The Unreported Country
The national business media is consumed by ChatGPT. But when you visit cities and towns in the rest of America, this topic comes up glancingly, if at all. In the past six months, thanks to a reporting sponsorship from Armory Square Ventures and some other trips for work and pleasure, I’ve visited more than a dozen small and mid-sized cities in Pennsylvania, Indianapolis, Upstate New York and Kentucky. There, people are thinking about the physical world: the future of downtowns, federal funding for new energy initiatives, homelessness, crime, who has water and who doesn’t. Are people in the middle of America ill-informed or not as smart as the media and think tanks on the coasts? That seems unlikely. Rather, I think they’re bored with technology as entertainment, frustrated by it as a tool, and they don’t believe the hype. It’s a strange dichotomy. The journalists I read say we’re already living in the Metaverse, but in real America, nobody is even walking in the front door.
• Social media is fading quickly, at least among working-age people. People I met talked about going back to flip phones and signing permanently out of accounts. People associate being online with work: both experiences are unpleasant. The one exception to this: eSports. Rochester had a new esports “country club”
on its Innovation Square in downtown Rochester.
• People are working from home, but that doesn’t mean they’re staying home. Restaurants and services aimed at the business crowd were nearly vacant; but friendly neighborhood locales where people chat in vaguely work-oriented ways were thriving, and downtown locations focused on fun were booming, like the bourbon tour stop in Kentucky (positively buzzing) and a bustling open house for food entrepreneurs in Rochester, held by Commissary.
• There’s a growing recognition and embrace of labor movements, as the Biden Administration embraces Big Labor. I stopped at the Hibernian House in Girardville, Pa., where Irish labor activists held planning meetings before an 1875 strike. Twenty were hanged after a trial influenced by the mining companies; the hangings are regarded now as unjust.
• African-American neighborhoods, which were bulldozed for roads and paved over for jails in previous generations, are still targeted and still under pressure, from Norwood
in Indianapolis, to Uptown in Pittsburgh.
• Americans in the middle of America are keenly aware of the toll of globalization. David Hallal, CEO of ElevateBio, which is opening a bio-manfacturing facility at an old coke works outside Pittsburgh, says he wants this generation of manufacturing to be different. “Can we do it the right way from the start, so bio-manufacturing not only grows in the United States, but stays in the United States?” he asked.
• Innovators who work at companies making products and services for the real world, from ElevateBio to Indy’s Bee Corp, which helps farmers check on the health of bee hives, to Rochester-based micro electronics packaging manufacturer Mosaic Micro, are holding their breath, and wondering if what they sense is really true. Is America coming back to the idea of valuing the physical world again?
“What is exciting is the realization (on others’ parts) that if the short-term off-shoring thing is the cheapest thing – that isn’t necessarily the best thing,” said Shelby Nelson, co-founder. “A lot of innovation comes when you actually make things.”
If you’re wondering what a reporting sponsorship is: a company, a foundation or an individual who would like to see more high-quality journalism focused on a broad area, underwrites an agreed-up number of stories or events . Sponsors don’t control the journalism we produce. In the case of the project we’ve been working on lately here at Times of E, ASV is deeply interested in entrepreneurship and business in mid-tier cities. The three I traveled to were Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Rochester.
We wrote a bunch of stories out of the sponsorship, including these:
· The Rochester stories will be coming up next.