Humans think about the underlying systems we use for keeping time in much the same way that fish think about water. We simply don’t.

The numbers on the clock are a constant reminder of our daily schedule, where we should be, and what happens next. We eat, sleep, and breathe according to a framework of time established by ancient humans.

Without ever stopping to ask “why,” we have built our entire social structure for planet earth around some guy saying, “Hey, let’s do it this way.”

We now have the ability to shift from a system-centric approach to something with a far better human interface. The convergence of atomic clock technology, GPS, and an increasingly pervasive Internet will give us the tools we need to reinvent our core systems thinking about time.

In the following narrative, I will introduce you to a series of new concepts including Circadian Time, Continuous Daybreak, Micro-Banding Time Zones, and Virtual Moments.

This is far more than a Mensa exercise. As we explore these options we can begin to uncover some of the true imperatives for our human-to-time relationship.

A Clock-Centric World

Why do we hold meetings at 3:15 pm in the afternoon? The short answer is “because we can.”

Time, as we know it today, was invented by ancient humanity as a way of organizing the day. What began as tools for charting months, days, and years eventually turned into devices for mapping hours, minutes, and seconds.

The first mechanical clock movements began showing up in 13th century Europe, predating other key inventions such as the piano and the printing press. Spring powered clocks showed up in the 15th century and over time evolved into pocket watches a couple hundred years later.

Patek Phillipe created the first wristwatch in 1868, but it wouldn’t be until the 1920s when they became popular, setting the stage for a far more time-centric lifestyle.

In 1959 Seiko started developing their first quartz wristwatch and by the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, they had a working prototype.

The first atomic clock was built in 1949 at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. It was less accurate than quartz clocks, but served to demonstrate the concept.

Today, atomic clocks and wrist watches have become very affordable, and by extension, quite ubiquitous. This technology has set the stage for new innovations which will push our notion of time far beyond anything we’ve considered so far.

History of Daylight Savings Time

In 1784 when he was working as an American diplomat in France, Ben Franklin published a letter suggesting that people in Paris could save money on candles by waking earlier to use morning sunlight. He went on to propose taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. The idea didn’t go very far.

In 1895, New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson proposed the idea of a 2-hour daylight shift to the Wellington Philosophical Society so he could have more time to collect and study insects during the evening hours. This was followed up 3 years later with a paper describing the benefits.

Most people, however, attribute the invention of daylight savings time to William Willett, a prominent British outdoorsman who noticed that many Londoners slept through a large part of their summer days. As an avid golfer, Willett was frustrated when he couldn’t complete a game simply because of the shortened evening hours. His solution was to advance the clock during the summer months, written up in a paper which he published in 1905.

But the idea went nowhere until war broke out. Starting on April 30, 1916, Germany and its World War I allies were the first to use daylight savings time as a way to save on coal during wartime. In short order, Britain, most of its allies, and other European countries soon followed suit. Russia and a few others waited until the next year and the United States formally adopted it in 1918. Since then, the world has seen it evolve with multiple changes and repeals along the way.

History of Time Zones

Time zones, as we know them today, are all oriented around Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). GMT starts at 0 degree longitude – the Prime Meridian.

Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1675 when the Royal Observatory was constructed to help English ship captains determine longitude at sea. During that time, each town’s local clock was calibrated so 12:00 noon would coincide with the sun at its peak – high noon. As a result, every village had a slightly different time.

The first time zone in the world was established by British railway companies in 1847, with GMT certified by portable chronometers. This quickly became known as Railway Time. Later, other railroads around the world began using their own brand of time zones to better manage their own operations..

In 1879, a Canadian, Sir Sandford Fleming, first proposed a worldwide system for time zones. He promoted this concept at several international conferences including the International Meridian Conference held in 1884.

The International Meridian Conference was put together at the request of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur in October 1884 in Washington, D.C. The primary objective was to officially determine the Prime Meridian of the world.

The conference did not adopt Fleming’s time zones because they felt it was an issue outside of their mandate. However, they did adopt a universal day of 24 hours beginning at Greenwich midnight. Beyond that, however, they were reluctant to interfere with other time-related issues they felt were better decided by local people in local communities.

