Don Cunningham: The Battle to Keep Pace with Technological Advances

By Colin McEvoy on February 8, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on January 17, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I don’t remember when it was that I realized I was no longer young or hip.

It’s likely I was never hip.

During the 1980s, I think I was the last person in my twenties to buy a CD, so my hipness disappeared with my mullet. (This is the first time that phrase has been written.) The same went for DVDs.

My transition to CDs was a forced conversion. It occurred because the stylus broke on my turntable and I could no longer buy one. Believe it or not, there was a dark time in the Pre-Internet Age when if a store didn’t have it, neither did you.

I’m the opposite of the early adopter: the too-late-to-be-cool adopter.

Today, there’s no need to own music or films. It all exists in a “cloud,” which is a big Internet server farm somewhere outside of Des Moines. Music is now summoned upon a command to Alexa or another robot reconnaissance and wiretap device willingly placed in people’s homes to lessen their burdens and make it easier for the NSA to listen in on the living room.

My current pointless holdout is the Blackberry. I’ve mentioned it before in this space. It is my Scarlet Letter, eliciting awkward laughter, shock and or shaming upon others seeing it. I don’t keep it to be a technological iconoclast. It’s more like an animal hair shirt to impose discipline so I don’t become lazy, phone obsessed, addicted to Twitter or watch cat videos.

The Blackberry allows me to text, email and make phone calls. Accessing the Internet can be done but it’s slow so I’m forced to the laptop or desktop for the serious stuff. The Blackberry is an App Free Zone. With no faith in my own discipline, I create my own crutches.

This makes me the last American – God bless those Canadians – who doesn’t have an oversized phone that counts every calorie I burn as I walk and tells me when I’m getting fat. For now, I still just rely upon feeling my pants getting tight.

I know that I have another forced conversion coming. Just as I could no longer buy a record needle, there’s no one left at the Verizon store to address my Blackberry issues. It won’t be long until I have a phone that monitors the wear on my shoes, determines when a new pair is needed, and places an online order so they arrive at my door before I realized they were needed.

So, why the Alamo-esque holdout? The fear of getting lazy and not thinking for myself.

Technological advancement once came slowly. One generation got electricity, the next got radio, and the next, television. Of course, there were hundreds of generations that lived for millennia prior to electricity, not commonplace until the back half of the 19th Century.

The pace of change was slower until recently. Adapting was easier for earlier generations.

Silent movies were cool for many years until sound came along. Black and white sufficed without complaint until color. Television mesmerized for decades before content was streamed to phones.

Today, technological development is measured in months and weeks not years or generations. Converting it to years would requires a new measure, like the one dogs have with the one-year-equals-seven thing.

Technological advancement is speeding up the rate of economic change. Workers are forced to train, retrain, think differently, adapt and change dozens of times in a working life. My guess is that will be hundreds of times soon.

YouTube videos, Super Mario games and Pandora are entertaining, but remember the primary aim of technology is to make things easier, quicker, more efficient, and to be smarter than you.

In short, to eliminate the need for you. If technology can do it faster and smarter without getting tired, you are no longer needed. Of course, there is work for those developing, maintaining, and operating the technology that replaces workers, but those aren’t likely to be the same person and no one knows if the job displacement ratio will be one-to-one.

I was asked recently during a speech on the Lehigh Valley Economy of Yesterday and Today to a group of well-informed senior citizens what the economy will be like in 10 years? My pause was long and my answer was lame, equals parts out of fear to speak the truth, uncertainty, and a desire to be honest.

No one really knows. There are plenty of futurists, economists, and technologists writing and talking about automated cars and trucks, robots in the home and “dark” factories and warehouses run without people.  It’s all coming. We just don’t know when.

I have no doubt we will adapt. I also have no doubt it will create both amazement and pain.

It wasn’t long ago that I was young and served as my dad’s television remote. A smack on the back of the head signaled that he needed me to get off the sofa and change to a different one of the 13 channels. Today, remotes are passé, soon, so will the traditional idea of a television.

My fear in this technological wonderment is that we stop thinking and learning and knowing for ourselves. Technology has the power to save lives, replace body parts, cure disease, free up time and labor for more useful endeavors and make available all the world’s knowledge with the push of a button. Yet, I feel like we’re losing something. Thought, knowledge and the perspective of time replaced by constant information, speed, consumption and entertainment.

Future generations may never know the feel of a real newspaper in their hands, a book in their lap, or the challenge of refolding a coffee-stained roadmap while parked on the side of a road that will never be taken.

Staying young takes more work than ever. One day your walking tall with a fresh mullet and an armful of new CDs and the next you can’t buy a car that still has the traditional port to plug in your iPod.

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