Time Compression

09/24/2011
Engineer Percy Spencer at defense contractor Raytheon notices something peculiar. While testing a new vacuum tube, called a magnetron, a candy bar melts in his pocket. Intrigued, Spencer places some popcorn near the tube and watches in awe as kernels begin popping all over his lab counter. And so the microwave oven is born.

Raytheon engineers quickly refine Spencer’s discovery and, in late 1946, file for a patent covering the use of microwaves to cook food.

Across town in Cambridge, Mass. that same year, three-year-old Jennifer tugs at her dad’s pants and whispers, “daddy it takes so long to see pictures.” Jennifer’s father happens to be Edwin Land and on November 26, 1948, the Polaroid Land Camera goes on sale in New York for $89.95.

Both devices introduce America to the concept of instant gratification and usher in a new lifestyle: the compression of time and the attendant acceleration of life.

McDonald'sThe most significant Time Compression development was the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant at 14th and E Street in San Bernardino, Calif. on December 12, 1948. Using a “Speedee Service System,” brothers Dick and Maurice (“Mac”) McDonald established a $24 billion player in the $170 billion global quick-serve market.

Another significant milestone in this emerging trend occurs a few years later. While operating their first restaurant, the Airdome, in San Bernardino, California, brothers Dick and Maurice (“Mac”) McDonald reach the conclusion that the future of restaurants was in mass production and speed of service.

On December 12, 1948, they open their first McDonald’s restaurant at 14th and E Street, which sold 15¢ burgers and 10¢ fries using a “Speedee Service System.”

Although White Castle was founded much earlier in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, it was McDonald’s, particularly under the aegis of Ray Kroc, who acquired the company in 1961 and moved it to Des Plaines, Ill., that would become synonymous with the embryonic fast-food industry, selling one billion hamburgers by 1963.

More than a half century later, life continues to accelerate. At an Adtech industry confab In November 2006, Akamai Technologies CEO Paul Sagan noted that 75% of 1,058 people surveyed by Jupiter Research would not return to a Web site that took longer than four seconds to load (PDF; page 7).

That figure was down markedly from the seven or eight seconds mentioned just five years earlier. This short attention span, which some blame to attention deficit disorder (ADD), a human affliction first identified in 1981, is but one result of one of the most profound ubertrends reshaping society today: Time Compression.

Time compression has invaded our daily conversation with a number contemporary expressions, like “that’s so last minute: and “I want it yesterday.” It’s becoming abundantly clear that time and its related measures are morphing in a cloud of time-tunnel dust.

Time Compression took off during the 80s. When asked how they were doing, people suddenly began answering “busy” instead of the customary “good.” This subtle shift in the social dialog underscored the sea-change shift that was taking place in the minds of people.

While the 40s and 50s had ushered in such accelerants as instant photography, microwave cooking, fast food and the commercial jetliner, Time Compression in the 80s was ignited by a new set of phenomena, including the fax machine, FedEx, voicemail and the personal computer. All contributed to more efficient communication, a cornerstone of the acceleration process.

The advent of voicemail, in particular, changed the role of secretaries, forcing managers to fend for themselves. That meant forgoing that two-martini lunch, which had become a staple of doing business during the 70s, and which was usually followed by a blizzard of “While you were out” pink message slips.

E-mail, the increasingly popular mobile phone and the surge of the Internet in the 90s further served to mainstream Time Compression. By 1996, 59% of Americans described themselves as busy, with 19% reporting that they were “painfully” busy, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Meanwhile the blizzard of information that crossed every worker’s desk increased exponentially, driven in large part by the Internet, leading to a new stress: “information anxiety,” a syndrome that two-thirds of global managers suffered from in October 1996, according to Reuters.

Multitasking, a distinctive by-product of Time Compression, has quickly grown into a mandatory skill set. In 2004, columnist P.J. Bernanski noted first seeing “good at multi-tasking” mentioned on resumés.

Starbucks storeCoffee retail has become a $70 billion global business, compared to just $30 billion a decade ago, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, propelled by an insatiable urge to “pump up” and have enough energy to make it through a typical busy multitasking day.

The vagaries of Time Compression have had major repercussions on disposable time. It’s not surprising that most Americans no longer have time to devote to traditional leisure activities.