The notion of a 24-hour day had been understood and heavily used for many centuries, but it didn’t become a global standard until 1884.

Motivations behind Daylight Savings Time

When clocks became widely used during the industrial age, people were forced to orient their lives around the specific start and stop times of their jobs. Regardless of how sunny or dark it was, the workday demanded people comply with the numbers on the clock.

As in the tradition of sundials, clocks today are oriented around 12:00 noon, the median point of daylight hours, when the sun is highest in the sky. With time zones, this varies a bit from one side of a time zone to the other, but life on planet earth has been oriented around the “center point of daylight.”

With 12:00 noon occurring when the sun is at its highest, the times for sunrise and sunset are constantly moving.

As soon as clocks became a permanent fixture in human life, the 12-noon orientation became problematic because valuable daylight hours would be lost on the front and back end of work schedules based on the seasonal length of days.

Circadian Time

The idea of Circadian Time started with me asking the question, “What if our clocks were oriented around sunrise instead of 12:00 noon?”

What if we started every day with sunrise occurring at exactly 6:00 am?

Virtually everything on earth works according to our natural circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms involve the patterns, movements, and cycles stemming from the light and dark cycles of the earth’s rotation.

Circadian Time is based on the notion that our system for timekeeping no longer has to be the rigidly pulsing overlord of humanity that constantly demands compliance. Rather, our time systems need to be oriented around people, molded to the natural flow of humanity, creating fluid structures rather than our current, abrasively rigid ones.

As I explain the following three concepts – continuous daybreak, micro-banding time zones, and virtual moments – some of the opportunities will become clearer.

Continuous Daybreak

Working with self-correcting atomic clocks, having sunrise being recalibrated on a daily basis, how would society change if we reoriented life around daybreak, with the end of day doing all the fluctuating?

In Colorado, where I live, sunrise fluctuates by nearly 3 hours between the longest days of summer and the shortest days of winter. If we were to reorient our days so sunrise would happened consistently at 6:00 am every day, then sunset would fluctuate twice as much as normal, close to 6 hours between seasons.

Admittedly, it would also be possible to orient all of our days around a 9:00 pm sunset, and push all of the daylight variations onto the beginning of each day, and I’m sure some people would prefer that option. However, there is something critically important about beginning each day with the rising sun.

Perhaps a better way to orient our time structure would be to make the moment of sunrise “zero time” with our days building through a natural progression of our current 24-hour day. As an example, since people wake most naturally when the sun rises, work would start 1-hour later at 1:00, ending at 9:00 or 10:00.

Since I’m already introducing several new concepts, I won’t get into the lunacy of using 12-hour clocks to manage our 24-hour days. Nor will I attempt to think through the merits of metric time where we convert to 10-hour days.

Instead, my goal is to focus on using sunrise as the starting point for every day, and this concept is strengthened when we consider moving towards Micro-Banding Time Zones.

Micro-Banding Time Zones

Currently our time zones are structured around a 1-hour wide geographical bands that runs from the North to the South Pole.

So what if our current 1-hour time zones were reduced from broad well-defined pieces of geography with exacting borders, to 1-second time zones based on virtual longitudinal lines.

If we add GPS technology to our existing atomic clocks, then wherever we travel, our clocks will automatically adjust to the local time.

At first blush, this sounds very confusing. With 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day, that would mean we would have a total of 86,400 time zones. Yes, a crazy big number to work with.

But keep in mind that this is a system oriented around humans, not clocks and time zones.

Today if we schedule a call between someone in New York and San Francisco, we have to work through the mental calculation of compensating for the time zone differential between these two cities. When talking to people on the other side of the earth it becomes even more problematic with some time zones being 30 minutes of even 15 minutes out of sync with the rest of the world.

Technology could easily be developed to work with a system of 86,400 time zones, and that is where the concept of Virtual Moments comes into play.

Virtual Moments

People to people interactions are only important to the parties involved. The timing of a phone call, web conference, or virtual meeting can easily be oriented around the time that works best for the person instigating the call.

Any link between two people can instantly compensate for the time differential.

Scheduling physical meetings and conferences will always take place in local time, with planning and preparation leading up to the event automatically calculated into the planning cycle.

