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Article | It's Time to Get Real About Real Time

Past Time, Real Time, and Soon Time

Don’t worry, it’s not just your age. Life really does move faster these days. 

This is something people have actually said for centuries. Life has moved faster throughout all of human civilization’s history because every tool invented, whether chiseled from stone, forged from steel, or laser-engraved in silicon—absolutely every single invention worth anything at all—was invented to save time. 

Time is something no one ever has enough of, so when you save time, you create value. Time is money. 

In the past, people noticed change in terms of subtly different social norms and customs. When kings were toppled or new continents explored, it might take a century or more to assimilate the implications. But sooner or later new fortunes were made and old social structures evolved. When railroad tracks connected previously isolated land areas, cultures blended together and new customs arose. Gradually. 

But the pace of change has always been accelerating, also, because the more tools we invent, the easier it is to invent new ones. Technological progress has its own built-in compound-interest rate, and while it might have started as just a fraction of a percent per millennium, we’re now getting into double digits per year. 

What’s different about today is that the pace of change has reached the point that it has become quite noticeable in everyday life. To everyone. You don’t have to be a centenarian to remember a whole host of tools, technologies, and social customs that are now nearly extinct, from dial telephones and film cameras to hand-written checks and eight-hour work days in a physical office.

The mere availability of all these innovations, however, gives us the perverse illusion that we have less time. We have so many more things we can choose to do, that whenever we choose to do anything in particular, we also have to choose not to do a much greater number of other things. And because we perceive time to be more scarce than ever, saving time is more valuable than ever. Which is why the term “real time” is so aspirational. 

When a business gets real-time customer feedback and insight, or when a consumer accesses their account via their smartphone app to solve a problem in real time, these frictionless experiences are more valuable. Because a “real-time” experience actually consumes no time. Literally. A need appears, or a problem arises, and it’s handled. Instantly. Chatbots, bill-pay on your online bank account, drone-delivered pizzas, jet engines that continuously communicate their status—you can hardly name any innovation today that isn’t driven primarily by the urge to solve a problem or meet a need in real time. 

But what’s truly innovative—and what will become even more valuable than real time—is “soon time.” Amazon is a soon-time pioneer, with services designed not to satisfy a need in real time, but to satisfy your next need before you’re even aware that you have it. So you never run out of paper towels, and you never have to figure out what book or movie you’d most like to consume next. 

Soon time is how we will talk about innovations that anticipate your needs.

And within a decade or two, we can expect that machine learning and artificial intelligence, combined with the Internet of Things, will transform much of our world from real time to soon time.