Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Ideal Society, Part 2: Time

We currently do a horrible job of keeping track of time. The two things that immediately come to mind when I think about how time is kept on Earth are:

1. Our time system doesn't integrate very well with our other measuring systems; in fact, it has nothing to do with them at all, which is strange.

2. Our time system is based on a medieval peasant's work day. Also strange.

Daylight saving time may conserve sunlight, but unless you don't have electricity, I don't really see why it's necessary. Actually, it's worse than unnecessary: It breaks the system. It's one thing to arbitrarily label a moment when the sun is positioned at a specific angle in the sky as 6:00 PM EST, but it's another altogether to later claim that that same angle occurs at a moment labeled as 7:00 PM EST, or 5:00 PM EST.

Wouldn't it be easier to get up at a different time than to change time?

Think about it: A lot more people than we might realize forget to set their clocks back, and while I'm most certainly in favor of automating all such menial processes to avoid lapses in memory, this particular one really doesn't need to exist in the first place. Furthermore, no credible academic or governmental body -- not even the U.S. Department of Energy -- has found any significant reduction in energy use or costs as a result of daylight saving time, with many studies reporting as little as a 0.5-1% difference in electricity use.

Worse still is that DST doesn't apply to all time zones, and some people frequently travel from one time zone to another, causing confusion regarding DST rules, which differ from region to region. Does this make any sense? If we are going to impose a confusing, arbitrary standard with no benefit to anyone whatsoever, can we not at least universalize it?

You might think that my proposal to do things at different times of day depending on sunlight output is myopic. First of all, in our technological society, it's extremely rare that the amount of sunlight matters to anyone for getting something done -- especially a mere hour's difference. Second of all, if our society didn't so rigidly impose its schedules, we wouldn't have to worry about reminding ourselves to do things at different times of day -- were schedules ever necessary in the first place. In an ideal society, if you really had to change how early you got up in order to increase the length of the day,  because your boss wouldn't care whether you took lunch at 12:00 or 1:00, you'd eat whenever a "natural" break presented itself in the day. This would ultimately deemphasize the importance of arbitrary scheduling, which almost never accounts for scope creep, and certainly does not parallel the processes of human work and energy use.

If you need to be at work by 8:00, and the sun starts rising earlier, then change your time of arrival from 8:00 to 7:56, and keep gradually knocking it down a few minutes every few weeks until the sun starts rising later in the morning again. A guestimate really is good enough for stuff like this.

The problem of conserving sunlight isn't that we need to find a better way to transition from one time* to another; it's that we need to find a better way to transition from doing things at one time to another -- or even that we need to stop caring whether we're five minutes late for work in the first place (OR, that we shouldn't "work" in the way that we currently do!).

Time zones are also pointless. They're dictated by time of day, of course, but again, the day is an archaic unit of measurement restricted by the activity of the sun. If you want to eat dinner on one part of the Earth, perhaps you do so at 6:30 PM, but if you move, does it really matter if it's suddenly dark outside at 3:00 PM? Do you have to wait until 6:30? What's more important -- the little numbers on the clock, or what's happening in the world?

Finally getting back to point 1. above, consider that the metric system is widely used throughout most of the first world (outside of the United States) for measuring physical quanta. Why not for quanta within the fourth dimension as well? Instead of sixty seconds to a minute, there should be one thousand seconds to one kilosecond -- not because the latter are somehow the "right" units to use, but because consistency is important for avoiding slop. There would then be one thousand kiloseconds per megasecond, and so on, with the base unit (seconds) remaining the suffix to each unit in order to remind us of its fundamental nature. Not only would this ally our time system with our other measuring systems, it would also standardize the time system itself.

Why base a particular scale of measurement on how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun or rotate? We no longer need to track how many days we have left until we have to start preparing for the winter. Why does where the moon exist in the sky matter to us? What is the point of the month as a unit of measurement? Instead of each unit containing 60, 24, 30, or 365 of the previous, why doesn't each simply contain 1,000 of the previous, regardless of its scale? Wouldn't that be much simpler?

If we ever wind up living somewhere else -- a prospect which I find rather unlikely, admittedly -- then we will need to acknowledge that days and years are meaningless, anyway, given the extreme variation in them from one planet to another.

* The little numbers on the clock -- not the actual time per the activity of the solar system and universe

1 comment:

  1. What about the consideration that people's sleep and wake times usually (roughly) correspond to when the sun rises or sets in whatever location they're currently in? For most people this is a natural occurence rather than an arbitrarily-imposed external constraint, and typically serves to regulate the timing of various internal bodily processes for its optimal overall functioning. Here at least there seems a legitimate need for a discrete unit of a "day", if not weeks or months.