This entry is part 11 of 39 in the series 40 years online

Time machine of the year cover

If you want to pinpoint the moment when the machine takeover officially began, look back to 1982. That’s when Time Magazine named The Computer as its “machine of the year”, the first time the magazine awarded that honor to an object rather than a person. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic 55 years earlier, it was Lindbergh and not the airplane that became Time’s very first Man of the Year. It was only the computer that made us see that when honoring innovative technology, the honor should go to the technology not the technician.

My great-grandfather, S.J. Woolf, drew Lindbergh’s portrait for that first Man of the Year cover.  In his autobiography, he wrote about returning to New York after his trip to draw Lindbergh in Paris, noting that “[i]t was a Europe which was immeasurably closer to America than the one for which we had set sail two months previously.”  In 1982, Europe became closer still, as the European Unix Network (EUNet) was launched to provide Internet access throughout Western Europe.’
Time man of the year cover

The Internet, even more than the airplane, has made the world a smaller place. But if the Internet has made geographic distance less important, the advent of the real-tie web has made time differences more important.

It may not matter where you are, but it really matters when you are.

This point was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, when a trip to Europe threw me out of sync relative to my usual online conversations. In a world of 24/7 connectivity, moving your orientation on that 24-hour-clock changes who you converse with and how you converse with them.

The capacity to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime means we have to think about time and time zones in a new way. As a West Coast North American, I’m increasingly conscious of how living on Pacific Time affects my relationship to the Interwebs, and by extension, my business and communications strategy. Here are some suggestions on how technology can help you make the most of time zones, and avoid their pitfalls:

  1. Publish your blog posts when your colleagues are all awake and at work. North Americans can maximize the audience for their blog posts by hitting “publish” at about 1:30 PM EST. That catches the East Coasters on their way back from lunch, and the West Coasters when they are getting to their desks. (Hey, if I wanted to be at my desk by 9, I’d live in Toronto.) I realize this particular post violates that rule, but I’ve got to keep to my 40-day schedule.
  2. Schedule tweets for a 12-hour work day. I schedule my tweets in Hootsuite so that they go out beginning at about 7 or 8 am Pacific — the end of the work day in Western Europe, and mid-morning on the East Coast. Then I keep them running up until about 5 or 6 pm so that West Coasters have something to read on the bus ride home. I usually tweeet a fair bit in the evening, so my last tweets of the day (usually around midnight) are visible when European friends are waking up. If I did business in Asia, I would schedule tweets to go out around the clock.
  3. Skip turnaround time. In tight production cycles, we’ve made time zones work in our favour. If I work until midnight or 1 am (as I often do) I can ship documents or site specs to colleagues on the East Coast or in Europe. When they get to their desks my latest is waiting for them. By the time I wake up their work or revisions are waiting for me.
  4. Google an unfamiliar area code before placing a call. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been woken up at 5 am by someone calling us with no idea we’re on the West Coast. East Coasters, please do look before you dial.
  5. Use a time zone converter. To show people how you can now build fully functional iPad apps using HTML 5, I often show people Every Time Zone from the folks at Freckle. But it’s not just an HTML 5 proof of concept: it’s also a handy way to figure out what time it is for the person you are planning to call.
  6. No video calls before 9 am. Yes, I will wake up for a 6 am Skype call. No, you can not see what I look like at that hour.

Even with these hacks, I find time zones to be a lot of hassle. If you travel, you get jet lag. If you stay put, you have to talk to people at absurd hours of the day or night.

That’s why I’d like to propose an alternative: eliminating time zones. We can take the low-tech route and simply vote on which time zone gets to be the new global standard: the world’s lowest-density regions will just have to suck it up and spend most of their waking lives in the dark. Or we can take the high-tech route, and fund some genius to build us a giant light panel that can surround half the globe with artificial light to bring it in sync with our new global time zone.

And the genius who gets that right should definitely be Time’s Person of the Year.

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