no beginning or end b : not restricted to a particular time or date
3 : not affected by time 
[Merriam Webster Definition]
I don't mean timeless in the romanticized way here (e.g., love is timeless). But I'm thinking of the fluidity of Time online, and the ways it reconciles temporal conflicts and discrepancies by making Time something that we don't really consider.

One of you, Readers, actually set me on this track. Joe, drew attention to the fact that when groups interact on message boards, the conversation sometimes has to go backward before it can go forward because new conversant may have questions about material or topics already discussed. When real time interaction occurs such as through Skype or IM, it requires a coordinated effort, but the event still occurs in the present, Local Time of the individual.

Does the adoption of UTC create a state of timelessness?

I'm just about ready to put some of these ideas together, Readers. So I thank you for your patience (and time). I promise a change in topic for next week. And if you want to catch up on Time, you can find other posts on the topic here.

Photo by Pexels

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