James Gleick posits that the world should remove its various time zones, given the confusions they cause. Instead, it is argued that our timings should reflect how our biological clocks obey solar movements, a permanence that is in contradistinction to the arbitrary, changeable constitution, of numerical, clocked times.

The time-zone map is a hodgepodge — a jigsaw puzzle by Dalí. Logically you might assume there are 24, one per hour. You would be wrong. There are 39, crossing and overlapping, defying the sun, some offset by 30 minutes or even 45, and fluctuating on the whims of local satraps.

Let us all — wherever and whenever — live on what the world’s timekeepers call Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C. (though “earth time” might be less presumptuous). When it’s noon in Greenwich, Britain, let it be 12 everywhere. No more resetting the clocks. No more wondering what time it is in Peoria or Petropavlovsk. 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…

People forget how recent is the development of our whole ungainly apparatus. A century and a half ago, time zones didn’t exist. They were a consequence of the invention of railroads. At first they were neither popular nor easy to understand. When New York reset its clocks to railway time on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883, this newspaper explained the messy affair as follows:

“When the reader of The Times consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be 9 o’clock in St. John, New Brunswick, 7 o’clock in Chicago, or rather in St. Louis — for Chicago authorities have refused to adopt the standard time, perhaps because the Chicago meridian was not selected as the one on which all time must be based — 6 o’clock in Denver, Col., and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell.”

Geoincidence that H. G. Wells invented his time machine then, nor that Einstein developed his theory of relativity soon after. With everything so unsettled, Germany created Sommerzeit, “summer time,” as daylight saving time is still called in Europe.

“There was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time,” wrote the French novelist Marcel Aymé in “The Problem of Summer Time,” a 1943 time-travel story. “It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap” (Gleick 2016).

Gleick, James (2016). ‘Time to dump time zones.’ New York Times, November 5, 2016.


Anthony Aveni observes different ways in which human constructions of time artificially regulate celestial patterns and biological rhythms. This is described as a human intervention to nature’s heartbeat, and a manipulation of something that exists beyond human culture.

Time systems became more complex and ornate as an economy and its attending bureaucracy grew and diversified. In China and Europe, mechanical clocks replaced sundials. We slowly began to manipulate nature’s direct input into the timekeeping process for our own benefit. Intercalation was one of the first steps toward human intervention, an insertion of society’s time into celestial time. Thus, we make the year complete by improving upon nature where we believe it has failed.

In a sense, the Maya did to the Venus cycle what medieval Christendom did to the sun cycle. The Venus table in the Dresden Codex tampers with time and reduces it to a cultural creation based on minor variations in nature’s harmonic heartbeat which can be detected only by careful listening and close observation. In bureaucratic societies, human actors take over both nature’s script writing and directingThe modern mass production of timepieces – with their artificial hours, minutes, and seconds – symbolizes the extent of our singleminded struggle to exercise control over that ghostly mechanical entity we imagine to be jogging alongside us, as close as a shadow but uninfluenced by the way we behave. When you say you are strapped for time, perhaps you are only expressing your frustration at the way you have become enslaved to that oscillating chip you carry about on your wrist.

Human culture emerges as the great processor of time. Like the rest of the biological world, our ancestors began by sensing the orderly biorhythms of natural time-the beat of the tides, the coming of the rains, the on-and-off stroboscopic flickering of the full moon’s light, the comings and goings of swallows, locusts, and the red tide. Unlike the New Haven oysters that relocated in Evanston, somewhere back in the distant past we became impatient and dissatisfied. We grabbed hold of the controls; we changed the order. We manipulated time, developed and enhanced it, processed, compressed, and packaged it into a crazyquilt patchwork to conform to our perceived needs: greater efficiency in dividing up the day means more earning power for both the corporate head and his workers; greater precision in Olympic timing makes for a better Reebok sneaker; and strategic positioning of daylight-saving time gives us more rest and recreation, and that leads to a longer personal time line (Aveni 1989, 336-37).

