Last week the 53rd Annual Grammy awards was broadcast live on the CBS Television Network to the central and eastern time zones of the United States. The west coast received a signal delayed by three hours. The live broadcast was woven into a thick stream of tweets on the Network that commented on every aspect of the production. By the time the delayed signal was put onto CBS’s west coast network, the show had been drained of its tension. It played itself out, but the envelopes torn open on stage contained no secrets, the performances arrived pre-parsed.
Winners revealed in real time is the compelling value of awards shows and sporting events. For the most part, professional sports has solved the problem of real time through creating broadcast networks dedicated to sports. Sports fans welcome baseball at breakfast if that’s what time-zone offsets require. It’s only global events like the World Cup or the Olympics that cause serious distortions. When we expect a program to be in prime time—wherever we are—often our only option is to watch a delayed signal. Because there’s a significant amount of gambling on the outcome of sporting events, a delayed signal isn’t really feasible. In fact, a delayed signal is the mechanism of a number of confidence games like the one called the wire.
Time has been standardized and divided up into zones that reflect the spherical quality of our globe and its relative position with regard to the sun at any given moment. Of course, it wasn’t always thus.
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone…
The railroad train lies at the bottom of the standardization of time. When I think of trains and time, I’m pulled in many directions. The first thing I think of is the rhythm of the train marking time in popular music. Mystery Train, Casey Jones, City of New Orleans and many other songs incorporate the sound of the train moving down the track. The train often serves the role of the seaport for landlocked regions. Contemporary music pays tribute to the train in Steve Reich’s Different Trains and Philip Glass’s Train/SpaceShip section of Einstein on the Beach. And then in thinking of the physics of time, there’s the role the train plays in Einstein’s explanation of simultaneity in his theory of relativity.
But the standardization of time, in the sense of synchronizing clocks to a specific pulse, was due to the expansion of the network of train tracks and routes. Prior to the arrival of the railroad, time had a number of sources. The regular cycles of day and night, the sun and the moon, sun dials, the crops in the fields, cows in the barn, the delivery of mail, or fruit ripening on a tree—any of these could generate a sense of time, its passage and circularity.
Even with the first arrival of mechanical clocks, there was no sense that they needed to be synchronized beyond a very specific locality. The precise synchronization of time over large geographies was eventually required for the task of optimizing train traffic over massively distributed rail networks. Often the tipping point toward an agreement on synchronization would occur when two trains moving in opposite directions, occupying their own local times, attempted to occupy the same space. For the safety of the trains, the passengers and the network, time had to be synchronized on a singular pulse—and each pulse of time was given a specific name that was incremented and then applied to the next pulse.
Railway time was used to schedule a train’s circulation through the network as well as the times a train was expected to arrive and leave each station. It was here that the local time of a town and railway time came into direct conflict. No town operated on railway time, and this resulted in a lot of missed connections. Some towns would erect two town clocks, one for local time and another for railway time. Another ingenious solution was a single clock with two separate minute hands. Eventually it wasn’t just trains that had to be scheduled for circulation through the train’s network—it was everything. People, food, industry, commerce, fashion, personal mail, news and ideas all began circulating through the rail network. The pulse of the world began to synchronize with the pulse of railway time.
Tonbridge, October 30th, 1852,
South Eastern Railway.
GREENWICH MEAN TIME SIGNALS
The Astronomer Royal has erected Shepherd’s Electro-Magnetic Clock at the Royal Observatory, for the transmission of Greenwich Mean Time to distant places.
On and after November 1st, the needle of your Instrument will move to make the letter N precisely at . . o’clock every day.
[Different stations received time-signals at different hours.]
Abstain from using the instrument for Two Minutes before that time. Watch the arrival of the signal; and make a memorandum, for your own information, of the error of your Office Clock.
You are at liberty to allow local Clock and Watch Makers to have Greenwich time, providing such liberty shall not interfere with the Company’s service and the essential privacy of Telegraph Offices, and the business connected there with.
Engineer and Superintendent of Telegraphs
A telegraph network was installed alongside the rail network to send the time pulse out to each of the stations to better facilitate synchronization. Once the telegraph network was joined to the rail network, all the elements of our modern communications environment were in place. At this point, certain kinds of information began to migrate from the rail line to the telegraph line.
Like local time giving way to railway time, we’re seeing another standardization into a singular simultaneous global time. The delayed broadcast of the Grammy Awards was a quaint reminder of the days when television’s prime time could be optimized for distribution into discrete time zones. There used to be little danger that the simultaneity of time would leak through from one zone to the next. These days it’s the global real-time Network that defines the circulatory patterns of digital information and communication. As distance is annihilated and real-time events are piped all over the world—we all see them simultaneously—the real-time network isn’t divided into time zones.
Weather and climate is an analogous system. Local weather is now visibly part of our global climate. We track cold fronts across the world until they arrive at our door step. We watch as global warming leads to higher levels of local precipitation. Our local weather is irretrievably bound into the state of our global climate.
Live television and any other medium that covers the world in real time will have to synchronize their clocks to simultaneous global standard time. Some news programs will make a living as the viewer’s DVR, collecting clips throughout the day, standing ready to review them with you whenever you’re ready. When broadcast channels were scarce, it wasn’t possible to create a channel just for a single story unfolding in real time. Of course, if we look closely, this is what’s actually happening now, we just don’t realize it yet.
In their online publication, the Guardian newspaper has stopped writing about “tonight” and “tomorrow” in their articles because it confuses their online readers who are operating on simultaneous global time. Time no longer has a local presence the writer can point to and say “tonight,”? because the reader could be anywhere on the planet. The local time horizon no longer exists in the public stream of the real-time global network.
Global simultaneous time is continuous, it runs 24/7, just like the cable news networks. In that sense, it’s not a human form of time—after all humans have to sleep at some point. The lights go out and we lose consciousness. We enter the part of our lives where time isn’t portioned out in pre-measured pulses. When time is global, simultaneous and continuous we discover that there’s always too much to follow. Some will sit and stare at the real-time stream trying to take it all in. Others may find the shape of time in some of the old places. It’s time to make dinner. It’s time to mow the lawn. It’s a full moon tonight. Remember when sun spots caused those incredible aurora borealis? Is it time to change the oil in the car? When was the last time we went out for a drink? And what of that overflowing torrent flowing out of global simultaneous time? Perhaps we take on an attitude that was common before voice mail and answering machines, if it’s important, they’ll call back.
STEAMBOATS, VIADUCTS, AND RAILWAYS
By William Wordsworth (1833)
MOTIONS and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.