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Life moves at a faster pace as new technology spreads more rapidly than it used to

consumption-spreadsThose who complain that life is becoming faster have new evidence to back them up.  Prof. Rita McGrath writes in Harvard Business Review that recent new products have spread into more general use in a shorter time that their predecessors took.  She reproduces the above chart from Nicholas Felton of the New York Times showing how long it took various products to pass into general use.  From electricity to the internet, the pace of adoption has speeded up.  It was decades before telephone ownership reached 50 percent, starting before 1900, but only 5 years before mobile phones achieved the same penetration from 1990.  The chart tells its own story, covering things like cars, radios and refrigerators as well as microwaves, VCRs and computers.  The story is the same.  Innovation spreads more rapidly.

What does it mean?  Those who market new products have to move quickly to exploit their advantage, for one thing.  It probably signifies that competition is easier and barriers to entry are lower.  There are possible social consequences, too.  There might be a wider cultural gap between young people who are more adaptable and ready to adjust to new technology, and older people more set in their ways.  It might be that older people feel more alienated from a society that revolves around gadgets they find it difficult to accommodate.  The chart tells a story of accelerating adjustment to change, and it’s not something everyone feels comfortable with.


2 Responses

  1. The words in your final sentence sums up the feelings of the older generation towards rampant consumerism. The difference between need and greed have become blurred. The ‘ must have ‘ generation see no real boundaries and will continue to grasp at almost anything which reduces effort and gives transitory pleasure. The ultimate effect this may have on their society is open to conjecture.

  2. Dear Dr Pirie

    The graphs suggest some interesting observations: one of them is the opposite of your headline.

    Certain products have been adopted more readily The car, radio, microwave, VCR and cellphone have similar slopes, after allowing for the longish lead in for the car due to production limitations – Ford and others had to invent mass production, while modern manufacturers don’t.

    The adoption rate for all TV would have been more informative than just colour TV.

    The slopes of the graphs highlight the utility of the products, with telephone, stove and dishwasher more or less sharing the booby prize. (Since food has to be cooked somehow, and ‘stove’ could describe almost all types of food cookers, a clearer indication of what is meant by ‘stove’ would help. I tried the NYT source and my computer crashed.)

    The telephone, electricity, car and cellphone require extensive infrastructure – wire, cables, roads and masts, though arguably cellphone requirements are relatively light compared with the other three, especially the car. Cellphones are connecting up Africa at a faster rate than landlines, indicating the relative costs of lines versus masts in sparsely populated areas.

    Initial investment versus utility probably account for the steep slope of the radio, suggesting the car is an oddity in being the most expensive purchase, yet reached 50% in less than 20 years.

    Cars, telephone and to a lesser degree electricity took a knock in the Depression, while radio was barely affected and clothes washer and refrigerator were Depression proof, though not war-proof for clothes washer, which also gave cars a knock as well – perhaps not surprisingly.

    The cellphone was a public callbox substitute, only becoming a landline substitute more recently, as indicated by the downslope at the end of the telephone graph.

    Internet uptake depends on attitude rather than investment; once you have the computer and a phone line, the costs are a modem (where not built-in) and fairly minimal usage costs.


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