December 7, 2017 was declared a day of protest at Verizon stores across the nation in preparation for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s call for a vote to repeal net neutrality on December 14.
As of this writing, net neutrality was the law of the land, so I was able to sign online petitions through groups like Team Internet and DemandProgress.org. I was also able to peruse online maps of protests to join throughout the country.
Though I live in the densely populated metropolis that is New Jersey, I was dismayed to see only one or two protests in my own state. I wanted to make it work.
I can finagle something between comp time and an already-flexible work schedule, if I crash in a motel closer to the Verizon store overnight on December 6. This experience brought me deeper into Atlantic County, NJ, and face-to-face with the many ways unchecked corporate interests can undermine quality of life for the average American.
December 6: The WiFi at the motel is piss-poor. I use a pay-as-you-go phone because it is cheap, though the network is unreliable. I pack my laptop away; it’s useless, I cannot even load e-mail. I am not connected overnight. How ironic, since I am here to make a statement about affordable internet and broader connectivity.
I’d had visions of putting my Masters in Community and Economic Development to use tonight. I am earning this degree exclusively online and have been taught that the nifty tools of rapid community assessment are the American Household Survey, accessed online, and census.gov. Without internet access, I can’t use these them.
I ventured out to a convenience store, hoping to purchase a local newspaper. After miles of unlit and winding highway I find a place that advertises the sale of lottery tickets and food stamps accepted for groceries.
In my time in the aisles I came upon a locked display of glass pipes and bowls “for tobacco” and two racks that formerly housed newspapers, now displaying individually wrapped white men’s undershirts for sale.
Everything but the kitchen sink. And, apparently, newspapers.
Here is the case-in-point: We need net neutrality for many reasons, and one of them is that American society has already dismantled the traditional forms of relaying information to the public. Print is dead, and local news was the first casualty. We gutted what came before, and we cannot lean on Old Media anymore. There is nothing to fill in the gaps in our knowledge if we lose open internet.
If we price average citizens out of internet access, or restrict their access in any way, we return to the Dark Ages.
On December 7 I find a newsstand at a Starbucks off Route 9. The store stocks the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. There is one blessed copy of The Press of Atlantic City. I buy it.
The cover story of today’s edition is indeed about the future of A.C. The accompanying photo shows a man at a podium, so I assume this is the city mayor. The caption reveals instead that this is the CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel. A pull-quote from the story: “What’s missing in Atlantic City is the spirit of community.”
His proposal to address this: “sports betting and increased development.”
Build more and bet more. Of course.
All CEOs at the business summit agree that Atlantic City “suffers from a negative perception outside New Jersey.”
Somehow, as a New Jersey school child I never visited the Absecon Lighthouse. I remedy this today.
From above I can see empty lots that were once apartment complexes, ruined during Superstorm Sandy. Unsuccessful enterprise leaves deeper scars than natural disasters, however. The failure of the Revel casino resort is legendary: open for only six months, residents still balk at the construction of an outdoor swimming pool. They could have told you the pool would be useless for nine months out of every year.
Today, Trump Taj Mahal is also shuttered.
The lighthouse staff is warm and keeps me chatting in the gift shop longer than I’d expected. Had I heard the rumors that governor-elect Phil Murphy will usher in an age of legal cannabis bacchanals? Could Atlantic City host marijuana cruises and multi-level dispensaries? Weed-themed hotels? The staff are just ribbing me, I think, but they say in earnest that they don’t believe legal weed dens could cause any more harm than bars or casinos already do.
They did note skepticism that white and brown folks would be ushered into such Mary Jane pleasure halls with equal abandon.
I walk the Atlantic City boardwalk and find the wood panels spongy, almost sure to sink beneath me. Each step is uncertain, as if the sand longs to take back the strip. Maybe that would be a blessing. There’s a sad magic to a beach town in the off-season, but the decay of Atlantic City is a year-round phenomenon.
The only organized protest for a hundred miles is in Ocean City, New Jersey. This town is Atlantic City’s mirror image, just 15 miles south. Ocean City is a thriving tourist destination, free from casinos or strip clubs or billboards touting sex toy shops. I recall a donut shop vacationing friends always recommend. I stop in a bustling café where each table has a placard explaining that the business will not offer customers straws, in order to keep plastic out of the ocean. There’s a conscientious culture in year-round residents here. It didn’t trickle down from CEOs.
The elation of watching a group of more than 20 youth people with bright signs walk up the block is difficult to express. People care. Young people—none of them old enough to vote—care, and they’re on my team.
This is a gathering about the abstract ideas of free speech, equal access and justice. It’s about that effervescent reality of the Internet. But it’s also about meeting people face-to-face, offline.
While we shiver in the setting sunlight, I ask the teenagers questions. They’re here as a part of an after school club, not an in-class assignment. They care about small businesses having avenues to market and attract customers. They care about other students being able to research assignments and apply to colleges.
And the boys to my left and right have been through the deep web. They say they have seen things on Reddit and 4Chan that they cannot unsee, that changed how they feel about human nature. They were not old enough to cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election but the Internet brought them images that unequivocally brought their childhoods to an end.
It feels monstrous to protect this beast, this Pandora’s Box of too much knowledge, which can at any moment inflict too much depravity, too much possibility on the young.
But I know I am not an authority to restrain the Net in any way, and I sure as hell don’t trust Comcast or Verizon to do so in an altruistic fashion.
The thing I keep remembering is: I found this protest on the Internet. I met these people offline because we connected online first. It is certainly in the better interest of the most powerful corporations that we stay separate. But for today, that Chaotic Neutral force that is the Internet brought us here.
Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the blog editor at Newfound Journal.