You unlock this door with a key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. You’re moving into a land where it’s the same exact time as it is on the other side of the globe.
You’ve just crossed over into… the end of time zones.
Okay — cut the spooky music. Today we’re talking time zones!
At Flexibits, we think a lot about how to perfect our users’ experience, and of course, we think a lot about calendars. It follows, then, that we spend quite a bit more time than your average office thinking about time zones.
Time zones feel like something of a necessary evil. In an era where people on opposite sides of the globe can connect easily and instantly, time zones can create a real headache when scheduling, coordinating, and… well, building awesome applications that have to account for time zones.
But how necessary are they, really? A straw poll of our team revealed that the majority of our employees agree with the statement: “I would happily get rid of time zones.”
“Time zones are evil.”
– Alex, Customer Support
Maybe time zones are evil! The question remains: are time zones necessary?
Since the dawn of civilization, people have been telling time by tracking the movement of the sun. Time as it relates to the position of the sun is called “solar time,” and technically, if every place were to observe their local solar time, they’d all be operating on slightly different time zones. Yikes.
In fact, before people had much of a reason or method to travel very far, there was essentially a different time zone in every decently-sized town — by 1883, there were over 144 local time zones observed in North America. In the U.S., a consolidation of time zones was initiated to keep trains running on time (and to keep them from crashing into each other). Not a bad reason to have time zones, and at least there aren’t 144 anymore.
It’s also important for our bodies to function at a rhythm that’s consistent with the movement of the sun. One way or another, we need systems that allow people to spend their waking hours working, learning, exercising, eating, socializing, etc. while the sun is out. The best system for our bodies is whatever keeps us closer to operating on our local solar time.
Lining up time zones with solar time is not trivial, and it can have wide-ranging effects on a society. Take Spain, for example, where the sun rises and sets about an hour later than the rest of the countries on CET (Central European Time), and puts them over two hours off of their local solar time. Researchers have found that this contributes to cultural norms of stretching work hours to 8PM or later, leaving Spaniards with much less free time and family time in the evening, and quite possibly contributing to the country’s abnormally high suicide rate and low fertility rate.
So… time zones are necessary? (And evil?)
We can all agree that we don’t want trains to crash and we like to be awake when the sun is out. But that doesn’t mean time zones should remain wholly untouched.
As it happens, the runner-up in our straw poll was not “Leave the time zones alone, I like them,” but rather, “I don’t know, I have conflicted feelings.” (This is perhaps not that surprising when we consider the quotient of calendar nerds in our office — the more you understand a topic, the more complex and nuanced of a take you’ll probably have about a straw poll in the #random Slack channel.)
“I don’t think the problem is time zones as a concept as much as it is the worldwide implementation of them.”
– Jonathan, Engineering
Jonathan, you certainly have a point. While the core idea of time zones may be sensible enough, the actual implementation of time zones is often based on factors that are not optimized for ease of use or health of a populous, but rather economic drivers and even political allegiances. Spain’s inclusion in CET, for example, is actually a holdover from a decision made by Francisco Franco in 1940 to show solidarity with Nazi Germany.
Unsavory historical context notwithstanding, you just have to look at the time zone situation in countries like Australia or Nepal, where certain regions are 30 or 45 minutes off of the UTC hour mark, to start feeling a little confused about the global implementation of time zones.
“First let’s get rid of Daylight Savings Time. Then we’ll come for the zones.”
– Brian, Engineering
Ah yes, we could not talk about the iffy implementation of time zones around the globe without a solid rant about Daylight Savings Time!
Remember when we said that what’s best for our bodies is to operate as close as possible to our local solar time? Well, proponents of Daylight Savings Time disagree. The main idea behind Daylight Savings Time is to shift sunlight hours later in the day in summer months (originally to maximize daylight for farm laborers, but now just… for extra time to make it to the dog park after work?). Ultimately, even if you’re into the late night summer sun, it’s pretty indisputable that the biannual clock shift does create adverse health effects.
But we’re here to complain about time zones. What does DST have to do with that? Well, given the massive inconsistency of DST implementation across the globe, it creates another layer of chaos in the “What time is it?” cake. Not to pick on Australia, but…
“We haven’t seemed to have come up with anything better 😛”
– Kent, Engineering
Good call, Kent. So what are the alternatives?
The simplest answer is to just have everyone all over the globe on UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). James Gleick puts it nicely in the New York Times: “Our biological clocks can stay with the sun, as they have from the dawn of history. Only the numerals will change, and they have always been arbitrary.”
He admits that this system would take some “mental adjustment,” but if we learned anything from the Spain example above, it may not be so simple. Keeping odd hours can have an odd effect on the day-to-day lives of people, as evidenced by the implementation of a unified time zone in India and China.
Probably the most thoughtful and well-known alternative to time zones as we know them is the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar: a proposal for updating the entire system we use to track calendar years to make them more consistent and accurate, including ending time zones altogether.
The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar doesn’t automatically solve the issues we’ve already discussed, but Steve Hanke suggests that the proper implementation of this calendar reform involves local areas having their own “work-zone time.” This allows local regions to stay in line with their solar time, while any coordination between distant locations can use UTC for simplicity. As for how local regions determine and implement these “work-zone times”…? Hey, the guy is busy trying to overturn the entire calendar, you can’t expect him to solve everything.
“Don’t worry, when we get more into space travel, we’ll drop time zones real quick.”
– Will, Engineering
What do you think? Are we ready for a world without time zones? Could we possibly shift to something better? Or should we just hurry up and get to Mars already?
Whatever happens, rest assured that we’ll keep making Fantastical as easy to use as possible, no matter what the future holds.