The World in 24 Slices
I love the interplay of engineering and technology with other aspects of society. Our culture is a tapestry of interwoven threads. Science, politics, sociology, history, literature, economics ... the thread count is incredibly high in the warp and woof of our communal lives. Though we all like to define categories—academics are particularly adept at forming silos—life is much more continuous, complex, and downright messy.
Consider time zones, for example. As society drew closer with the invention of the high speed transportation provided by rail lines and steam-driven ship, the differences in locally defined solar time became more pronounced, making it difficult to keep a trans-national or international schedule. The international Meridian Conference of 1884 forged a political agreement to define a global time standard, forming 24 time zones, with the base of zero set to pass through Greenwich and all other times defined relative to this Prime Meridian. Thus each time zone was relative to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The resulting vertical slices on the globe were entirely scientific and pleasingly geometric: nice and neat.
Not so fast. Science does not exist in a vacuum. Time is not only a phenomenon to be measured, it is a quality to be experienced. Thus calendars and watches are defined not only by technical principles but also by human needs and wants. Today’s time zone maps are roughly vertical slices, but with interesting variations. Political considerations led China to choose a single time zone. The United States are not so united, with zones meandering along the boundaries of states that fall on the meridians. Countries that are nearly perfectly aligned along the same longitude sometimes make opposite choices about which time zone they will follow. A few even flaunt the original international agreement to use only integer offsets. Some choose halves, such as Iran, Afghanistan, India. The agitators are not just in central Asia: part of Australia and the Canadian island of Newfoundland also use a half-hour increment. Even bolder, Nepal had the nerve to choose a 45 minute offset.
Are the non-integer insurgents wrong? Do they scoff at scientific evidence? Not at all. Each is merely recognizing that science and technology have a context. We can design our tools to serve us, and serving us well requires adaptation to local custom, regional geography, and political boundaries. As much as we’d like our technology to be objective, its human context make that wish for simplicity impractical. The real world is messy and our technology must account for and even celebrate the great diversity and ambiguity of human culture, even in our time zones.