A Coming Crisis of Temporalities? Disruptions of Atomic and Solar Time

In their chapter Time and Space of the edited volume Critical Terms for Media Studies (2010), Mitchell and Hansen address a fundamental question that has puzzled philosophers and media thinkers since Ancient Greece: can time and space “be defined objectively, without recourse to human experience and distinctively human modes of perception and understanding” (p. 106)? According to Aristotle, they explain, “there is no time that is not measured […], which is equally to say that there is no time in itself, there are only temporalizations, technico-empirical specifications of time” (p. 111). Technological development, more specifically advances in the accuracy of measurement and tracking of time, introduces new temporalities which in turn disrupt those already present. The atomic clock, introduced in 1967, has been such a technological development, and has arguably disrupted existing temporalities like no other technology before then. In this short essay, we will discuss this disruption, leading to a potential scission between the time displayed on our clocks and the cycle of the sun. Is such a fundamental shift even conceivable?

The advent of the atomic clock

Dylan Mulvin, in his (as of yet unpublished) article The Uses of High-Resolution Time, explores the multiple ramifications of our increasing dependence on atomic clocks. Based on the very stable vibrations of the cesium 133 atom, atomic clocks provided, with their signals broadcast in a large, global network of timeservers, a fixed point upon which a media infrastructure of unprecedented accuracy could be built. When atomic clocks were invented, they were one instrument among many used by astronomers to verify their observations of celestial events. The second was based at the time on manual calculations regarding the observation of the orbital motions of the earth and moon. But, as explains Mulvin, what was first meant as a simple verification tool “soon usurped the measurement it was created to verify … [as the] the measurement of time was swifter, easier, and more consistent when based on atomic vibrations … [with the] added bonus of excluding the subjective errors of observation and calculation (pp. 15–16). Atomic clocks today lose a second only once in every thirty million years, which is ‘accurate beyond any scale of humanity’s past or future’ (p. 17). This unprecedented accuracy lends itself to what Mulvin names a ‘high-resolution’ of time measurement, which means a measurement in incredibly small increments. This high resolution, coupled with a networked synchronicity, allowed the development of technologies now deeply embedded in the contemporary infrastructure of cities, most notably the GPS and high-frequency financial trading.

With the GPS, where the calculation of geolocation depends on the reception of signals flowing between the earth’s surface and a network of satellites thousands of kilometers above, ‘a miscalculation of a nanosecond (one billionth of one second) is equivalent to at least twelve inches in mapped space’ (p. 19). This technology, now indispensable to global navigation and transportation, simply cannot exist without such a high level of accuracy. Perhaps even more importantly, the high resolution of atomic time is also essential to high-frequency financial trading, which relies on automated, algorithmic arbitrage, that is ‘the buying and selling [of] financial products in tiny fractions of a second,’ based on “the measurement of difference in the prices of commodities over time and space” (p. 20). High-frequency trading has largely replaced human intervention in the global financial market. A recent article in the New York Times stated in January 2016 that the last floor seats of the New York Stock Exchange occupied by an actual human team of “market makers,’ responsible for setting the opening and closing prices for stocks, had been sold to Global Trading Systems, a computerized trading firm (Popper 2016). Transactions are now generated by algorithms, and humans are relegated to a simple monitoring role, stepping in if, and only if, anything goes wrong. As the author concludes, ”the high-frequency trading takeover of the New York Stock Exchange is now essentially complete.”

Yasushi Kanno / AP

The 2015 leap second (Yasushi Kanno / AP)

