The Digital Age made one of my fondest dreams come true—and, more recently, has also presented my wife and I with more than a few vexing problems.
In my youth, during my meandering college career, I dreamed of becoming a journalist. More than that, I wondered what it would be like to have my own magazine—honest to god. When you’re a kid, you harbor such unlikely hopes.
And yet, though it took me awhile, I did eventually land a job working on magazines in my 40s, ultimately being placed in charge of a dozen of them. True, they weren’t my magazines exactly, and the topics—all aspects of computing technology—weren’t what I would have picked if I’d had my druthers. Still, I was in hog heaven for a while, enjoying every aspect of the work. I think I made those magazines better and I know I had a ball doing it.
As most good things do, that ended—only to be replaced with something that almost precisely matched my boyhood fancy. In 2008, Sharon and I launched LA Progressive, the online magazine we’ve published for the past 13 years, the one you’re reading now.
That’s where the Digital Age came to our rescue.
Online publishing isn’t free, but our sweat equity and a few savings enabled us to accomplish something we never could have done had we tried to put ink to paper.
If we had tried to launch an old school print publication, certainly any kind of magazine but even one of those community weeklies you see stacked up by the door in diners, we would have fallen flat. We never would have had the funds, much less the varied expertise to get it off the ground—so I doubt that idea, and the dream that went with it, would have got beyond the doodle pad I keep on the corner of my desk.
But together, and with Sharon’s doggedness especially, we managed to get going with the online magazine that we’ve spent these years perfecting. Online publishing isn’t free, but our sweat equity and a few savings enabled us to accomplish something we never could have done had we tried to put ink to paper. Now, several hundred thousand people read LA Progressive each month—and many more in this election season. It’s everything I could have imagined.
Everything Pulled Together
But what technology has given, technology also takes away. Working through the Internet, connections are maddeningly ephemeral. If you have an issue with a company, you don’t really know who you’re dealing with—I mean the actual person on the other end of the phone, email, or app—where they’re located, or how to get back in touch with them, as you’ll surely need to do.
Here’s one example. Back when I was a kid having those magazine publishing dreams, I was actually working my way through college by being a relief taxicab driver in New York City. It was a perfect job: I could work the nights I wanted, make enough to pay rent and buy food (the GI Bill took care of my tuition), and get to see that crazy city from top to bottom.
Uber and Lyft are rapidly shoving aside old school taxicabs. There’s much to be said about the convenience these rideshare outfits offer, but if you ever have an issue with the company, good luck. Yes, your issue might get resolved through the app or possibly over the phone if you’re lucky enough to get someone on the line—someone who can actually address your problem.
But unless you want to travel to San Francisco or Chicago or New York—or wherever their headquarters might currently be—there’s no place you can go to talk to an actual person.
Back when I was driving cabs, we had an actual car barn—near the corner of 49th Street and 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen—where you could go to lodge a complaint if a phone call didn’t do the trick. And there was an actual manager in the cage—taller than Louie from “Taxi” and not nearly as funny (sorry, there was no Elaine anywhere in sight). And if you really wanted to push it there was an actual owner, a well-dressed, heavy set man with a thick Brooklyn accent, who occasionally came by to see how well his nicely profitable operation was working.
Try that with Lyft or Uber or any of the rideshare operations. Good luck. And that’s partly why Uber drivers get the shaft: the people who own the company are a million miles away and have utterly no personal connection to any of their thoroughly expendable drivers.
But other than urging you to vote “No” on Prop 22 on November’s ballot in California, this isn’t about transportation. It’s about three ways the Internet’s Too Big to Fail tendencies are screwing Sharon and I right now.
Well, Then, Goodbye and Good Riddance, Facebook
This summer, one of our LA Progressive Facebook pages was hacked. We lost the page completely—and with that, connection to the thousands of people who had joined that page. With incredible effort and some help, over several weeks, Sharon managed to get Facebook to restore our ownership and help us clean up the damage—much thanks to a young Facebook agent who broke their rules and gave her his number so they could talk directly on the phone.
But, probably related to that, my personal Facebook page was taken down—and in the several months since, using all my wiles, I have not been able to reestablish the page. In fact, it seems that I am permanently banished. I even tried creating a new personal page, which was immediately disallowed.
