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Time Will Tell
Whether Netizens GeT with the program or not

January 20, 2000
Web posted at 7 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT

As any traveler or pilot will tell you, it's a pain trying to figure out what time is where. It's possibly at its most confusing in early summer in the remote Central Asian outpost of Kashgar. There I was heading across the towering Karakoram Range in a 4WD, ultimately to Peshawar in Pakistan. Timing was essential in this beautiful, desolate place where--if you get your times wrong crossing the Khunjerab Pass that is the border between China and Pakistan--you can miss your military pickup and spend a cold miserable night at 5,000 meters.

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Although my destination was on the same meridian as my embarkation point, Pakistan time was three hours difference. Confusing matters further was Beijing's insistence that all of China operate on the same time zone--its own. But to the eminently practical Uighurs who populate the area, it was pretty dumb to go to work at 6 a.m. just because Beijing said it was 9 a.m.

The world, and my travel schedule, would have been made a lot easier if everyone were on "Internet time."

Internet time is an attempt to standardize global time. On the cross-border, trans-time-zone Internet, time is whatever it is wherever you are, be it midnight or midday. Let's say Steve Case is doing a webcast for analysts to explain the AOL-Time Warner merger. You get an e-mail saying he'll be speaking from New York at 9 a.m. U.S. Eastern Standard Time. Or that he'll be talking "@400" which is the same ACTUAL time all over the world. Of course you'd have to know what @400 was, and that's where it inevitably gets commercial.

The Swiss watch company Swatch is developing watches and adapters that tell the time in "beats." To Swatch, the day is measured in beats, one thousand of them, each measuring a complicated one minute and 24 seconds in old time. To the Swiss, there is no Greenwich Mean Time.

It's an idea that might have appeal to the revolutionary in us, particularly in the developing world which resents being effectively dictated to by a measurement from a former colonial power. (To them it still rankles that Asia is often referred to as the "Far East." East of where? East of Europe.) Who's to say the millennium didn't officially begin until the, er, old clock ticked around in Greenwich?

Naturally enough, the Greenwich timekeepers are fighting back, and they have the considerable support of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They want to create a universal time standard for global electronic commerce: Greenwich Electronic Time, or GeT. So far, the GeT initiative has won the support of several international companies. It claims to have won support from Microsoft, British Telecom, Timex and the DHL parcel delivery group.

Such an initiative, were it widely understood, would certainly have solved my dilemma way up there in the Karakoram. Then again, I could've used an operate-anywhere Iridium mobile phone to solve it. That's another good idea that, so far, hasn't gone anywhere.

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