The “leap second” controversy

This increasing reliance on the atomic temporal standard rapidly created a tension with civil, solar-based time. Whereas before the atomic clock time was measured according to celestial movement, in a similar manner to the way humans have come to expect noon to correspond with the sun being at its highest position in the sky for hundred of years now, the resonance of the cesium atom has no relationship to the earth’s or the moon’s orbit whatsoever. In the words of John Durham Peters, “Days, months, and years occur in incommensurable units: one complete lunar cycle (synodic month) is about 2,953,059 days; and one solar year, from one vernal equinox to the next, is about 36,524,219 days. Accuracy and convenience are often at odds in timekeeping, as in all forms of measurement” (p. 183). Other phenomena such as earthquakes and the gravitational pull on the oceans further complicate the situation, making celestial time highly unstable and unpredictable, especially compared to the almost perfect reliability of the atomic clock. To keep civil and atomic time relatively synchronized, with noon corresponding to the middle of the day, “leap seconds” have been continuously added since 1972. A Paris-based organization called the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), has been tasked with monitoring the earth’s rotation and recommending, when needed, the addition of a leap second to the network of atomic clocks, an event which already occurred twenty-five times (Metz 2015).

That process is very costly, and has progressively become highly controversial, as an increasingly vocal group of scientists and engineers advocates for the elimination of those “leap seconds” and the progressive separation atomic time from solar time. As Mulvin explains,’ in practice, inserting a leap second requires a manual (literally, by hand) switching of the national timeservers around the globe… The entire nuclear deterrent system in the United States is supposedly turned to a ‘special mode’ for one hour before and after each leap second, which costs in the ‘two-digit million dollars.’ Consequently, the cost of reprograming computers and networks and the threatening cost of unforeseen physical, financial, or military disaster make leap seconds an increasingly untenable practice” (p. 25). As we have emphasized, synchronized atomic time is deeply embedded in contemporary navigation, trading and communication infrastructure. Computers all over the world often run ancient and unmaintained code, which reacts unpredictably to leap seconds adjustments. Even if businesses are better prepared to them today than they were a few years ago, “almost every time we have a leap second, we find something,” according to Linus Torvalds, the software engineer who oversees the Linux operating system (Metz 2015). Why not follow the suggestion of Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for time services at the US Naval Observatory, and wait for approximately 700 years to then add thirty minutes to the clock at once, “rather than to endure annoyance by a thousand leap seconds” (idem)? Does cesium-based temporal infrastructure, as suggested by Mulvin in The Uses of High-Resolution Time, really “[threathen] to decouple the calculation of time from the human experience of daylight” (p. 1)? Could this separation of solar-based, civil time from atomic time, so far systematically rejected by governments, be finally approved in the near future?

As opposed to the numerous engineers and scientists against the addition of leap seconds to atomic time, such as Matsakis for whom in doing so we are “confusing the measurement of time with time” (Metz 2015), we argue that the progressive synchronization of solar time with atomic time is essential. Time is not merely an instrument of synchronization for the new geolocalization and trading technologies. The costs of adjusting the clocks of the US nuclear deterrent system and of the world’s stock exchanges for instance, although they certainly amount to millions of dollars, are dwarfed by the value of living in unison with what has always been, as human beings, a keystone of our social system. Celestial time is very deeply embedded in human society—historically, culturally, politically and even biologically. To even consider such a major transformation of human temporality because of a slight financial annoyance and the protestations of a few vocal, overworked engineers, is rather shortsighted. It fails to understand the fact that such time adjustments, when observed in the larger perspective of human history, have always occurred and will always occur. Time is an intrinsically negotiated entity, between individuals, institutions and their technologies of measurement.

The deeply anchored temporality of celestial elements

As John Durham Peters so eloquently explores in his recent book The Marvelous Clouds—Towards an Elemental Philosophy of Media, the sky has always been very influential in the development of human society. “The best place to find a culture’s values … the sky is a compass, calendar, and clock if you know how to read it” (p. 169). It is in the sky that originated both duration and opportunity, the two human temporal perspectives: chronos, the ancient study of celestial elements and their cyclical, constant movement, on which our days, weeks and years are based; and kairos, referring to the highly variable weather of “rain, hail, thunder and lightning, temperature, and clouds,” and linked to the relatively recent probabilistic science of meteorology and the instant of the present, as displayed on the clock (p. 166). “Two natural facts,” he explains, “the daily rotation of the earth and the annual revolution of the earth about the sun, shape all calendrical systems. The monthly cycle of the moon is found in most, and other celestial resources include solstices and equinoxes, even eclipses and comets. Guiding calendar—making was the religious and political desire to synchronize everyday life to the motions of the celestial spheres—to do consciously what potatoes and oysters do instinctively” (p. 182).

