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Customers’ grumbles on Facebook are met with real-time tweaks to products.
Some firms are so fast that they can travel into the future: Amazon plans to do “anticipatory” shipping before orders are placed.
It has shortened from over 100 years for the spindle (invented in 1779), to 13 years for mobile phones, according to Diego Comin and Martí Mestieri, two scholars.
Patent registrations, which, though an imperfect measure of innovation, probably track it to some extent, have been growing by about 11% a year for the past half-decade, compared with a long-term average of 6%.
Deregulation and globalisation mean that it is easier for firms to employ workers and make products through networks of third-party suppliers whose efforts can be amped up or services sloughed off with ease.
Yet hard evidence of a great acceleration is hard to come by.
Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors as president and then chairman from 1923 to 1956, invented “dynamic obsolescence”—using a flurry of new products to whip up demand and make existing models seem out of date.
Honda took this idea to an extreme: in 1981-82 it launched 113 models of scooter in 18 months.
The unease goes beyond the activities of individual firms to those of the corporate sector as a whole. It is very hard to prove that it is actually happening. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in 1848, it sweeps away “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions..new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” Take transport.
In his 2014 book, “The Impulse Society”, Paul Roberts, a social critic, decries a system “so hostile to the notion of long-term investment, or commitment, or permanence, that it is becoming incapable of producing anything of durable social or economic value.” The idea that time is speeding up is clearly popular. In 1913 Henry Ford’s reinvention of the assembly line cut the time it took to make a car from 12 hours to 90 minutes.
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