Last year the world turned in on itself. From Brexit to the US election, countries around the world rejected globalization and chose to focus on themselves and their own. But globalization isn’t something you can turn off at will—at least not without altering the fabric of modern civilization. We are, today, more dependent on each other than ever before and any attempt to move further apart will literally set us back decades.
And at the heart of all this, is time.
In medieval Europe, each village had a single, usually imprecise clock, on top of a high tower in the town square. This was the only timepiece in the entire village, and it made no difference that it told time differently from the clock tower in the next village because, everyone worked at their own pace—producing entire products on their own, without the need to coordinate with anyone else.
Today, mobile telecommunication networks use multiplexing to maximize bandwidth, combining multiple voice signals into one and carrying them across their network till they can be separated and recombined into the intelligible sounds that emanate from the receiver’s device. In order for this to work, each telecom switch must be precisely synchronized with every other as an error of even ten microseconds can have catastrophic consequences across the network.
Another example of this is the SCADA systems that modern electricity grids use to monitor fluctuations on the network. As grids grow more complex they, in an attempt to avoid the sorts of massive grid failures that North India experienced in 2012, have begun to deploy synchrophasor technology that gathers live data from every node on the network and analyses it in real-time. Synchrophasor need to be precisely synchronised—if the timing of even one synchrophasor is off by more than 26.5 microseconds, the entire grid could collapse.
Most modern technologies depend on having a single precise system of telling time—that works everywhere. The technology that most of the world turns to for this is GPS—the global network of satellites that we associate, more commonly, with navigation. GPS is the most accurate, perfectly synchronized timing system on the planet—that is, to boot, accessible, free of cost, from anywhere on earth.
Over the years this time-keeping feature of GPS satellites has been incorporated into almost every critical technology infrastructure we know—from telecommunication systems to global power grids and complex financial trading networks. Although no one really talks about it in these terms, GPS is probably modern civilization’s single point of failure. It is worth mentioning, at this point, that GPS is exclusively owned and operated by the US Department of Defence which spends over a billion dollars a year keeping the satellites in the sky and the monitoring stations around the globe, functioning.
As the new US administration makes it increasingly clear that it is going to put America first, there is widespread consternation about the increasing distance that the US seems to be placing between itself and the nations of the world. But as tempers rise, we’d do well to remember that much of modern life depends on the continued benevolence of the US in maintaining and improving GPS—and in keeping it accessible from everywhere, by everyone, for free.