A calendar system based on the movement of celestial elements may be a fundamental feature of any human society, but in a wider perspective all life on earth is biologically linked to the alternation between day and night, as well as to the cycle of the seasons. What Peters names biocalendars governs all life, from the single-celled animal up to us humans. “The pulse of alternating days and nights seems at some level to be built into living beings… Humans have long-term bioperiodicities for puberty, menopause, and aging, and daily ones for hunger and sleep (all sensitive to environmental triggers). The circa-mensual cycle in humans or the annual migrations of birds, fish, bats, and monarch butterflies require no aid from calculated calendrics. Many of the same rhythms that shape our calendars are also written into our physiology” (p. 178). A similar idea was expressed thirty years earlier by Henri Lefebre in his essay Le projet rythmanalytique (The Rythmanatical Project): any analysis of human temporality must begin inside the body, this “bundle of rhythms” (p. 80). And “furthermore, this human body is the site and place of interaction between the biological, the physiological (nature) and the social (often called the cultural), where each of these levels, each of these dimensions, has its own specificity, therefore its space-time: its rhythm” (p. 81).

Time, as much as it relies on the movement of celestial elements and biological rhythms, is also inevitably the locus of intense political negotiation. “Calendars are preeminent signals of identity, and instruments of institutional control. Whoever sets the time rules the society” (Peters, p. 189). Between the universal and ineluctable cycles of the days and of the years exists a large gray area in which religious and political leaders have historically always attempted to establish their own rules. Some communities have chosen to follow the sun in their calendar; others, the moon; others still mostly rely on cycles of human activity. The Muslim calendar for instance, made of either 354 or 355 days and twelve months, follows the lunar cycle. The Nuer of Sudan, as famously reported by the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, follow a calendar which corresponds both to the alternation of wet and dry seasons, and to a system of “age-sets” cohorts of men, determined by initiation ritual. As Peters humorously points out, the organization of time is so intrinsically political that “quirks of the Roman world live on in the twenty-first century,” the months of July and August still referring to (very) long-deceased Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus (p. 194). Closer to our era—and to the leap second debate—the decoupling of solar and atomic time would in a way symbolize the end of England’s supremacy over the world time-zone system based on Greenwich Mean Time, a role the country will certainly not easily relinquish. The GMT-centered international grid of time zones, which Peters astutely refers to as “an index of empire,” is indeed based on the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.

This anecdotal fact about ancient Rome also points to another important characteristic of human temporalities: they are strongly subject to inertia. Where Caesar and Augustus succeeded in leaving their mark, both the French revolutionaries and the early Soviet Union failed in their experiments to change the seven-day week (Peters, p. 195). Nearly two thousand years after the advent of the Julian calendar—again, named after Caesar—and more than 400 years after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar still in use today, the current calendar has indeed become deeply entrenched. Peters argues that the seven-day week, of even older and even “mysterious” origins, “has become second nature for anyone reading this book, squirming its way into our biochronologies” (idem). With solar time being historically, culturally, politically and even biologically anchored to human temporality, how could anyone argue that a de-synchronization of the activities of communication, navigation and trade from the sun is even possible, let alone a beneficial enterprise?