All timing will still be based on some derivative of GMT, but with far more gradients to consider and far more dependency on technological assistance. But what appears on the surface to be a massively confusing system will suddenly seem totally natural to everyone immersed in it.

We suddenly become far less reliant on clocks and far more reliant on the natural order of the day.

Closing Thoughts

I have no naive expectations that people will want to quickly throw in the towel on our current system for time, clocks, and time zones. We can’t even decide what to do with daylight savings time, let alone invoke some massive new global change to rewrite the course of history.

That said, every avalanche begins with the movement of a single snowflake, and my hope in writing this is to move a snowflake.

For people on ships, the context of time zones becomes meaningless, with an orientation of “ship time” having far more relevance to those onboard. As a way to experiment with the idea of Circadian Time, it may work well to use a floating community onboard a ship to test the theories of new social structures that will result from reinventing time.

My hope is that others will find inspiration from these ideas and add to the thinking. I’m sure many of my ideas are wrong and, at best, very primitive. But our current system for timekeeping is also very primitive.

My sense is that our current clock-centric systems are a major contributor to human health problems. We live shorter lives, produce less, and are involved in more high-stress and high-anxiety situations simply because of our rigid dedication to a time system that governs every single moment of our lives.

As a species, we can never know where our true potential lies until we confront the systems that keep us tied to the past. And that is where the true adventure will begin.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

31 Responses to “Reinventing Humanity by Reinventing Time”

Comments List

  1. Mark Turner

    There are several problems overlooked in this proposal that make it impractical, including the effects of latitude, day of the year, elevation, and local topography. Latitude Fort Collins has a different sunrise time than Denver, even though we share the same longitude. You will end up with a time zone for every single location, as well as some very strange effects as you approach the poles and the latitude is greater than 66.5 degrees. Day of the Year Each day is not exactly 24 hours long since the earth's orbit around the sun is an ellipse. (Kepler's laws) The variation can be as much as 16 minutes (23:44 to 24:16). Elevation Elevation also plays an important part. Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine is known to be the first place in the continental US to see the sun. It seems insane that Booth Bay Harbor, just a few miles away is in a different time zone. Local Topography What is sunrise? If I live in a deep valley, the sun may never get above my horizon. Do I forfeit the day?
    • admin

      Mark, Thanks for your analysis. I'm sure there are plenty of rough edges to what I've proposed. And looking from the outside in, it comes across as a radical shift from the way we do things today. But even is we just made one change, shifting from a "high noon" orientation to a "sunrise" orientation, that alone would radically improve how the world functions. I may be wrong, but without testing some new assumptions, we'll never know. Tom
  2. scott flores

    Hi Thomas, I would also apply this idea to education, I've been fighting to eliminate "seat time" to earn K-12 credits and replace it with competency based credits. Much too radical for our public schools today though. Thanks, Scott
    • admin

      Thanks Scott, I was actually thinking about the great difficulty teenagers have in getting up in the morning when I wrote this. I'm not sure if anyone has tested this, but my guess is that far fewer kids are late for school when sunrise is earlier than later. Tom
  3. <a href='http://Facebook' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gentry</a>

    You have a great mind. Brilliant article. It really gets my... one last neron jet legg fried brain excited. Zoolu Timed, Doe
  4. Mark Turner

    Day of Year It gets worse. The relative difference between locations would change each day. In the summer, Fort Collins will be ahead of Denver and in the winter, Fort Collins will be behind.
  5. Joe Tripp

    There are several problems with orienting the day around when the sun rises. Many of them are the same as the problems resulting from a time system based around 12:00 noon. For instance, if work were to begin one hour after sunrise and last until 10 hours after sunrise, but the sun only shined for seven hours in a day. Workers would have the impression that they were working three hours into the night, greatly reducing their happiness and their productivity during those hours of darkness. At the same time, during the summer (when the days are longer) workers would leave work with hours of sunlight to spare. Here, I present an alternative. What if work were to start an hour after sunrise and end an hour before sunset. Of course there are several problems with this idea as well, the biggest one being that workers would be expected to work very long hours during some parts of the year and very short hours during other parts of the year. This would lead to budgeting difficulties for families and businesses alike, but yearly budgets would remain roughly the same. Another problem with this system is that every latitude has a different range for how long the sun shines in a day. The imbalance in productivity depending on latitude would cause massive problems in the global economy. Although our 12:00 noon centered way of looking at time has problems, I fail to see how changing what the day is centered around eliminates any of them. A system of time centered around the sunrise still would command people's lives in the same way our current time system does.
    • admin

