Zoning Out: Time zones are fluid. What are the implications for time itself?

February 22, 2012

The Smart Set:

The evening of December 29, 2011 was a Thursday evening. Most of the citizens of Samoa — a mere 190,000 in total — came home from work, had their nightly meal, and went to sleep. But when they awoke, it was Saturday morning. Friday, December 30, 2011 had disappeared. More precisely, December 30 was erased from the routine progression of time. Those with December 30th anniversaries, lovers of Fridays, and people not quite ready for the next year were out of luck. The clocks had been turned forward, a full day forward. December 30, 2011 was a day no Samoan would know.

The government of Samoa had decided the previous June to move westward across the international date line, so everyone knew the lost Friday was coming. The Samoan government made this change because they wanted to better align Samoa with trading partners in the East: Australia, New Zealand, China, the rest of Asia in general.

Samoans had actually been on the Asian side of the date line before, back in the 19th century. Then, in 1892, an American business house trading in the region convinced the king of Samoa that slipping over the date line to the other side, facilitating trade with California rather than Asia and Australia, was in everyone’s best interest. At the time, it made sense to the king. San Francisco was proving to be a much more influential trading partner than Sydney, and American ships lined Samoan shores. So Samoa left its time zone, and was suddenly just three hours behind California. In a twist of diplomatic self-congratulation, Americans had Samoa perform the shift backward in time on July 4, giving Samoans the opportunity to celebrate American Independence Day twice. In her Letters from Samoa, Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson — the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson, who had emigrated to Samoa with her son in 1890 — described the double Fourth of July thus:

It seems that all this time we have been counting wrong, because in former days communication was entirely with Australia, and it was simpler and in every way more natural to follow the Australian calendar; but now that so many vessels come from San Francisco, the powers that be have decided to set this right, and to adopt the date that belongs to our actual geographical position. To this end, therefore, we are ordered to keep two Mondays in this week, which will get us straight.

For 120 years, America’s trading authority has been encapsulated in the Pacific island nation of Samoa. Now, Samoa is three hours ahead of eastern Australia rather than 21 hours behind it, and 22 hours ahead of California. You could say the ever-shifting time zones in Samoa are symbolic of the ever-shifting tides of geopolitical influence: then from East to West; now from West to East.

International journalists, delighted by the story of Samoa’s latest dance with time, saw the symbolism, too. And yet, the headlines were not “American Drones Go the Way of British Naval Ships” or “Australia Leaves the West for Asia”, as one might expect. Rather, the headlines indicated an altogether different fascination:

“Samoa loses a day and jumps forward in time”

“New Year hits early in time-jumping Samoa”

“December 30 will be a day that never existed”

“Samoa to skip Friday, lose December 30th, 2011 forever”What captured everyone’s attention was the sheer fact of Samoa’s time change, its jump over the date line treated almost as a strange occurrence of time travel. The day the story broke, the Internet was a-buzz with musings about the very nature of time itself: Is it possible to change time zones just like that, with one unilateral sweep? Do we have that much control over the measure of time? What does it mean when an entire day goes missing from history?

No one will be born on December 30, 2011, noted National Public Radio, and no one will die. There were secular concerns for people with December 30 birthdays, and also theological debates over lost days of worship, which was a particular problem for Samoa’s Seventh Day Adventists, who were unsure whether to continue honoring Saturday as the Sabbath or change over to Sunday forever, knowing that the Sabbath must come on the seventh day of an unbroken cycle of days. People mused over the creation of new charts and maps and atlases, and considered how Samoa would be the first country in the world to celebrate the new year when once it was the last. With a simple move, Samoa had turned that which is most inexorable in its progression — time — into something open, flexible, reversible, and skip-able.

The international date line is an imaginary line we have drawn onto the planet. The line is artificial and did not exist until we drew it. It is not a straight line, but rather snakes through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, bending this way and that around islands and atolls. It is opposite from the Prime Meridian on the planet’s other side, which helps to define Universal Time and is the meridian by which we calculate all time zones. If you could peer from one side of the date line to the other, you would see a different day. Though the globalization of time would seem to be something quite old, it is only as old as globalization itself. The date line was first proposed in 1884, at the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, D.C., where the primary topic was to choose “a meridian to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world.” The common zero chosen was Greenwich Mean Time, the national mean time of Britain, established in the 17th century mostly to aid naval navigation. So the world’s time turned British. But it wasn’t until 1929 that most major countries had adopted time zones and they still did so at their own discretion. Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, (once Greenwich Mean Time) is universal only in the sense that it is an internationally agreed upon reference point. Otherwise, local time zones are decided upon by individual nations.

A century or so later, time zones seem sacred, inviolable. And so it is disconcerting when we remember that they are not inviolable at all, that they are, rather, capricious. Time zones are suggestions. There are international overseers of time zones, like the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, creator of Greenwich Mean Time. But there is no transnational or trans-universal time zone enforcer. “There seems to be no legal reason why any country cannot declare itself to be in whatever time zone it likes,” the Royal Observatory confirmed to the New York Times around the turn of the millennium, when the tiny nation of Kiribati had caused an international stir by proposing it, too, would enact a time zone change. Taken at face value, the Royal Observatory’s statement is shocking. Could New Yorkers experience the UTC+0545 time zone of Nepal, 10 hours and 15 minutes ahead of itself, living days of nights and nights of days simply because they chose to?

The uneasy truth is that we can shift time around all we like, if we like, and countries have been playing with the malleability of time zones since their inception. But the way we mark time is as metaphysical as it is economic. As Manuel Castells wrote in The Rise of the Network Society, “We are embodied time, and so are our societies, made out of history.” The Russian Empire, for example, once observed solar time, the time of the ancients in which days are dictated by the sun, and traditional Russian society, wrote Castells, “viewed time as eternal, without beginning or end.” For hundreds of years, Russia was regularly disrupted by modern notions of organizing life around time, until Moscow Mean Time was finally introduced in the late 19th century. The country has had a fickle alliance with its time zones since, moving them about, creating and deleting as geography and politics dictated. Today, Russia has the most time zones of any nation; they totaled 11 as of 2010, but President Medvedev excised two that year, and now the country has nine. Perhaps Russia’s time zones are as restless as the Russian soul…

Read it all.

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