It wasn’t until the invention of the telegraph that people had to deal with time zones.
Before that no one could travel fast enough for it to be a consideration and information could only travel as fast as people.
The telegraph dramatically changed the paradigm of communication. Almost overnight, information that had taken days to get somewhere could arrive in seconds. It seemed practically instantaneous, leading one American telegraph official to suggest that it would ”annihilate time as well as space.”
Well, it definitely required a change in the understanding of time.
Previously all time was local: When the sun was at its zenith, that was noon. Now time could either be local or standard; both were used for decades. Telegraphs were used to synchronize clocks across nations, creating a new idea of now. The New York Herald suggested that the telegraph hadn’t only ushered in a new era of communication but “an entirely new class of ideas, a new species of consciousness.”
The article [quoted in The Information by James Gleick] goes on to consider how news now arrives, instantly:
“It requires no small intellectual effort to realize that this is a fact that now is, and not one that has been.”
One hundred years later, people began to experience time differently again, when jet aircraft suddenly allowed people to move fast enough to visibly traverse times zones. Those that could afford to fly suddenly encountered a new kind of feeling, first recorded in the L.A. Times in 1966:
“If you’re going to be a member of the Jet Set and fly off to Katmandu for coffee with King Mahendra, you can count on contracting Jet Lag, a debility not unakin to a hangover. Jet Lag derives from the simple fact that jets travel so fast they leave your body rhythms behind.”
Medically, jet lag is known as desynchronosis–you are literally out of sync with time. It confuses you and can take days to adjust. It is a chronobiological problem, throwing your circadian rhythms off.
This can be dangerous. In the 1950s, when jets were new, the U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles landed in Washington to learn that the Egyptians had bought a large amount of arms from Russia. Dulles decided to withdraw the offer of funding for the Aswan Dam, which ultimately led to the Suez Crisis. Dulles later admitted that he felt this decision was one of the greatest mistakes of his life and he blamed it on jet lag.
This is why companies, even today, still pay for business class flights. Anything that reduces the cognitive impairment of jet lag is valuable when considering the larger gains and losses to be made in negotiations. It’s also what causes a delicious tension for those of us who only get to fly business class on business: Go right to sleep to maintain that fresh head, or, well, enjoy it.
Jet lag has as many anecdotal remedies as hangovers. At TED this year, Delta debuted a “photon shower” designed to alleviate the symptoms. You step inside and detail how far you have come. Based on the number of time zones covered it bathes you in the right light to reduce the lag.
When traveling for business, and sadly too often when on vacation, you are in constant email contact with the office, operating in two time zones simultaneously, which can cause endless confusion. Are you playing catch-up, or enjoying a few hours head start every day? Is the call 2 p.m. my time or yours?
But, increasingly, it isn’t just two times we need to keep track of.
In today’s working world, you are collaborating on projects with teams in Europe and Asia. Bankers in London get up to see the market close in Tokyo and then watch it open in New York. Twitter moves in distinct waves as different parts of the world wake up and start checking and retweeting the news, passing it back across times zones on the stream.
Twitter, like the telegraph, changes the idea of now. In the stream it is always now, across every geography. It’s rare that you email people in San Francisco, New York, London, and Sydney in a single day, but on Twitter they all make their presence, their now, felt. It makes the head spin, especially once you dislocate from a primary time zone.
I left New York City in April this year and started moving east. I’m currently somewhere in Southeast Asia, working on one project with people in New York, another with people in Sydney, and on Twitter as regularly as Wi-Fi access allows. I have to operate in multiple time zones every day, whilst also moving between them. I can’t just wait until I get home, since I don’t know when or even where that will be. I have chosen to work on the road, so I have to acclimatize, or achronotize, perhaps.
Time is not annihilated; it is ever present, in all its relative positions. Media theorists always overstate the impact of new communication technologies, or perhaps are one step ahead. Television did not usher in a “global village” but maybe the web did. Time cannot be predicated on your zone when you work with a global audience. Whilst in Europe, I attempted to get in touch with the airline taking us to Asia during a layover. But they were closed. The phone lines and Twitter account were only manned during office hours in their home country, despite serving customers all over the world. We cannot be so parochial anymore. When I schedule tweets, it’s no longer about where I am, but about where the people I want to reach are.
Perhaps Twitter, rather than the telegraph, allows for “a new class of ideas,” an increasingly global consciousness. In the novel Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow describes a world where online tribes form based on the time zone they choose to set their circadian rhythms to, regardless of where they live geographically.
People, and information, are traveling further and faster than ever before. We will increasingly need to be more temporally flexible. Now is an exciting moment and a slippery idea. Juggling multiple zones creates its own kind of confusion and time lag, and we will all need to find new ways of dealing with it.