A survey by employment firm Hudson, cited in a May 21, 2007 BusinessWeek article, found that more than half of U.S. workers fail to take all their vacation days, with 30% saying they use less than half their allotted time, and another 20% taking only a few days instead of a week or two.

Americans take even less vacation than the Japanese, the people responsible for karoshi — the phenomenon of “being worked to death.” While America is usually identified with this trend, if anything, U.S. workers simply perfected a habit that originated in the land of the rising sun.

And if less time is available for vacation, related leisure activities are beginning to suffer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the number of anglers has dropped 12% since 2001, Newsweek reported in a June 16, 2007 article. During the same five-year period ending in 2006, the number of hunters fell by 4%.

Meanwhile, the total number of people who play golf has declined or remained flat each year since 2000, dropping to about 26 million from 30 million in 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, The New York Times reported.

Is it any surprise then that one of America’s favorite pastimes, shopping, has also been affected by Time Compression? In 2010, $87 billion was spent on gift cards, according to the National Retail Federation, as more shoppers choose to save time by turning to this increasingly popular gift-buying shortcut.

The Wall Street Journal reported on June 27, 2007 that the average WalMart shopper spends 21 minutes in the store yet only finds seven of the 10 items on his or her shopping list. As a result, many retailers are improving store navigation to help harried consumers find things faster.

Imagine the impact Time Compression will have on shopping as more consumers discover that the typical one-hour trip to the mall costs about $30 at the average hourly pay for managers and professionals, according to a May 9, 2005 BusinessWeek article.

Since that $30 more than compensates shipping charges for a typical online order, it will become increasingly difficult in a busier future to justify most shopping trips. Holiday shopping data already underscore this trend. The 2010 holiday season registered record e-commerce spending of $32.6 billion, up 12% versus a year ago.

By comparison, overall retail sales rose just 7.3%. Online convenience is clearly the driving force. The Strategy One Annual Holiday Shopping Index, found that 74% believed that online shopping was the easiest way to do their shopping.

As consumers pack ever more activities into their busy, multitasking days, they’re sleeping less. In the 1920s, the average U.S. adult slept 8.8 hours in each 24-hour period. That figure has declined to six hours and 40 minutes on weeknights.

No wonder energy drinks have become a $42 billion global business, according to a May 2011 Nutraingredients.com article citing data provided by Leatherhead Food Research, fueled primarily by a thirsty clubbing crowd, who seek to boost their energy level by packing in just one more frenetic experience.

National adMarketers and media encourage society to speed things up, as this National car rental sign spotted in San Francisco airport pointedly illustrates.

That time is now more valuable than money was suggested by research firm Yankelovich, who in December 2006 reported that, “More than half (56%) of all consumers, at all income levels, say lack of time is a bigger problem for them than lack of money.”

This explains why FedEx has become a $43 billion company in just 40 years, it thrives on Time Compression. With time now considered more valuable than money, our state of mind has become a state of time.

