Don Cunningham: iPhones, Internet, and the Great Economic Cycle of Change

By Colin McEvoy on August 14, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on August 14, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I have a strange affinity for walking in cemeteries.

I find them fascinating. Not only are they peaceful, and often beautiful, but each tombstone tells the story of a life lived in a bygone era of our history.

Take a walk through four cemeteries in Bethlehem — God’s Acre, Nisky Hill, St. Michael’s, and Holy Savior — and you traverse 300 years of history from the Indian graves in God’s Acre to those of early Moravian settlers and Revolutionary War soldiers, onto the wave of Catholic immigrants in St. Michael’s, to the great industrialist of the Gilded Age in Nisky Hill, to the modern day mixing of business leaders, elected officials, service veterans, housewives, educators and steelworkers in Holy Savior.

If you pay attention, every tombstone is a story. Each represents a life lived and lost in an era of our history that’s come and gone. Each is a reminder that we are here for but a little while, just borrowing the space in our neighborhood, our community, our country, hopefully, leaving behind something a little better than we received it.

To my daughter, my tiptoeing through graveyards is just weird. I understand.

Each walk, however, reminds me not only of my own mortality but the uncomfortable permanency of change, which, oddly enough, helps me to better understand my work.

We live amid a great economic cycle of change. We may not realize it now but the historians of the future will define the last decade as the start of the great technological revolution of the economy. It’s akin to the industrial revolutions of the 19th Century and, ultimately, will surpass their impact.

It began on June 29, 2007. The day the iPhone was introduced. This summer marks its 10-year anniversary.

Combined with the advent of the Internet, the technology behind the iPhone has forever changed not only the economy but our lives, our interactions with each other and our communities. It bent the arc of history.

Work and business and life will never be the same.

It’s often hard to adjust to change. Change at break-neck speed – even change with great benefit – is a true disrupter. I believe this new age of technology is the underlying cause of the political and social upheaval we are living through today. Politics and government in a democracy is merely a reflection of the thoughts and frustrations of the populace.

Technology, more than trade or global competition, has changed the American economy, where people work, how they work and the type of jobs that exist. Foreign countries are always a more popular boogeyman than entrepreneurs and inventors.

Technology typically wears the white hat. Blame is usually placed elsewhere.

Take the once dominant industry of steel in the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem Steel was driven into bankruptcy as much by American mini-mills like Nucor that adopted new technology to make steel cheaper by recycling it in electric arc furnaces instead of making it from scratch than by imported steel. In addition, imports were also cheaper due as much to foreign steel’s use of cost-saving technologies as cheaper labor.

Technology is the great disrupter.

A core foundation of success is to understand that much of what exists today will be gone tomorrow. To hit a curve ball you need to swing where the ball is going, not where it is.

Those mills that once existed in small communities across America for the most part are not coming back. The economy has moved on. The type of workers and skills that businesses need are not the same ones that they needed ten years ago.

The loss of jobs and the way of life in many smaller and rural communities across America, mixed with the advent of technology-based jobs and prosperous new ways of life in American city centers, are at the core of the country’s political upheaval. This will eventually sort itself out but not until today’s economic reality is adopted as the new normal.

Wishing for yesterday is not an economic plan. You can’t go back in life.

Take a walk along the former lands of Bethlehem Steel in south Bethlehem. While some of the skeletons remain, most of those 1,800 acres that wind for 4.5 miles along the river, which once produced the steel that built the skyscrapers of New York, the Golden Gate Bridge and the armaments that helped win two world wars, are home to companies making medical diagnostic tests and semiconductor wafer products, along with retail logistic centers that fill consumer orders made on-line and from smart phones.

Bethlehem moved on after the death of steel. The Moravian farmlands that became a center for iron and steel making during the industrial revolutions today are home to companies built upon the technological revolution.

Nisky Hill Cemetery sits on the bluff across the Lehigh River on the north side. Entombed on that hillside are most of the great industrialist of Bethlehem’s past, the men who built the industries of the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. No grave is more grand than that of Eugene Grace, the second, and longest serving CEO of Bethlehem Steel Corp. It lies at the peak of the cemetery overlooking the river with a direct bird’s eye view of the blast furnaces. It was built with marble benches that can accommodate dozens to gather and pay homage to both the man and the company.

I doubt that Eugene Grace ever imagined what one day would lie across the river. His blast furnaces are now silent but they are the stunning backdrop of a public entertainment center that hosts more than a million people a year at festivals and musical performances.

The ground remains the same but those walking upon it will continue to change.

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