Who Benefits From Standardized Universal Time? And Other Questions to Ask As You Set Your Clocks Back This Weekend

You cannot get 300 million people to agree on anything, except this: on Sunday morning, everyone in America (except in Arizona; come on, Arizona) will stagger their schedules in sync. As a collective, we will shed an hour. It would be as if we all just picked up and moved three hundred yards to the east, or silently agreed to wear red on a Wednesday, or stopped eating breakfast for a week—a national dance step, performed so smoothly that it feels like a basic Law of Nature.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 2.52.05 PM

The Global Transformation of Time
Vanessa Ogle
Harvard University Press
(October 1, 2015)

It’s difficult to overstate how bizarre this spectacle would have been to people living 150 years ago. It wouldn’t just be the idea of time changing—it would be the idea of having a national and global time system, period. Until the late 19th century, standardized universal time did not exist. When they had clocks at all, individual towns synced them to the movement of the sun in their particular locations. The time in Allentown might have been different from the time New York City, 90 miles to the east, and different again from the time in Reading, 40 miles to the southwest.

Our current system of time zones and standard clocks is an extraordinary modern achievement. And it’s uniquely universal: people in New Guinea set their watches by the same standard as people in New Mexico. Ideological enemies find common ground; the United States and North Korea might not agree on much, but we both set our clocks by Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Systems this total have a strange knack for becoming invisible. Here’s the anthropologist David Graeber, talking about the capitalist market, but in language that could apply to time:

The central claim of those who celebrated postmodernism is that we have entered a world in which all totalizing systems—science, humanity, nation, truth, and so forth—have all been shattered…The neoliberals on the other hand are singing the praises of a global market that is, in fact, the single greatest and most monolithic system of measurement ever created, a totalizing system that would subordinate everything—every object, every piece of land, every human capacity or relationship—on the planet to a single standard of value.

In this sense, time is like money: it’s a unifying system of measurement that has infused the fabric of our lives to the point where we no longer see it. (As Marx would point out, the link here between time and market valuation isn’t entirely coincidental).

It can help to think of time as a kind of global language. Like the implicit contract by which all English speakers agree that the sound produced by d-o-g refers to certain furry mammals, we all agree that a specific instant in the temporal flux should be designated as “7:00 a.m.” But unlike the contracts of language, the contract of universal time was invented by groups of people, working toward specific goals.

Who wrote the terms of that contract? How, exactly, did humanity go from scattered local times to a global system in the span of a couple generations? That transition is the subject of Vanessa Ogle’s engrossing new book, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Ogle, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, chronicles the organizations and ideologies that drove this transformation. But she’s after bigger quarry than that eighty year period. At its core, Ogle’s book is a study of globalization—of the people who seek to build an interconnected world, and of all the ways that local authorities, especially religious ones, resist and adapt to that change.

Two kinds of organizations helped drive the development of standard time. The first were the early scientific associations, which advocated for a standard world time, and worked through many of the practical difficulties of bringing it about.

The others were the railroad companies. Coordinating transcontinental networks, they needed a way of reckoning time that had the same principles in Krakow as it did in Nice. In the absence of a standardized system, they developed their own company-wide time systems. At one point, American rail companies used around 75 different standards by which to pace their hours. Within a single city, a train leaving on one line at 3:45 could leave before a train leaving at 3:30 on a different line, because the two companies counted the minutes differently.

Not surprisingly, railroad owners wanted a common currency of time, or at least a reliable way of making conversions.

They got it. Gradually, cities and regions folded themselves into national and international time standards, although there were significant holdouts (most notably, the city of Calcutta) until the 1950s. That transition could be difficult, and at times comical; The Global Transformation of Time is full of gems about a world shifting into a new rhythmic gear. Ogle’s details often verge on the territory of magical realism. Until 1920, we learn, “oceans and seas remained timeless.” And “every Monday,” Ogle writes about 19th century London, “Mrs. Maria Belville made her way to the Greenwich Observatory to have her chronometer checked and, certificate in hand, set out for London to sell time.”

Time reform was about efficiency and train schedules, and about the practical demands of a world in which it was suddenly possible for someone in Hong Kong to need to coordinate her schedule with someone in Lagos. But it was also about authority, and the terms of the change proceeded down some predictable lines of power.

Colonial governments imposed standardized time systems in their colonies, often aided by missionaries. Towns and cities conformed to the standards of urban power centers, adopting, say, Berlin time, or London time. It’s not a coincidence that the midpoint of global time, the Prime Meridian, runs right through London, the capital of the 19th century’s colonial superpower. (The French did not appreciate this arrangement, Ogle records. One deputy in the French chamber even introduced a bill to set France’s time to “Paris [time] minus nine minutes and twenty-one seconds,” which just happened to coincide with the master clocks in London.)

A spirit of universalism animated this transition. You can’t have global time without some notion of the global. In an era that celebrates interconnectedness and global citizenship, it can be difficult for many Americans, especially on the left, to think of universalism as anything other than a rosy statement of planetary harmony. Ogle is more skeptical: “universalism was never neutral,” she writes, and it’s such an important line that I’m going to quote it again, this time in italics and with a bunch of exclamation points: “universalism was never neutral[!!!]” A universalist ideology was tied up with colonial projects. It was linked to a process of globalization that favored certain parts of the world and hurt others. It put strain on local customs. Sometimes, it simply destroyed them.

