You would never complain that a mile is too long, or a decibel too loud, so it's hard to imagine how something like time can stop working. Time is just a thing we have, and despite all the world's cultural differences, every country uses the same 24-hour clock. Who would want to tinker with that?
Well, quite a lot of people: Spain, for example, is looped into the same time zone as Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, despite being geographically in line with Morocco, the UK, and Portugal. The consequences are that the Spanish sleep, on average, 53 minutes longer than their European peers and don't see much daylight. Economist Nuria Chinchilla, who studies work and family life at Spain's IESE Business School, told NPR that the time zone change is ruining the lives of ordinary people: "We have no time for personal life or family life… therefore, we are committing suicide here in Spain. We have just 1.3 children per woman. And it's because we have no time."
Spain's time zone is doubly crushing to some because of the rationale behind its introduction. In 1942, General Franco adapted the country's time zone to match Nazi Germany's as a simple show of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Political allegiance is a surprisingly common reason for time zone changes; after Russia's occupation of Crimea in 2014, the peninsula's time zone skipped forward an hour, ditching daylight savings time to better match its new owner. A clock-change can also affect economic realities, like in 2011, when American Samoa jumped west across the international dateline to be in better sync with its nearest traders, Australia and New Zealand.
Occasional rumblings of how to solve national problems such as Spain's late-night living or Indian tea-pickers' preference to work during daylight hours will gain pace every so often. But not all attempts to change time are successful. In 2010, David Cameron supported a backbencher's private bill to push UK time forward by an hour, but it was eventually filibustered and then lampooned by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who jokingly proposed Somerset deserved its own time zone a quarter of an hour behind London's.
But could a bigger, universal solution to the world's time issues be on the horizon? Step in Steve Hanke and Richard Conn Henry, both professors at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, who have invented the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, which has a 364 day year, with a "leap week" every five or six years. The idea is to make the calendar perennial, so that each date falls on the same day each year, making dates easier to remember. At the same time, the world would also switch to Coordinated Universal Time or UTC, which would set every watch across the world to the exact same time.
This all sounds like a utopian exercise in imaginary mathematics, but the professors are deadly serious about every government in the world universally agreeing to change the way time is measured, and they have plans to spread the world of their calendar and UTC using viral campaigns on social media. We spoke to Professor Hanke, whose experience lies in currency reform from Ecuador to Indonesia, to find out more about this plan.
VICE: How arbitrary are the time zones we have right now?
Steve Hanke: In 1870, St. Louis had six time zones. There were 75 railway times across the States that year. And the time-space compression was chaos because, of course, you had to schedule things. By 1883, we adopted, mainly at the behest of the railways, standard railway times, and with that, we got the four time zones that we still have in the US. Same goes for Germany; there were five big time zones until, in 1891, 90-year-old General Helmuth von Moltke argued in his last major speech in the parliament that the only reason he won two wars was because he was running with the unified consolidated time system for the rails—and the logistics of supplying troops. By the early 1970s, pilots and airports all went to universal time, for safety. But we're now in another era in which we're witnessing an enormous time-space compression with the internet. So we have a lot of universal time that's being adopted and used, and we don't realize it's being used.
But getting a new time zone for the internet is hardly a safety concern, is it?
It's not a safety issue. It's a coordination issue. And universal time is already spontaneously being adopted from the ground up for lots of practical reasons. And when the railways and the pilots demanded new time zones, they didn't ask anyone. It was a necessity.
So what's wrong with our time zones now?
The most simple thing is scheduling a meeting or a conference call. The errors will, from an economics point of view, waste time and money.
Isn't that a bit of a first world problem?
I think, generally, UTC facilitates commerce and commercial activity. Anything that does that is a good thing because it leads to peace and prosperity. That said, historically, there have been disputes over who sets time; Paris didn't like that Greenwich got to claim Mean Time, and colonies were resistant to time zone changes.
Some might say this will benefit people within technological industries to the detriment of people farming and manufacturing.
There are two layers here. One: The main thing is to get "time talk" going, because it will provoke spontaneous adoption of the obvious. But two is that we'll need two systems; you'll have universal time for everyone, that will be the mean time and the anchor, but you'll also have work-zone time on top of that. So when the sun's at its highest, you're going to be having your lunch, but this will be at different points on your watch depending on what part of the world you'll be living in.
How easy is this going to be to implement?
Once people think about it, it's easy to understand. If we went to universal time, the work-zone time might be cleaned up a little. Maybe we'd have 24 work-zone times throughout the world. A shop in London will open at 9 AM and close at 5 PM under solar time, but under universal time, in New York, you open at 2 PM. The transition is easy to make, countries have gone metric, and that's a much bigger switch than universal time.
But we seem to be more obsessed with time now than we were with currency or measurements then.
Let's assume that's true—I'd argue that it's easier to make the transition, then, because if people are more interested and obsessed with time, it's probably going to be easier to change it. Henry once called his elderly mother in Toronto one summer's day, and he asks, "How's the weather?" She says, "It's really hot—it's almost 30 today." He couldn't believe it, because she was very old, and she'd switched to metric without realizing.
Once the "time talk" gets going, what else stands in your way?
In a way, I don't see the obstacles as being too great. I'm a laissez-faire free-trade liberal in the classic sense, and I like things to be spontaneously and voluntarily adopted, and I think if it's logical, there are a lot of benefits to it. Pretty soon, you and I will be talking about this, and you'll ask, "How did you do that? Did you have to go to the UN or Washington, DC?"
Well, a non-governmental approach has kind of been tried before. In 1999, Swatch introduced Internet Time, measuring out a day in 1,000 ".beats." Watches sold that year would contain two times. One to be adjusted based on solar time zones; the other was a counter going up to 1,000 on loop each day. But that was phased out by 2001. What will make UTC last?
I don't think Swatch sold it very well. But it did get "time talk" going. With UTC, the companies will get on board with this train after it's left the station, because people will start using UTC and watch companies will make a fortune selling 24-hour dials.
Do you think a company like Apple or Google are aware they could capitalize on UTC?
I can't answer the question as I haven't talked to them, which suggests that maybe I should be talking to them, but if we get more "time talk," these people are smart, they'll be calling me!
They're smart, and they're rich. Maybe you should pitch to them. Because this doesn't seem like something one head of state could introduce.
If we get into the political sphere, there are heads of states who like to do big, bold things, and if one of them who was influential got a hold of it, it could be introduced. China, India, or Russia could do it.
What about the cultural currency of time? Like Kanye West tweeting that he doesn't want to work with people who won't let him call them at 3 AM—that won't mean anything under UTC.
People get put off by universal time, saying "I don't want to do that because I don't want to work when it's dark out or sleep when it's light," but who would want that? It's got nothing to do with universal time! When universal time is adopted, we'll still have to consider if the people we're communicating with are awake or not.
So, in an ideal world, you see UTC and solar time coexisting?
Yes, and it's natural. From an astronomical point of view, the time is the same everywhere in the world right now.
OK, please stop. Now you're hurting my brain.
Follow Sophie Wilkinson on Twitter.