Aveni, Anthony. 1989. Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Jay Griffiths characterises Western, hegemonic time, as inherently anti-natural, and as that which is imposed on cultures. A challenge to this dominant form of time is said to manifest through the various time structures of indigenous populations, which are portrayed as being more natural than the time which has developed from the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual (Griffiths 2002).

Griffiths, Jay. 2002, ‘Boo to captain clock.’ New Internationalist 343(March): 14-17.


Daniel Boorstin posits that by marking time according to distinct parts, humans were freed from the cyclical nature of the world. Humanity’s liberation from a repetitive natural condition, via the various conceptions of time, is further claimed to have conditioned the first communities of shared human knowledge.

The first grand discovery was time, the landscape of experience. Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature. The flow of shadows, sand, and water, and time itself, translated into the clock’s staccato, became a useful measure of man’s movements across the planet. The discoveries of time and of space would become one continuous dimension. Communities of time would bring the first communities of knowledge, ways to share discovery, a common frontier on the unknown (Boorstin 1985, 1).

Boorstin, Daniel. 1985. The discoverers. New York: Random House Inc.


Eviatar Zerubavel argues that no calendared construction of the week was ever an inevitable occurrence. Rather, the week represents the cultural division of natural cycles into useful structures for social routines. Social time thus exhibits constructed elements not apparent in natural time.

The week is not an inevitable natural necessity and, despite its pervasive presence in so many parts of the world, it is by no means a universal phenomenon. This apparently “indispensable” cycle can actually be found only in those civilizations that either generated a complex divinatory system (for example, the Hellenistic world, Central America, Indonesia); developed a market economy (for example, China, ancient Rome, West Africa); or have come under the influence of Judeo-Christianity or Islam with their distinctive extranatural liturgical cycles. The significant feature that all these civilizations seem to have in common is that they cherish regularity, and it is thus only that they have produced the particular mentality which seems to characterize the sort of “homo rhythmicus” who has invented the cycle known as the week.

Essentially revolving around the experience of recurrence, the circular conception of time encourages the establishment of rigid routines, which promote structure and orderliness by making our life more regular as well as more predictable…

There are many routine activities (such as shopping and family visiting) that we would like to perform on a regular basis, yet which, unlike brushing our teeth or changing our underwear, need not necessarily be performed every day. At the same time, however, we also may not want to have to wait a full month in order to perform them regularly rather than on an ad hoc basis. Nature, which has given us both the day and the month, has not been of much help in our search for some convenient cycle in between them. (Unlike several other planets, Earth has no other, closer satellites with shorter orbits than the moon.) Faced with the disappointing lack of any major natural cycle that is longer than the day yet shorter than the next available natural cycle, which is almost thirty times longer, various civilizations, quite independently of one another, have tried to fill this natural gap by inventing such a cycle themselves. Hence the evolution of various forms of the week in so many parts of the world (Zerbubavel 1989, 85-86).

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1989. The seven day circle: The history and meaning of the week. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Eduardo Mendieta observes an historical differentiation between natural time, historical time, and social time. These differences are said to be reducing, however, as the rate at which historical events develop is accelerated. Furthermore, despite an opposition between natural and social constitutions, social time is regulating shorter temporalities for naturally occurring rhythms.

The symbolic deconstruction of time, partly a result of the information revolution discussed above, has lead to a rethinking of the differences among natural, historical, and social time. Social time is the time in which and at which societies experience their lifeworld. Or rather, just as Henri Lefebvre spoke of the “social production of space,” we must also speak of the “social production of time.” This socially produced time is social time; it is the time that punctuates the rhythms of social existence. This is the time that ticks at the sounds of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months. This is the time that keeps track of workdays, academic calendars, and leisure time. This time, however, is timed by clocks and timetables that have been arranged in terms of assumptions, beliefs, and ideologies about how much time constitutes a workday, a work week, how long should persons work in their lifetime, and so on. Like maps, clocks clock only what they have been arranged to clock. The rhythms of social existence, however, intersect with historical and natural time. Historical time has to do with the time in which historical events, forces, processes, and transformations take place. Historical time is the time in which societies and civilizations live and mark their transformations. Historical time, one may say, is punctuated by political revolutions, wars, elections, and technological revolutions that may have accelerated the rhythms of social time. Finally, natural time is the time of nature, of tectonic plates, of seas, of weather patterns, of draughts and floods, of freezing or melting polar ice caps, and other such forces that are punctuated in millennia, in cycles whose regularity or patterns are not discernable because their time span is beyond human time.