Other scholars have discussed the relationship between timekeeping and power. The most famous of these is the British communist and historian E.P. Thompson, whose 1967 essay, “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” argued that standard time drove individuals to internalize the regimented principles of the factory. In Thompson’s rendering, a wristwatch isn’t just functional jewelry; it’s a representation of your intimate relationship with the industrialist drumbeat that is standard time. Timekeepers call central clocks “master clocks,” and others “slave clocks.” Through Thompson’s lens, these expressions look all too descriptive.

It’s a potent analysis. Standard time does allow for new negotiations between individuals and groups. It allows authority figures to shape the schedules of people—to make them, in a word, disciplined. Often, that discipline clashes with other, more organic clocks; the next time your alarm drags you from a deep dream at some ungodly hour, feel free to blame the capitalist overlords of mass society, who somehow think that the production of their coordinated social space is more important than the needs of your biological rhythms. You can even drift back to sleep and call it a revolutionary act.

And, actually: don’t get carried away. Ogle convincingly argues that Thompson has exaggrated the scope of the change. Sure, standard time and industrial capitalism developed hand-in-hand. Universalism, globalism, colonialism, and capitalism all feed off of each other. But the process of standardizing time was messier, slower, and more staggered than the old communists claimed. Timepieces, Ogle argues, were often understood as “status symbols and markers of modernity and progress” rather than tools to promote “punctuality at the workplace and beyond.” Other forms of timekeeping survived, and resisted, standard metrics. Ogle is interested in what she calls “temporal pluralism,” rather than polemics about temporal Taylorism.

After all, we still live by many clocks: those in our bowels, brains, and endocrine systems; those of the seasons and the sun; those of traditional and ritual calendars. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, as standard time arrived, local customs adapted to the change, and sometimes resisted it. Ogle’s main case studies here are from the Muslim world, and particularly Beirut, where locals had to navigate standard time, local time (the two systems seemingly overlapped for years), Muslim ritual time, the Muslim ritual calendar, and the distinct ritual calendars of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant churches.

The tension between religious and standard times makes sense. In much of the world, rituals and religious institutions used to control time’s official demarcation. E.P. Thompson’s apocalypticism aside, that throwdown didn’t end entirely in favor of the modernists. We still group our days in clunky sets of seven, following a pattern laid out in the first chapter of Genesis. And, despite the best efforts of business leaders and other reformers in the early 1900s, who wanted a year of 13 evenly spaced months, we still use the idiosyncratic Gregorian calendar, enacted by a 16th century Pope.

“The global history of time reform shows how uneven, slow, and full of unintended consequences interconnectedness was,” writes Ogle. She may be overstating the case a bit: time reform was not a perfect, triumphal march for Universal Progress, but it’s not exactly progress-at-a-snail’s-pace when you bring the planet under a single temporal umbrella within the span of a single human lifetime.

But that’s a minor quibble about an important point: the apostles of interconnectedness, whether they’re preaching time reform or the virtues of the Internet Age, will always butt up against resistance. And their agendas reflect certain beliefs about power and the order of the world—because universalism, in case I haven’t mentioned it, is never neutral.

Ogle is giving us, in elegant detail, a snapshot of a fundamental-but-largely-forgotten collision between religious traditions and the forces of scientific standardization. But instead of framing that collision in terms of a straightforward conflict—new science crushes old religion—she’s mapping the delicate interplay that takes place when local traditions confront large, standardized systems.

When confronting this kind of interplay, the most common mistake is to see only two possible outcomes: one in which science wins, and another in which the locals hold out, and continue scheduling their days in the manner of 14th century peasants. What actually happens, of course, is more complicated: the clock in the village square changes to Beirut time, which itself conforms to GMT. But the muezzin keeps using the sun—except that people predict when prayers will start by checking their watches, and they eventually set their watches by the time of their favorite TV show, which happens to come on right after dark, because it’s the network’s marquee program, and the executives want to make sure more people are inside to watch it, so they set the schedule against the sun.

And on it goes. Our time system is a representation of all the ways that the global influences the tiniest rhythms of our days, but also of the ways that, for all its pervasiveness, it cannot. The dynamic of that interplay—when we let the global in; when we resist it—is a defining question that we moderns, citizens of the world, are forced to answer every day, even if we don’t realize that it’s been asked of us.

Time has changed, but other transformations are in our future. In the decade ahead, the effort to bring affordable, high-speed internet to rural and developing regions will be a major project. A few players—Facebook (using drones) and Google (using balloons)—are leading that effort. Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page are the railroad magnates of their day, building a universalizing infrastructure from which they stand to profit.

The companies themselves, and many governments and commentators, will frame this transformation as a straightforward spread of technological progress. Undoubtedly, it will improve the material circumstances of some people’s lives.

But it’s important, as Ogle reminds us, to learn a lesson from time reform whenever we encounter globalizing campaigns. The change will not be neutral. Its terms will be set by those in center of power. Those driving it will try to integrate features into the new infrastructure that favor their own interests. (Already, Facebook is the near-default interface through which people in some parts of the world access the web). Some people will benefit. Others will not. Marginal populations will be drawn deeper into a global system, which will be able to map, track, and organize far-flung people more efficiently than ever before.

But the universal is not always the total. For those of us with a stake in this next wave of transitions—and we all have some kind of stake—the questions are the same today as they were a century ago. Which drumbeats pace my life? Who’s the drummer? And what will it mean to march?

Also on The Cubit: Mammoths, de-extinction, and the future of the past.