(April 2014) The recent beginning of Daylight Saving Time (DST) reminded me of how confusing the whole idea of springing forward and falling back was when I was a child.
“How can we just change the time the sun sets?” I would ask my parents, even though I liked the extra hour of daylight in the evening (and still do). They would explain we don’t actually change the time the sun sets, or rises, just what time we agree it is when those events happen.
Admittedly, it took me a few years to wrap my mind around the idea that the way we measure time is arbitrary. The 24 hour day is a human invention; I mean, why not divide the time it takes the Earth to make a single rotation into 22 equal parts, or 26? And, in fact, it only takes the Earth 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds to make a single rotation (known as a solar day), but for events on such a grand scale, apparently humans decided that was close enough.
Not so with other smaller and faster events. The arrival and departure times of trains were the impetus behind the standardization of time and time zones in North America in 1883, originally by agreement of U.S. and Canadian railroad operators. Time was not officially codified in U.S. law until passage of the Standard Time Act of 1918, which also established DST. If you want to know the official U.S. time, you can now visit www.time.gov.
In the ensuing years, technology and commerce has both allowed and necessitated measuring what was originally the smallest unit of time, the second, in increasingly smaller fractions. Telephone companies, which have long broken our conversations into small data packets transmitted separately and then reassembled on the receiver’s end, might measure time in milliseconds (thousands of a second) in order to have what we say on one end of the line sound right to the person on the other end.
A March 30, 2014 report on 60 Minutes examined how high-frequency stock traders can make billions of dollars a year by executing stock trades just fractions of a second before other traders. The most sophisticated trading systems use cutting-edge computer technology and can execute buy-sell algorithms measured in microseconds (millionths of a second). Clearly, being able to measure time in fractions of a second can be highly profitable.
We are taught time is important and have many metaphors for it. First, we are told always to be on time (as opposed to ‘off time?’). A quick action to avert failure is done in the nick of time; if it was in the final hour, it was likely not a second too soon. We know the sands of time (a reference to measuring time with an hour glass) pass for us all, that no one wants to run out of time, and that some things – a great song or book, beauty, love – can be timeless. We’re also taught time is money (better to spend it wisely than waste it) and the ultimate insult is when someone won’t even give us the time of day.
How we use time also says something about who we are. Being punctual is considered a virtue if you are going to an appointment, work or a dinner party. But when going to a regular party, you want to be fashionably late (so you don’t look like you’re not cool). Use of time also shows rank and power. Look at what time it is acceptable for junior staff, middle managers and the boss to arrive at a business meeting. The more senior our position, the more latitude we are given in prioritizing our time and how we use it.
Bob Dylan wrote that time is a jet plane (it moves too fast), but anyone can slow down enough to notice how we use time, talk about it and spend it, and what that says about us as individuals and our culture.