Michael Hiltzik
Column

Has the Internet really made time zones obsolete? Not by a long shot.

A proposal by a couple of professors at Johns Hopkins University to eliminate the world's time zones has been getting some new attention in the press lately. Let's take a look. 

The idea put forth by Richard Henry of the physics and astronomy faculty and economist Steve Hanke is that, since the "the Internet has annihilated time and space completely" (as they told the Washington Post), "and has set us up for adoption of world-wide time." In other words, the time is right to blow up the very notion of time zones completely.

Under their proposal, clocks everywhere in the world would be set to the same hour. While people wouldn't necessarily change their normal routines, 7 a.m. might mark the waking hour in London, but local clocks near the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore would be reading 2 a.m. when the sun came up and the working day began. To put it another way, when clocks read 7 a.m. on the East Coast of the United States, most people would be deep into REM sleep, since that would be the same as 2 a.m. today.

Does this sound like a simplification to you, or the very definition of an idea that's not worth the effort? We ask because the Post's interview with Henry and Hanke appeared within a few days of a piece by columnist John Kay of the Financial Times, reminding readers that time had a lot to do with the historic rise of London as a worldwide financial center. 

That wasn't because the British imposed Greenwich Mean Time as the world standard during the era when the sun never set on their empire, as is commonly supposed. Kay asserts that it's because London happens to be situated so that its business day overlaps with those of major markets around the globe. When it's 9 a.m. in London, he observes, it's 5 p.m. in Singapore and Hong Kong and 6 p.m. in Tokyo. At 5 p.m. London time, it's noon in New York and 9 a.m. in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"The maximum time difference easily managed," Kay writes, "is between eight and nine hours, so for every location there are about seven time zones difficult to access. In the case of London, to the city’s good fortune, these time zones span the Pacific Ocean, where not many people live."

This is something of a Brit-centered view of the world, as one might expect from the FT. In most world centers, some financial managers are blessed with alluring work hours and others are cursed to live sleep-deprived or socially isolated existences.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, brokers and traders pegging their business to the New York markets have to be up and ready in time for the markets' opening at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time, but they can knock off after the U.S. markets close at 1 p.m. by their clocks. They're more out of sync with their important trading partners across the Pacific Rim: When Shanghai opens at 9:30 a.m. local time, it's already 5:30 p.m. in Los Angeles (6:30 p.m. after daylight saving time starts in the spring). Tokyo starts trading at 9 a.m. local time, or 4 p.m. on the U.S. West Coast.

The arrival of the Internet didn't actually eliminate these time differences, of course; by encouraging more global transactions, it just increased the ability of financial company bosses to force more of their employees to sync up to the workday rhythms of places halfway across the world.  

That points to a major flaw in the Henry-Hanke proposal to eliminate time zones: it won't actually change anything. Workdays everywhere typically follow the sun on its local journey across the heavens, for the simple reason that human beings are hard-wired to sleep at night. For much of the day, one often doesn't even have to look at a clock on the wall, a wrist or a smartphone to sense within a half-hour or so what time it is. The body keeps its own clock, and sets it to the sun. (The best way to beat jet lag while traveling? Take a long walk outside in the sunshine to reset your internal timer.)

Add to that the simple fact that time zones are largely a political construct. Henry and Hanke think that's a flaw in the system, but, in truth, it's a reality to be meekly accepted. Every year a few countries change their time zones for their own reasons; last year North Korea, ever the would-be trend-setter, established a new time zone it dubbed Pyongyang time, setting its clocks 30 minutes earlier than South Korea and Japan and 30 minutes ahead of China.

Every region has its outliers. Arizona has long been a holdout against daylight saving time, possibly out of sheer cussedness. So although the state is located in the Mountain time zone, for part of the year its clocks are set an hour ahead of the West Coast, and for part of the year they show the same time. The state's Navajo lands, however, follow daylight time, so they're out of sync with the rest of the state for several months too.

In the sprawling United States and Canada, time was a crazy quilt of local traditions until the railroads began to bind the nations together coast to coast. The railroads' need to coordinate with one another prompted several visionaries to propose systems of time zones; the one that ultimately prevailed was developed by the Canadian Sandford Fleming, who proposed in 1870 a system of five zones across North America, all an hour off from one another, all pegged to Greenwich Mean Time, which was set at the Royal Observatory in London.

But Fleming's plan wasn't implemented until more than three years later, on Nov. 18, 1883, when North America's railroads all synchronized their clocks. Many communities across the United States still balked, however, and the system wasn't codified in U.S. law until 1918.

Think it would be easy or efficient to remake this system on a global scale? Or is it more likely to be a plan that not all the time in the world can make happen? 

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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