      Joe, Thanks for your input. An interesting idea for sure, but as with my approach, not likely to work in Alaska where some months the sun never rises and other months the sun never sets. What I am most impressed with is your ability to look at this concept from many angles and develop some alternative approaches. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but at the same time, I'm pretty sure our existing systems for leveraging time are less than optimal. We need to continually ask, "is there something better?" I think there is. Tom
  6. Bill

    Perhaps we should eat when hungry, rest when exhausted, sleep when tired, wake when rested, work when productive, commute (if at all) when the traffic is lightest, and go to a restaurant when it's not jammed full? Hmmmm, an event-driven world? The universe beat us to it. As usual, the nature provides an excellent model.
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dan M</a>

    I love these longer articles that you are able to write.. If Daylight savings was able to provide a substantial savings in energy, I wonder what an improvement in energy savings would be if the day was oriented around sunrise.. Rather than adjusting the day twice a year, you'll be adjusting everyday..
  8. Chase M

    Did anyone else notice the picture at the top that said,"Circadian Time." He then goes on to say that clocks and daily frameworks are products of the ancients. Circadian rythms anyone? Not to mention the amount of daylight (depending on the season) will also depend on the latitude. The time at which people wake up is also sociatally affected. It is unlikely that differences in the time at which people do things will have major effects on their health; this is dependent on the amount (as well as the consisyency) of sleep they get. It could also be assumed that different people are supposed to get different amounts of sleep in different times of the year (think indigenous peoples of the far north/south).
    • admin

      I'm not exactly sure of the point you're trying to make, but each of us is driven by an internal “circadian” clock, and the “rhythms” of this clock have been widely observed in plants and animals. Many of our human tendencies are based on our natural circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms involve the patterns, movements, and cycles stemming from the light and dark cycles of the earth’s rotation. According to Wikipedia: “Although circadian rhythms are endogenous ("built-in", self-sustained), they are adjusted (entrained) to the local environment by external cues called zeitgebers, commonly the most important of which is daylight.”
  9. pancake todd

    I realize there must have been alot of time and meaning put into your article, but you have to realize time as it is today is actually very well planned out. I can tell you have never been out of the country. There are places that have constant 24 hours of sunlight or darkness depending on the season. Good thinking but you might want to expand on your research. My advice is think of time as being linear. It is on a 24 hour rotation but never the same day.
    • admin

      To Pancake Todd, Thanks for your comments. I've actually traveled the world extensively and am well aware of places near the poles where sunlight shifts from seasons of extreme daylight to extreme darkness. But this is not where the majority of the world's populations live. The question boils down to this: "Are our existing time systems optimized for human performance?" Our current time systems are nothing more than a holdover from when humans first started applying numbers to the rising and setting sun. There were no masterminds in the background with far reaching vision. So, is what I'm suggesting the optimal solution? Probably not. Is there something better? A definite YES. Is there any effort dedicated to the long term optimization of the human-time relationship? Not that I'm aware of. Rewriting the rules of time will be similar to rewriting the calendar (an obvious flawed system), creating a global ethics code (currently non-existant), or creating global weights and measurement standards (long overdue). These are all massive undertakings needing some global systems architect to emerge with clout, vision, and a passion for change. I'm also not diluted into thinking this kind of change that will happen in my lifetime. Tom
  10. jaymuffinz

    Although, I find this idea really intriguing, you should also take into consideration that not all people run on the same circadian rhythms as well. Night people (like myself) would run into serious problems trying to get anything accomplished. Hospitals couldn't run 24/7 as they do if everyone simply just operated on their own time. There are far too many social demands expected from various types of businesses that require specific times for people to work. Pre-planning every phone call made to ensure you were able to contact the intended person at the intended time would be far too difficult because there would be no common time between the 2. While we can consider the fact that we could use technology towards our benefit in tracking other people's current times, what about people who can't afford the technology in the first place? Would they be stuck using the old method so then people would be essentially segregated? Not entirely sure if that would happen but just more food for thought.
  11. Steppenwolf