What is distinctive about the global condition, at the phenomenological level, is that these three times have began to merge, or seem to have collapsed into each other. Social time has accelerated to such an extent that it has caught up with historical time. Revolutions are lived within decades. Major social transformations occur where entire societies are uprooted and restructured in the blink of the eye. What took centuries, now takes decades, and sometimes a score of years. History is being televised at any given moment, even as its revisionism is aired and posted that same evening. By the same token, historical time seems to have caught up to natural time: The El Niño weather pattern is now part of pedestrian speak. The greenhouse effect is melting the ice caps, and sea levels are rising, regions are turning into desserts, while desserts are turning into irrigated gardens. The cumulative effect is that time has to be symbolically reconstituted. The self-assurance of Cartesian and Newtonian thought that operated on the dependability and seeming immutability of natural and world historical time have to be traded for a type of thinking that will set out from the social productivity of temporality (Mendieta 2007, 21-22).

Mendieta, Eduardo. 2007. Global fragments: Latinamericans, globalizations, and critical theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Edward Thompson observes the transition in the relation between labour and time. According to Thompson, labour goes from being connected to the tasks associated with natural rhythms, to the apparently more efficient use of labour time as it is measured by the clock.

It is commonplace that the years between 1300 and 1650 saw within the intellectual culture of Western Europe important changes in the apprehension of time…I do not wish to argue how far the change was due to the spread of clocks from the fourteenth century onwards, how far this was itself a symptom of a new Puritan discipline and bourgeois exactitude. However we see it, the change is certainly there. The clock steps on to the Elizabethan stage, turning Faustus’s last soliloquy into a dialogue with time: “the stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.” Sidereal time, which has been present since literature began, has now moved at one step form the heavens into the home. Mortality and love are both felt to be more poignant as the “Snayly motion of the mooving hand” crosses the dial. When the watch is worn about the neck it lies in proximity to the less regular beating of the heart. The conventional Elizabethan images of time as a devourer, a defacer, a bloody tyrant, a scytheman, are old enough, but there is a new immediacy and insistence…

However, this gross impressionism is unlikely to advance the present enquiry: how far, and in what ways, did this shift in time- sense affect labour discipline, and how far did it influence the inward apprehension of time of working people? If the transition to mature industrial society entailed a severe restructuring of working habits – new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively – how far is this related to changes in the inward notation of time?

In a similar way labour from dawn to dusk can appear to be “natural” in a farming community, especially in the harvest months: nature demands that the grain be harvested before the thunderstorms set in. And we may note similar “natural” work-rhythms which attend other rural or industrial occupations: sheep must be attended at lambing time and guarded from predators; cows must be milked; the charcoal fire must be attended and not burn away through the turfs (and the charcoal burners must sleep beside it); once iron is in the making, the furnaces must not be allowed to fail.

The notation of time which arises in such contexts has been described as task-orientation. It is perhaps the most effective orientation in peasant societies, and it remains important in village and domestic industries It has by no means lost all relevance in rural parts of Britain today. Three points may be proposed about task-orientation. First, there is a sense in which it is more humanly comprehensible than timed labour. The peasant or labourer appears to attend upon what is an observed necessity. Second, a community in which task-orientation is common appears to show least demarcation between “work” and “life”. Social intercourse and labour are intermingled – the working-day lengthens or contracts according to the task – and there is no great sense of conflict between labour and “passing the time of day”. Third, to men accustomed to labour timed by the clock, this attitude to labour appears to be wasteful and lacking in urgency (Thompson 1967, 56-57, 60).

Thompson, Edward. 1967. “Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism.” Past & present 38: 56-97.