One could argue, still, that the financial markets characterized today by high-frequency algorithmic trading are so important, and their leaders so powerful, as to exert enough influence to transform our civil temporal benchmark towards the perfect stability of atomic time. Hasn’t history already demonstrated how time organization invariably follows the powers of the day? Harold Innis, in his book The Bias of Communication, details the transition from the division of time imposed by the church, to the one imposed by the industry. “Weakening of control over time by the church and limited control by the state left a vacuum which was occupied by industry. The church, particularly in the monastic orders, had introduced a rigorous division of time for services following the spread in the use of clocks and the bell. But industrial demands meant fresh emphasis on the ceaseless flow of mechanical time… Demands for the reform of the calendar and daylight saving schemes follow the impact of industrialism” (p. 74). As soon as 1934, Lewis Mumford was defining in his seminal Technics and Civilization the close bond between capitalism and a new emerging temporality: “One abstraction re-enforced the other. Time was money: money was power: power required the furtherance of trade and production: production was diverted from the channels of direct use into those of remote trade, toward the acquisition of larger profits, with a larger margin for new capital expenditures for wars, foreign conquests, mines, productive enterprises … more money and more power” (p. 24). The previously cited Wired article titled We should drop the leap second before it causes real damage from June 2015 began by stating how potentially catastrophic the timing of the latest leap second was … for world finance. “It arrives today, June 30, the same day that Greece is due to repay its 2010 bailout loan to the International Monetary Fund. In all likelihood, Greece will default on its loan, shaking the worldwide financial markets. And then the leap second will appear—a 61st second in the last minute of the day, Coordinated Universal Time—tossing a curve ball at all those computers that drive the worldwide financial markets.” Is it not reasonable to conceive of financial markets and high-frequency trading as the latest site of power influencing human temporalities? To acknowledge their potential leverage towards a possible anchoring of civil time to atomic time, increasingly away from the solar standard?

A new God, powered by the sun

Such reasoning could indeed be conceivable, if only God itself, in the words of John Durham Peters, had not been hardwired to the sun in the latest five years. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, “famously suggested that ‘the perfect search engine would be the mind of God’”, marking the company’s membership “in a distinguished family of religious media … [whose] project is to build a temple to meet the sky, anchor remembrance, and serve as a canon of all knowledge” (Peters, p. 333). Google occupies a special, “emblematic” position as a media corporation, according to Peters. It exemplifies a general “media [shift] from mass media to cultural techniques”; a transition away from the production of leisure and towards the provision of “organizational services such as search, mail, maps, document storage, calendars, translation and reference” (p. 325). As “the leading logistical gateway to the online universe,” Google arguably represents, together with its competitors Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, an industry of far greater influence than financial trading. These companies collectively own the electronic infrastructure where not only financial transactions, but practically all communications are increasingly led. The 2014 report Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet by Greenpeace established that we can expect “the global online population [to reach] 50% of the world’s projected population, moving from 2.3 billion in 2012 to an expected 3.6 billion people by 2017” (p. 5). In addition, “electricity demand is expected to increase by 60% or more by 2020 as the online population and our reliance on the internet steadily increase” (idem). In that context, many major “cloud” brands, like Google, Apple and Facebook, have publicly committed to a goal of powering their data centers with 100% renewable energy, which most often means relying on solar and wind power. Even more surprisingly, Apple recently announced in March that already 93% of their worldwide facilities entirely rely on sustainable sources of electricity (Fehrenbacher 2016).

 Apple's Fort Churchill solar farm in Yerington, Nevada (Fortune / Katie Fehrenbacher)

Apple’s Fort Churchill solar farm in Yerington, Nevada (Fortune / Katie Fehrenbacher)

This transition is motivated first by the new comparatively affordable price of solar photovoltaic systems. Their prices have dramatically fallen in recent years, having been divided by three in most markets between 2008 and 2014 (IEA 2014). The cost of the silicon photovoltaic cells themselves, per watt of energy produced, has also dramatically diminished, from $76.67 in 1977 to $0.74 in 2013 (Bloomberg 2014).


Solar power is not only more affordable than ever, it also ensures the stability of that price for years to come, as tech companies sign decades-long contracts with sustainable energy providers, or simply build their own solar farms as Apple did in Nevada. Solar energy, in contrast to most other energy sources, is not a fuel but a technology. As its efficiency improves and its popularity rises, prices can only decrease. The sun shines for free. Last but not least, sustainability has also become an inescapable issue of company image in recent years, as the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt not only in poor developing countries, but also locally in the United States. The customers as well as the Silicon Valley employees of those multinational technology corporations are conscious of the global climate issue, and both push the companies towards environmentally friendly energy solutions. As explained by John Collins, Director of Data Centers at a power company, “Ten years ago the focus was really on trying to improve the reliability of data centers and getting that science down. Now they are focusing more on sustainability” (Maza 2016). Although it is true that technology companies are at the forefront of sustainable energy procurement in the United States—Google being the largest player, followed by Amazon and then Facebook—the phenomenon has also been generally “taking off” in the American economy since 2012. According to the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook 2016, “the amount of clean energy procured roughly doubled from 2013 to 2014, and nearly did so again in 2015” (p. 37).