Time Compression Time Line

Year Phenomenon
1865 Telegraph ushers in “standard time” concept.
1887 John Pemberton introduces Coca-Cola, a “therapeutic agent.” German laboratory Merck synthesizes first batch of amphetamines, “speed.”
1893 Cream of Wheat, “a quickie breakfast,” is introduced; takes 15 minutes to prepare.
1900 Romantic suitors take all evening to get to know each other.
1910 William Coolidge’s long-lasting tungsten filament lightbulbs allow people to sleep less.
1927 A very fast, jumpy, casual-looking style of dancing—Lindy Hop—catches on.
1934 Band leader Cab Calloway introduces bouncy, six-beat swing variant called jitterbug.
1939 Cream of Wheat cooking time is reduced to five minutes.
1946 Raytheon shows first microwave oven, called “Radarange.”
1947 Edwin Land demonstrates instant photography in New York City.
1948 Birth of fast food: McDonald brothers Dick and Mac open first outlet in San Bernardino, Calif.
1952 U.K. carrier BOAC launches first commercial jet airliner service on May 2.
1953 First use of the term “real time.”
1955 Tappan introduces the first home microwave oven, priced at $1,295.
1956 Hans Selye’s book “The Stress of Life” adds “stress” concept to vernacular.
1965 80% of 18- to 49-year-olds in U.S. can be reached with three 60-second TV spots.
1966 Xerox introduces 46-pound desktop fax machine, the Magnafax Telecopier, which takes about six minutes to transmit a letter-sized document. Cream of Wheat now takes 30 seconds to cook.
1967 Raytheon’s Amana introduces first 110-volt countertop microwave, costing under $500.
1969 ARPANET, the “Mother of the Internet,” is launched by U.S. government in Los Angeles, connecting UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, SRI and Utah University. First quartz watch, Seiko 35 SQ Astron, accurate to one minute a year, goes on sale in Japan.
1971 Starbucks opens its first location in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
1973 On its first night of operation, 389 FedEx employees and 14 jets deliver 186 packages overnight to 25 U.S. cities. Motorola demonstrates a design for the DynaTAC “portable radio telephone,” which uses a radio technology called “cellular.”
1974 Microwave oven sales exceed those of conventional stoves for the first time.
1976 Concorde makes its maiden commercial flight.
1981 Upjohn introduces anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
1983 MCImail e-mail is launched. U.S. fax-machine installed base reaches 300,000.
1990 “Busy” has replaced “good” as the typical answer to the question “How are you doing?”
1993 World Wide Web ushers in realtime interaction era.
1996 59% of Americans complain about being too busy, reports an NBC/WSJ poll, while 19% say life has become busy to the point of discomfort. Reuters finds that two thirds of global managers suffer from “information anxiety” syndrome.
1998 Last complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle lasts nearly one hour less than first performance.
1999 Amazon.com reaches $1 billion in sales in just four years, a feat that took Macy’s 134 years. West Wing debuts, featuring “fastest dialogue” in a TV show.
2000 How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less is published. Another book, The Superman Syndrome warns that technology is forcing Americans to live at speed, not at depth.
2001 In the 1920s, the average U.S. adult slept 8.8 hours each day. By 2001 that figure had declined to 6.8.
2002 59% of all meals in the U.S. are rushed, and 34% of lunches are eaten on the run. Only 23% of mall shoppers now browse, compared to 37% in 2000. And 117 prime-time TV commercials are now required to produce the same result as three in 1965.
2003 The first “3 Minute Dating” cruise sets sail from Port Canaveral, Fla. Von Dutch “trucker’s hat” trend is called over, just three months after Justin Timberlake wears one for the first time. Average audience drop-off between a film’s opening weekend and second weekend is 51%, compared to 40% in 1998.
2004 Infants average 90 minutes less sleep a day than the 14-hour minimum doctors recommend. Stove-top cooking is down to 50%, from 58% in 1994, but microwave oven use holds steady at 26%. RedbookMag.com poll: 52% of 1,000 married women would rather have more time to cook than more money for takeout. London-based Key Contacts introduces corporate speed-dating breakfasts for clients. And 64% of consumers intend to buy gift cards, up from 60% in 2003, eclipsing apparel for the first time.
2004 Television has “become background noise,” Susan Young tells The Wall Street Journal. Infants average 90 minutes less sleep a day than the 14-hour minimum doctors recommend.
2005 Since 1973 the median number of hours people say they work has risen from 41 a week to 49. Leisure time, meanwhile, dropped from 26 to 19 hours a week over the same period. At 4:30 p.m., 73% of U.S. households have no idea what they’ll be having for dinner.
2006 Half of women decide within 30 seconds of meeting a man whether he is potential boyfriend material. A Carleton University study says people register likes and dislikes in as little as 1/20 of a second. Time is now more valuable than money, reports research firm Yankelovich.
2007 Gift card sales reach $97 billion, up from just $13 billion in 1998. Fully 85% of Brits do not take a full hour for lunch.
2008 A National Sleep Foundation survey shows that one in three Americans has dozed off while driving.
2009 Datamonitor reports that 47% of women in 17 countries say the big stress in their life is the demand on their time.
2010 16-year-old from Italy becomes youngest person ever to make cut at the Masters.
2011 Nearly two-thirds in U.K. have problems getting a good night’s sleep.
March 2010 Social Revolution