    The tendency of the world and the society is to communicate and interact more and more with people around the world; the overused concept of globalization, but certainly it is true. People working and interacting with other people around the world certainly have to take into account the different time zones when scheduling meetings or phone calls, or any kind of interaction for that matter (you know people in India will not respond to your email immediately if you sent it out of their range of office hours, and viceversa); the simplicity lies that I only have to take into account entire hours (half hours in rare cases); I do not even need a technological device to do it, i can do it mentally. Having time zones by the second means that even on the same city i would have multiple time differences; it just makes sense to set the entire city to the same minute, or, i do not know, the entire state to the same hour... crazy idea. I can only imagine that your concept of circadian time just adds an unjustified and ridiculous amount of complexity, and offers too few noticeable benefits. Before the adoption of the timezones people already used to adjust their watches at every train station, since the time was slightly different between locations; certainly timezones simplified things, and people adopted the system due this simplicity, so you see, this is not a futuristic idea, this is a very old idea, replaced by a better way to organize things. Besides the problems already mentioned on other posts, i would like to add those involving communicating specific scheduling to a large amount of people (e. g. the tv guide). I will also point out that the differences on the edges of the timezones are compensated through the year, as the length of the day varies a bit everyday everywhere. One additional thought: I really do not agree with "clock-centric systems are a major contributor to human health problems". I think there are far more important and definitive factors, like stress and eating habits. Exercise, eat well, rest plenty, do not over work, and I can assure you, having to wake up before the sun rises for a part of the year, and some time after it did for the other part will have no impact on your health.
  12. Mick Steele

    Tom, The thought of having a wristwatch that is mapped to the position I have on the Earths surface relative to the sun fills me with dread. I would have nightmares travelling West watching the hands go backwards and the East with them going forward. My poor biological clock would never believe my watch as it is firmly set at 'now' relative to a fairly small spot on the planet!
  13. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Robert Gold</a>

    Thomas, you are thinking about notions that interest me. I deeply appreciate your reverence to history. It is that perspective that empowers the capacity to reconstruct comprehension and envision new models that alter our inherited paradigm. Too many scientists are myopic, looking at a tiny sliver of thinking, not gaining a powerful perspective of our fallibility and temporal view of our surroundings.
  14. loomy

    i wonder how old the autor of this idea is, googled it, he looks over 50, so its not a young kid, ok. well this would be better for a sci-fi book not for real world. it sounds very disturbing. first you say that the time measurement is wrong then you want to start morning by 6:00 and end it by 9:00.. thats just weird. and its not the only thing
  15. BAnd

    Cool idea! Pros: Excellent management of day LIGHT! Cons: Can not be implemented precisely (altitude=valleys and latitude=can not be applied when greater than 66.5 degrees) Clocks need internet connection OR solar panels to calculate each day's sunrise People are to conservative, hard headed and stupid Overall, "I" think it is a wonderful idea, but incredibly difficult to be implemented (especially because of the 3rd con) But if it were, it would have an aproximate gap to the actual sunrise, ie some peoples sunrise would be at 6:15 and others at 5:45, still wonderful idea! we loose so much out of our sleep cycle because we sleep late(consuming electricity) and wake up late(sun rise = healthier sleep) and that is why we are more tired than we should be
  16. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Yale S.Y. Landsberg</a>

    Per our TrueTyme sun and moon natural time clock & calendar, have we got a reasonable first step circadian time clock and watch for you? If you think we may, perhaps we can talk some time soon about areas of mutual interest? Warmest regards, Yale Landsberg, M.S. (Operations Research) The Better Tymes Project, A Benefit Corporation Charlottesville Virginia P.S. While I never worked at IBM: Quite a while ago now, when he ran Andor, I reported directly to Gene Amdahl. And many years before that when I worked at McKinsey, I worked at 245 Park in NYC, down the hall from Lou. And I love fractals. -)
  17. Broderick