I’ve been on Facebook for years and have done nothing scurrilous, scandalous, obscene…nothing out of line. Mostly, I’ve posted LA Progressive articles there to generate discussion around them. And then I’ve had more and more fun connecting with family and friends—much more than I bargained for when I signed up maybe 15 years ago.
Especially heartwarming was my experience last summer keeping my many friends on Facebook—and colleagues and people I don’t know from Adam—up to date about my cancer treatments. The outpourings of love and support I received through Facebook really boosted my spirits at a time they needed boosting.
What’s so disheartened is that these huge, faceless megaliths offer no recourse. There’s no one to talk to, to discuss what’s going on, to explain if an explanation is what’s called for, to even understand what the heck is going on. All you get, after weeks of waiting, is the bluntest of form letters saying you’re done, toast, out of luck, sayonara, arrivederci.
Oh, well, I lived 60 years without Facebook and will no doubt survive its loss—though not being able to post LA Progressive articles no doubt limits our publication’s reach.
How Did Our Mortgage Get to Pakistan?
This spring, Sharon and I gathered up our resources to pay off the mortgage on our house—at least fifteen years early. Over the years we had the mortgage, its ownership went from one bank to another financial institution to the next faceless corporation, ultimately migrating to a financial institution with a customer service center in South Asia.
That’s not exactly how you’d like the world to work and we certainly had no say in any of it. But as long as we could make our monthly payments—which we did faithfully—no harm, no foul.
Except, when we made the last large payoff, that final Pakistani outfit couldn’t find any record of it—and believe me, it was a lot of money and there surely was a record. So bouncing from one “customer service” agent to the next, explaining the whole situation from scratch to each new foreign voice, took many sweaty weeks, resulting in a not completely satisfactory resolution.
Mind you, this loan was negotiated sitting across from a person in a business suit, who slid documents over the desk for us to sign.
Even now, because they insisted for a time that we had not made the payment, they dinged our credit rating unfairly, which has also hurt our business. The lawyer in the family—Sharon—is straightening that out, making the company suffer a bit in the process if she can. Still, that’s another headache no one needs.
Mind you, this loan was negotiated sitting across from a person in a business suit, who slid documents over the desk for us to sign. If that bank had held onto the loan—rather than selling it willy-nilly across cyberspace—we could have taken a ride up to Pasadena, sat across that same desk, maybe talked to the same person in a newer business suit, and resolved the situation in a single afternoon. Not an afternoon. Minutes, probably.
No such luck in the Digital Age.
And Now the Real Crunch
This week, the worst blow came when PayPal bounced us from their service. No warning, no explanation, no recourse—just two boilerplate email messages fired in quick succession. A customer service agent did answer our frantic call—what sounded to be a nice young lady, probably working her way through college as I was driving a cab so many years ago, who seemed to want to help but who had no useful information to share.
Done, toast, out of luck, sayonara, arrivederci—you know the script. Out on our tails with nothing to offer the many people who send us donations each month through PayPal or the sponsors who purchase advertisements through that service.
In this case—unlike with Facebook or the mortgage—it’s entirely possible, even likely, that I may have violated one of their fine-print regulations with the ads we sell. Again, nothing salacious or even illegal, but out of bounds in their eyes.
And again with these too-big-to-fail, impersonal megaliths, there’s no one we can talk to, not one person we can discuss the situation with. We’re just out of luck.
And this really does jeopardize LA Progressive, which depends for its livelihood on those donations and ad sales. Without them, we’re sunk—certainly in the short term.
Sharon is busily scouting out other payment options and will probably find several. But a lot of people are tied to PayPal—so we’re likely to be hurt long-term, too.
Sharon asks if anyone has recommendations for payment services we might use, please send them along.
So, what the Digital Age has given us, it seems to want to take away, too.
The key here is that none of these megaliths—not Facebook, not the banks, certainly not Paypal—want to provide a service, to make things easier for regular Janes and Joes like us.
No, what they’re about is simply extraction—and you and I are just beehives they can break open for our honey.
Editor, LA Progressive