A New York Times article about simultaneous UK and US premieres of the new season of “Doctor Who” prompts me to reflect here on the historicity of time zones. The article focuses on how the Internet has changed the BBC/BBC America policy of imposing a delay of several weeks between beginning to air the show in the UK and in the US.
“The BBC’s solution is to compress time and space,” writes Times reporter Brian Stelter. He goes on to comment on how “the Internet overcomes time-zone borders,” noting: “Twitter data in the United States indicates that there are fewer tweets about the West Coast broadcasts of television shows than about East Coast broadcasts.” This effect fascinates me because time zones are to a certain extent a historical construct, and the effect of compressing time differences that Stelter credits to social media marks a historical change in the way we experience distance and its effect on time.
Long ago and far away, when I was taking a US history course as an undergraduate, the professor assigned historian Alan Trachtenberg’s then recent book Incorporating America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (1982). I still remember Trachtenberg’s compelling description of the effect of the expansion of railroads across North America after 1869. Towns on railroad lines flourished, while those the rails passed by faded. Railroads connected people who lived in rural areas to the wider world beyond them. Farmers and their families had access to larger markets, both for selling their crops and for consuming manufactured products. And standardized time zones were established to increase the efficiency of the movement of goods and people that the railroads enabled. New Regulator clocks appeared in train depots. Railroads extended industrial time beyond the walls of factories and across the nation. The Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific times that marked the consumption of popular media over first radio and then television in the twentieth century originated in train schedules and the need they created for standardized time.
And if the time zones that marked the availability of objects of mass culture in the twentieth century had their origins in the technologies that dictated train schedules in the nineteenth, the compression of time and space in the twenty-first century also has its origins in technological innovations. There are of course things about the relationship between time and space that the Internet cannot change. Those of us who exist physically in the Western Hemisphere will always encounter some challenges if we seek to watch sporting events as they happen in Asia or Australia or even Europe for that matter. And even the so-called simultaneous release of new episodes of “Doctor Who” will occur not at the exact same time but on the same day, as Stelter notes in his article.
I cannot imagine I am either the first or the only person to notice a relationship between the effects of technology on contemporary changes in our experiences of time and space to those that happened in the past. What would you add to the reference list on the topic that I have started below?
Stelter, Brian. “New Time Warp for Doctor Who,” New York Times, April 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/23/arts/television/doctor-who-us-premiere-will-not-be-delayed.html.
Trachtenberg, Alan. Incorporating America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.