Crikey, the concept of time is a tricky one. Along with quantitative easing, I think it’s one of the hardest ideas most of us will ever have to get our minds around. Philosophers, scientists and religious types still can’t actually agree on what “time” really is. I think we can, however, all agree that seconds, minutes, hours and days are pretty useful – especially if you are boiling an egg or trying desperately to come up with something in order to meet a writing deadline – and for the purpose of this piece, time will be that thing that comes from the past, travels through the present and disappears into the future – all concepts that Einstein irritatingly describes as an illusion.
Anyone who, like me, moved to Chiang Mai from the West will quickly have realised that holding onto a western concept of time in this fabulous part of the world is essentially futile. Sure, the seconds tick by in the same way they do at home, but the passing of time is palpably different. A friend recently returned from an eight month trip around the globe. For him it probably felt like eight months of travelling around the globe, yet I estimated he had only actually been away for two weeks, two-and-a-half tops. Perhaps this is just me getting older, but I definitely find myself surprised at just how quickly Friday keeps turning up these days.
And Thailand is definitely not a country to live in if you are someone who insists that things take place on time. “On time” here is refreshingly flexible, and once you get used to it, strangely liberating. Understanding that the tuk tuk you booked for 8.15 pm will probably, with luck, turn up at some point during the evening, or that the person on the other end of the phone saying they are five minutes away actually means they are still at home putting their trousers on and searching for their bike keys, is now just normal. This would be unacceptable and possibly rude in the West, whereas it’s just how things work out here. As I have said ad nauseam, if you get uptight about punctuality, living in Thailand is probably going to give you a seizure.
Right, time zones, that’s what I want to talk about. I felt mildly cheated recently that a trip back to the UK, according to clocks, took me far less time than the odyssey that was getting back to Chiang Mai. Now, I’m not mad, and I do understand that the trips in both directions took about the same amount of real time. I understand vaguely how time zones work and why somebody thought they might be useful – they mean that the sun sort of rises and sets at a time when we expect it to rise and set wherever we are in the world.
But are different time zones strictly necessary in today’s “globalised” world of the internet, multinationals and speed-dating?
China’s huge. I mean, think of something really big like the Promenada Mall, double it, and you are not even close to imagining just how big China is. The People’s Republic deserves three time zones at least, but the clever communists in Beijing decided that one is enough. Whereas Russia, which is enormous enough to have no fewer than nine time zones, is considering a cull. And how about Spain? Ever wondered about all those siestas and late dinners? Well, Spain should be on GMT but hasn’t been in the right time zone since 1942 when dictator General Franco decided to suck up to Hitler by pushing the clocks forward to be in synch with Berlin.
So what with India only operating on a single time and the America looking at cutting its time zones, and the Israelis and Palestinians of The West Bank unable to agree on what the hell the time is (as well as everything else), the world is already in a bit of a mess concerning time. So why not just start again by unifying the lot?
I think people would cope, and personally, I don’t have a problem with midnight sunsets and late morning sunrises. If Chiang Mai adopted Greenwich Mean Time people would go to work at 2 or 3 p.m., which I think is very civilised indeed.
I have been reading a load of arguments for a unified world time by astrophysicists and economists so you don’t have to. Well, I say you don’t have to, but I’m a bit thick when it comes to astrophysics and economics and may have misunderstood most of it. Astrophysicists throw in all sorts of clever things to do with adjusting time like leap-seconds, and economics is a subject I understand less and less as I get older. Someone is still to explain adequately to me why debt purchasing and money printing are really the best way to pull the globe from its financial funk. And I have totally given up on trying to work out how on earth any economist looked at the Thai government’s plans for a billion dollar loss-making rice buying scheme and said: “Yep, that looks watertight.”
Anyhow, as far as I can tell, if everyone operated on a single time it would make it more difficult for people to cock-up international conference calls or come up with a rubbish excuse for missing an appointment in New York or Helsinki. Oh, and football games, if you are into that sort of thing, would all start at the same time. Granted English Premiership fans will still have to stay up until the moon is beginning to wane, but at least kick-off would still be at 7.45 p.m. everywhere. Anyway, a study conducted in the US suggests that television schedules have far more of an effect on the time people choose to wake and go to sleep than when the sun rises and sets.
A single global time wouldn’t actually make much of a difference to how people live their lives. The builders erecting yet another condo next door would still have me considering going postal when they start hammering concrete pylons into the ground just after sunrise, and I would probably still think it extremely clever to phone a chum back in England from a karaoke bar to impress him with my version of “Wrecking Ball” while he’s on speaker phone in an afternoon work meeting.
And I would still exist in the future. Unify time on earth and I will still be several solar hours ahead of the UK and therefore able to reassure family and friends back home that the sun hasn’t exploded, and alien squid creatures haven’t invaded.
Offices would no longer have to hang several clocks on the wall showing the different times in major cities, air travel would be a bit more comprehensible and the buttons used to reset watches and clocks would get less wear and tear. We would also save time not having to work out whether we would live forever if we lived on the International Date Line. We’ve all wasted time on that one, haven’t we?
When they ask me to be president of this little blue planet, which I firmly believe will be a part of my future, prepare for the introduction of Worldwide Coordinated Universal Time – as well as a better system for buying rice.
Right, my time is up. I know this because I’ve just heard what Douglas Adams describes as the whooshing noise deadlines make as they go by.