Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Hey, Kids, What Time is It?"

Caroline McCarthy's coverage of the BlackBerry e-mail outage for CNET provided an interesting demonstration of how globalization is changing the ways we think about time. This is the paragraph that caught my attention:

This is likely due to a backlog of e-mails stemming from the service outage, which was first reported on the New York metro news site The outage is believed to have originated around 5 p.m. PDT on Tuesday. WNBC then reported that service was resumed around 4 a.m. Wednesday but that problems with a backlog of data were likely.

I initially reacted to the account of activities in New York being given in Pacific Time, but this led me to wonder further about where the story was actually taking place. Presumably the mail servers are managed by Research in Motion, meaning that they are probably in Waterloo, Ontario; and, unless my memory is failing me (again), Waterloo is in the same time zone as New York! The reason, of course, that Ms. McCarthy was using Pacific Time as her "frame of reference" is that the CNET offices are in San Francisco (a healthy walk from where I happen to be writing this); so her "preferred clock" is probably the one in her office (or cubicle or whatever).

This poses an interesting problem of ethnocentrism. CNET probably knows full well that it has readers around the world. The BBC certainly knows this. The strategy they seem to employ at their Web site is to give the local time at the site of the story followed by the GMT time in parentheses. I personally find this a good way to deal with a global context. When I lived in Singapore, I cultivated an instinct for converting to GMT (along with an instinct for converting to Pacific Time, since that was "home"). Sadly, most of the settings I have encountered in the United States have been blissfully unaware of GMT; and I see that as one of the lesser factors that is now putting us so much at odds with the rest of the world. This one is clearly minor compared to so many of the others; but it is one in which tackling ethnocentrism could begin at home, if we really wanted to do something about it!

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