Renewable by corporations

Sustainable Energy in America Factbook 2016, p. 37

The fact that solar and wind energy now widely supply, directly or indirectly, most of the energy needs of Google and Facebook’s datacenters is especially important when considering the emerging media studies approach of geological materialism, as developed by scholars such as Jussi Parikka. In an extension to Kittler’s approach of media materialism, concerned with the technological networks carrying communications, Parikka in turn explores in his book A Geology of Media “the circuits that enable hardware: the environmental contexts, questions of energy consumption … and electronic waste” (p. 4). Interestingly, the case of Google we just mentioned appears to perfectly fit Parikka’s argument regarding the presence of a “double bind between the relations of media technologies and the earth” (p. 12). As services such as Google Maps mediate our appreciation of natural resources, they themselves emerge from those resources—sun, wind, water—which enables their very existence in powering the datacenters. Datacenters, some being already 100% powered with sustainable energy, are more than “entangled” with nature; they participate in its course. Another closing consideration: Shannon Mattern’s advice in the application of the conceptual model of path dependency (2015) appears to be relevant to the recent development of solar energy, as it emerged in the same areas most affected by the desertification caused in part by the preceding media infrastructure’s reliance on fossil fuels, for instance in California. What better place to install a photovoltaic farm than in a desert?

To recapitulate the argument: at the very moment when solar time appeared condemned to be left behind by the new, atomic-based media infrastructure, it actually became even more deeply embedded than it ever was, hardwired through energy supply. Solar time has always been, and continues to be, strongly relevant to the organization of human life. The recent shift towards solar energy, led by the telecommunication giants in charge of the new data-driven communication system, indicates that it will remain so for a long time to come.

Works cited

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (2016). “Sustainable Energy in America Factbook”. Retrieved at http://www.bcse.org/sustainableenergyfactbook

Fehrenbacher, Katie. (March 23, 2016). “How Apple’s Solar Strategy Evolved”. Retrieved at http://fortune.com/2016/03/23/apple-clean-energy-evolution/

Greenpeace (April 2014). “Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet”. Retrieved at http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/click-clean

Innis, Harold A. (1992). The bias of communication. With a new introduction by Paul Heyer & David Crowley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

International Energy Agency (2014). “Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy”. Retrieved at https://www.iea.org/roadmaps

Lefebvre, Henri (2004). Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. A&C Black.

Mattern, Shannon (2015). “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure,” in: Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press.

Maza, Cristina (March 30, 2016). “How America’s big data centers are going green”. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved at http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy/2016/0330/How-America-s-big-data-centers-are-going-green

Metz, Cade (June 30, 2015). “We Should Drop the Leap Second Before It Causes Real Damage”. Wired. Retrieved at http://www.wired.com/2015/06/just-drop-leap-second-unnecessary/

Mitchell, W. J. T. and Mark B. N. Hansen (2010). “Time and Space,” in: Critical Terms for Media Studies. Critical Terms for Media Studies. University of Chicago Press, 101–113.

Mulvin, Dylan. “A Remedy for Evils: The Uses of High-Resolution Time” (unpublished draft).

Mumford, Lewis (2010). Technics and Civilization. Edited by Langdon Winner. University of Chicago Press.

Parikka, Jussi (2015). A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press.

Peters, John Durham (2015). The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. University of Chicago Press.

Popper, Nathaniel (January 26, 2016). “Computerized Trading Firm to Take Over Barclays’s N.Y.S.E. Seats”. The New York Times. Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/27/business/dealbook/computerized-trading-firm-to-take-over-barclayss-nyse-seats.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FHigh-Frequency%20Trading

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