I don't believe in timezones, here's why

Posted on October 26, 2020 in general

Surprisingly more often than you'd expect, I'm in a discussion where the concept of timezones come up. Every so often, this results in me ranting about how timezones are a completely useless an arbitrary concept that needlessly overcomplicates global communication. More often than not, these rants occur right around the start of daylight saving time. I've wanted to write more general posts, and there doesn't seem to be enough content on the internet about what we should do instead of timezones.

Why Timezones are Bad

An excellent first step to explaining what we should replace timezones with is to determine why they need replacing. There's no point in replacing something without knowing why we want to replace it; otherwise, we'll end up in the same situation as before.

Communication

The most prevalent issue with timezones is the impact on communication in a globalised society. As more and more companies spread their team across the globe, timezones will become more of a hindrance than a help. Currently, almost everyone can name numerous times where timezones have messed up a meeting or other event.

When talking about time with someone in a different timezone, you either need to calculate what time will be for them, or tell them the time in your timezone and have them figure it out themselves. Not only does this add extra complexity and latency to what you're trying to communicate, but it also requires conveying and knowing more information. This additional step is akin to having to use translation software for critical phrases in mid-speech.

Software Complexity

Timezones are very complicated, and due to this, they are challenging to support in software accurately. A large amount of engineering effort goes towards timezone awareness in applications. While most timezone-aware software internally represents time in UTC, it is still a considerable effort to maintain. On top of this, not all software is timezone aware. Tom Scott from Computerphile goes over this in more detail than I can in this post, so I'd recommend checking out his video.

Timezones aren't good at being timezones

The fact that daylight saving time exists is arguably the most significant sign that timezones are arbitrary and meaningless. Not only does it show that people are okay with local time changing, but it also indicates that local time changing does not matter. Both timezones and daylight saving time are notorious for changing for purely political reasons. In Queensland, Australia, daylight saving time was not adopted alongside the rest of the east coast in a political move to win favour from farmers.

Also, numerous geographical areas operate on multiple timezones simultaneously. In the state of Arizona, the Navajo Reservation and the Hopi Reservation disagree on whether to use daylight saving time. A similar disagreement exists between Israeli and Palestinian people. While these groups all occupy the same space, they can operate on different timezones.

Timezones also start to become even more arbitrary the further from the equator you are. In northern Canada, a daylight cycle doesn't exist for a sizable portion of the year. In places like this, syncing up a timezone to whether it is night or day doesn't make sense because it may not change for months.

Overall, these factors all contribute to additional complexity in both software and communication.

What do we do instead?

Abolish Timezones

The solution to this problem is for everyone to use UTC. On UTC, when it's 07:00 in New York, it's 07:00 in Sydney. Now, of course, people don't want to sleep during the day. Local regions should still adapt their "working hours" to whatever makes the most sense for them. However, instead of working from 09:00 to 17:00, someone may work from 24:00 to 08:00.

This idea initially sounds confusing, and while it would take some getting used to, it would overall lower complexity. People would get accustomed to their local times, similar to how some people are currently used to 09:00 being the start of a workday, for example.

Another benefit here is that it allows much more fine-tuned control over local times. One city could decide that the workday starts at 09:00, while one that is a small distance away may decide that 09:15 suits their physical location better. And unlike the mess of timezones, doing this does not matter. 9 o'clock is still 9 o'clock. Your place on the planet does not change time but instead changes the time at which you do things, which is significantly more logical.

On top of this, migration for computer systems is also relatively straightforward. Timezone aware applications are already setup to do this, as they generally store time using a concept such as a Unix timestamp. Rather than converting this timestamp to local time, it would instead just display as UTC. Applications that are not timezone aware also have a simple migration path—migrating all current times to UTC, rather than having to make that existing application timezone aware. Instead of becoming timezone aware, it's able to instead switch to the only timezone.

If you're wondering how software is going to adapt to people having work hours at odd times, you'd be happy to know that software already does. Not everyone works 9 to 5. Many people have jobs at a different time, and many people are shift workers and don't have a consistent schedule. If the software did not support other work hours, it already did not support a large portion of the earth's population.

More and more of the world is adopting UTC as well. Many industries that cannot have timezone-related confusions such as the aviation industry operate on UTC. As time goes on, it wouldn't be a surprise to see multinational corporations adopt UTC across their offices, and eventually leading to a global shift in the way we know the time.

Conclusion

Timezones are confusing and unnecessary. While we likely won't get rid of them in the next few years, getting rid of them in the long term is beneficial and inevitable. As globalisation continues and international borders become less relevant, the arbitrary concept of timezones that we currently use will seem antiquated.

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