Daylight saving time, which takes effect this weekend, seems innocuous: a trivial harassment, an annoying vestige of an earlier age, a pointless hardship imposed on us by technocrats. It is all of those things. The measure was introduced to solve a problem created by the shift from local solar time to standard clock time — as daytime shortened in winter, more productive activity was locked into nighttime hours, in an era when artificial light was far more expensive than it is today. President Woodrow Wilson formally introduced the United States to daylight saving time in 1918, justifying it as wartime thrift. Over the following century it was variously resisted, overturned, reintroduced and modified, reaching its current dimensions with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Amid all that effort, nobody has been able to demonstrate conclusively that adjusting clock time to the waxing and waning of daylight hours saves energy as intended. (In fact, the opposite seems to be true.)
As a rational policy, daylight saving time may be ineffective. But as a social ritual, it retains real value. Our biannual clock-tuning is a slip of the mask, a glitch in the matrix that reminds us that clock time is always artificial and arbitrary.
Standardized clock time is immensely useful. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern world depends on it: Ships once required it to navigate. The GPS systems that guide our cars, planes and farm combines count on standard time to calculate their positions. If you think setting up a phone call between Washington and London is difficult now because of differing time zones, imagine if local time varied by a few minutes between Washington and Pittsburgh, a few degrees of longitude west. In a society dependent on just-in-time supply chains and automated trading that works in microseconds, accurate, precisely calibrated time is as important as electricity.
But standardized time can be, and has been, used against us. Whether you get more out of clock time than it gets out of you is largely a function of your economic security. Almost 90 years after John Maynard Keynes’s prediction that the future would hold 15-hour workweeks and lives of leisure, we feel increasingly time-starved. Sociologist Judy Wajcman, in her book “Pressed for Time,” calls this the “time-pressure paradox”: Standardized time — in which DST is an archaic wrinkle — contributes to a world of labor-saving innovations. But the time they free up is immediately filled by demands for more work, and greater and more varied demands on our attention.
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We can sketch out three distinct eras of time reckoning between antiquity and the present. The earliest calendars were linked to the movement of the sun, moon and planets. An enduring legacy of this: Within the days of our week are encoded the names of the sun, moon and five planets visible to ancient Babylonian astronomers. The story of social time since then has been a gradual decoupling from natural reference points. First the seven-day week broke free of the lunar cycle, becoming, sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel argues, the first “major rhythm of human activity that is totally oblivious to nature, resting on mathematical regularity alone.” As such, he writes, the week “ought to be regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of human civilization.” With the Industrial Revolution, clock time liberated the workday from solar time and established labor routines organized by schedules — the 9-to-5 job being the ultimate expression of this. In the 21st century, work has escaped the bounds of the 9-to-5 schedule, organized instead around what media scholar Robert Hassan calls “network time.” Under network time, we’re expected to do our jobs whenever the task demands it, no matter what our local time is.
If time can be used to command our attention and impose order on our lives, then the ability to set it, and ultimately to decide how others use it, is a source of tremendous power. When clocks became fixtures in 19th-century British factories, workers complained that their bosses unfairly set the clocks ahead in the morning and back at night, to squeeze more labor out of the day. Workmen, historian E.P. Thompson noted, feared carrying their own watches, since it was “no uncommon event” for managers to fire any worker “who presumed to know too much about the science of horology.”
In 1880, Britain adopted Greenwich Mean Time as legal standard time. Four years later, an international conference named GMT as the global prime meridian, against which all other times would be set.The Royal Observatory in Greenwich became a key tool of imperial administration: The time of day in any given place would now be dictated by technocrats in London, rather than by the position of the sun overhead, as it had been for thousands of years. In this way, postal routes, train travel, workdays, markets and meetings could be coordinated. But many found the idea alienating. In 1894, Martial Bourdin, a 26-year-old French anarchist, died in London after a homemade bomb he was carrying exploded in his hands. Police speculated that his target was the Greenwich observatory. It would have been, in the language of modern counterterrorism, a highly symbolic soft target for an anarchist.
In the United States, the adoption of standard time was pushed by the progressive movement as a civilizing project, but it was also championed by railroad titans and business interests for whom coordinating economic activity across large distances was a major advantage. Standard time met opposition from laborers who worried “that their time of recreation would be curtailed,” the Detroit Free Press reported. Others, worried about economic expediency superseding traditional local control, protested the substitution of railroad tycoon “Jay Gould’s time for God’s time.”
Time clocks remain a site of battle between workers and employers. In 2013, warehouse workers at Amazon (whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns this newspaper) sued over rules that required them to clock out before waiting up to 25 minutes for a mandatory anti-shoplifting screening on their way out the door. The Supreme Court sided with Amazon. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as part of a long-running campaign to curb the power of academics, has proposed a rule requiring professors to report the number of hours they spend teaching, as opposed to conducting other activities such as research. Employers, for their part, worry about hourly employees committing time-clock fraud — for example, by taking breaks while clocked in or clocking in for a worker who hasn’t yet arrived.
In a move that would complete the decoupling of social time from natural rhythms, economist Steve Hanke and physicist Dick Henry think we should abolish time zones altogether, in favor of a single global time. Noon in London would be noon in Beijing, regardless of whether it was night or day. That would ease global commerce. But the interests it would serve are mostly those of people who, by advantage or by necessity, carry out work over great distances, regardless of their local temporal context.
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Sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that the major problem of modern life was how to preserve one’s individuality and independence against the overwhelming pressure of society — everyone’s individual struggle to avoid “being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.” Standard time, with all the devices and people that make it possible and rely on it, is part of that mechanism.
We’ve come a long way from Bourdin and the Royal Observatory. The war for time is over. The anarchists and localists lost. It’s telling that these days our major complaint about daylight saving time is that it fouls up standard time, when standard time is the reason we tend to feel rushed in the first place. Complaining about the clock springing ahead or falling back is like grousing about Apple’s stupid headphone dongle you absolutely need for your iPhone but will immediately lose. It provides a good excuse to gripe about the near problem as a way of avoiding the far problem — the fear that we’re frittering away our lives into a black mirror. Or a ticking clock.