    What about commuters? For many people, work is not right next door. For those people who have to travel an hour or more, 86,400 time zones will not only be a hindrance, but almost impossible to manage, even with GPS. They will not be able to get up at a set time every day with the time variating from place to place. You also mentioned in one of the above comments the impact on school children. While yes, it is much more beneficial for most teenagers to fall asleep and wake up later, the problem you run into is that for many of those kids, that eliminates chances of sports in school. Schools will be less likely to run sports programs in the winter months with days being shorter if they are set on a dawn-to-dusk schedule. It is more expensive for them, and coaches and faculty will have to stay later into the night in order to finish up practices, meaning their hours are longer than the average workers.
  18. Matthew Irvin

    The 'natural history' of sleep, a key factor in any consideration of changing the way we calculate time, is based on work by the historian A Roger Ekitch. He found that people sleep in two shifts with a period of wakefulness in the middle of the Night prior to the. Imposition of standard time. Something to take unto consideration, perhaps.
  19. xtbk

    Kinda late to the party, but I had a couple thoughts about this. Not based on practicalities but rather an attempt to analyze the computational aspects. The way of organizing time you describe is focused on the individual. It is designed to fit subjective experience and is in this sense, a more natural way to manage time. This is great for single person but it adds a lot of complexity to communicating about time. In your system, instead of being able to think about what time it is a one dimensional fashion, where everybody is at one of 24 discrete frames of reference, which are separated by fixed distances, you have consider a (by approximation) continuous distribution of frames. (Over a 2 dimensional plane if you take latitude into account.) This means that using the conventional way: When you can communicate a time coordinate, the recipient often does not have compute anything at all, because they are in the same time zone as you. If they are not, their calculations remain so simple they can be done with simple integer addition/subtraction. This way it is easy for them to know how far away that point in time is. If frames of reference are approximately continuous however, you would have to multiply the distance between source and recipient by some real number. A much more difficult calculation, made almost impossible by not knowing the distance. (GPS satelites btw, have to be synchronized with each other and the point they are locating.) I hope this wasn't too much math, but I think this clearly shows that the current management of time is much more efficient and that is probably why has formed the way it is. So I agree with Steppenwolf that the current system is about simplicity. From the same point of view I can only agree with your comment about dividing the day into 24 hours and counting them by the dozen. Not to mention the system of minutes and seconds. The decimal metric you propose would make things a lot easier and more efficient.
  20. Bob Almond

    I believe that Mediaeval monasteries used to do something similar - they started the day at sunrise, and divided the daylight hours into 7, divided by times of prayer. Obviously the length of the time periods changed through the year, and depending on the location of the monastery. Works well when people don't have much to do with anyone outside of the local community. But when so much of our interactions are governed by considerations beyond the local, it starts not working so well. And the other complicating factor is artificial lighting, which means that many people are not constrained by the hours of daylight at all. All in all, time has become an artificial construct for so many of us, and not that much to do with daylight. I disagree with those who advocate a shift away from the present 12/24/60 divisions - they are so much easier to work with than anything based on 10/100 groupings. 60 is divisible by 30, 20, 15, 12, 10, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2. Whereas 100 is only divisible by 50, 25, 20, 10, 5, 4, and 2. Such a shame that the UK moved away from coinage based on the number 12 - it's a whole lot more flexible.
  21. C Roge

    So now that you're here and presumably smarter than those who passed before you, including Benjamin Franklin, we should change how we divide the day into hours? Please stop for a moment and consider the wisdom of those who came before you. It is more than simply making the trains run on time, it is about the genius of people with nothing more than an abacus, or a slide-rule and a determined mind making sense of the earths rotation and passage through the solar system.
  22. Kerim

    Many muslims, whom pray 5 times a day, are benefiting already what you suggest, for ages. They wake up to a new day with the morning pray, with respect to exact time on sunrise of that day. They go to afternoon pray with the exact time of sundown of that day. And all other praying times are determined with the positions of Sun. So they are mentally aware of the whole process during a day, every season, no matter winter or summer. Your beautiful article also helps to understand that 'behaviour of praying 5 time a day' is a natural and rhythmic flow of human-being, as being another creature in the Nature.

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