The following is a personal interview by Esther Sassaman:
Bloggers are known for strong political opinions and too much openness about their love lives. A growing number have taken the expressive power of the blog into new realms. Many bloggers of all interests and political viewpoints have debunked inaccuracies portrayed by the mainstream media, maintained compendia on rapidly developing stories more quickly than big broadcasters, and established their own live news services in conflict zones. Jacob Applebaum is one of this last category, publishing photojournalism from Iraq, Houston, and New Orleans that has often surpassed the news value, narrative power, and beauty of photography produced by longstanding news service photographers. Appelbaum went to Iraq in April 2005 as a photographer and to visit friends, and visited Houston’s Astrodome after Katrina to help set up a low power FM radio network and wireless service [http://www.prometheusradio.org] for details. He is currently in the poor, black Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, administering a data center at the behest of community organizer and former Black Panther Malik Rahim.
Jacob’s photographs have gained a new audience with the Houston Astrodome series [http://flickr.com/photos/ioerror/sets/905698/], which has become widely distributed. I reached him on Tuesday, the second day of his stay in Algiers. We talked about the situation in Algiers on Tuesday, but also about his personal motivations for coming to activism, and his background.
Esther: What brought you to this work?
Jacob: I’m a freelance hacker. I work helping groups that I feel really need my help. They come to me and ask me for my services. More often than not, I’m simply setting up their networks and systems around the world. It depends on how I feel about the work they’re doing. It has to be both an interesting job and for an interesting result. Life is too short to waste it on jobs that I do not enjoy and that do not reflect a positive goal I feel I want to project.
I’m an avid photographer and I take my camera with me wherever I go - I think it’s mostly in a documentary style. I’ve been told that I capture humans who wish their story could be told, but I don’t really see it. I make an attempt at respectful photography but sometimes I takes photos without asking first or even after. It depends on the situation. Most of the time I’m just photographing the current zeitgeist of my day, week or month.
The reasons that I’ve gone to the places that I have, for non-work purposes, is mostly out of serious discontent with the world. I’m also very unhappy with the way that traditional media is presented. I’m unhappy that people watch the news and don’t have trouble sleeping. I have trouble sleeping. I keep myself up at night thinking about what’s wrong with the world. I think about how we can change things. The way that I felt we as a society could change it was by showing it, by really bringing the issues home.
When I travel, I think it’s important to respect the local customs, sit at their tables when they invite you, eat their food, say their prayers and speak to them like humans. To really go to the anti-Reuters route. Rather than dry, my writing, photography and traveling shows my life as if I were their friend. I am. It shows my bias and I’m honest about it. It shows my anger and my frustration because I am. It shows my hope because I have hope sometimes. I suppose this creates a very anti-objective view point but I feel that sometimes the objective viewpoint allows for people to really over look the humanity in the situations they’re presented with. But I should disclaim that I don’t really feel like I’m doing anything special nor did I set out to do anything special any of these times. This is simply something I’ve done because I’ve been motivated to share my life and the lives around me with the world. To let others be touched in the way that I feel I’ve been touched.
When I went to Iraq I had a myriad of reasons to go and really only one reason to stay. My father was murdered only a few months earlier and the society that I lived in, San Francisco, failed me.The police force told me to ‘give up.’ They refused to investigate the crime, they refused my input, my tips, my solid information. I felt so raped..so robbed, so utterly fucked over by the society that I had hoped could help me. I lost all of my faith in authority.
Previous to this event I had promised a friend I would visit him in Iraq. He and his wife are people that I respect greatly, probably more than most of the people I’ve ever met in my life. When I came to Iraq it was partially to fulfill that promise and partially to undergo a transformation of sorts. I knew that I had a possibility of death by shooting, bombing, sword or beating. I knew that being a man with a Jewish last name, an Israeli stamp in my passport and a weird haircut could cost me my life. I also knew that I had no choice though, I felt like I could never return home. I felt defeated. I felt like I really didn’t have a home anymore. It was as if when my father died, I was set free from America, I was set free from attachments, including the life I lived. When you have your family photos stamped into the ground by a robber’s boots, your father’s life work stolen, your hopes crushed by the police and the people who should be by your side, well, they aren’t.
That’s when you know you’re in hell.
There is no worse place than understanding and acknowledging that point. I couldn’t identify with any of the people I was around anymore. Even my closest friends started showing themselves to be people that perhaps they had always been but I couldn’t be around it anymore. Much of that was me dealing with the hand life dealt me, but not all of it. I knew that the people I would meet in Iraq knew suffering, they knew hard times and they knew them worse than I could ever imagine. So I went to Iraq with the full intention of dying, with a full intention of killing a part of myself or my whole self.] Either part of me would come back whole or I would come back full of holes.
I had been traveling for some time previously. I moved from home to home, parent to parent, starting at the age of 2 or 3.
I started traveling in earnest at 10 years old. I spent some time homeless, some time drifting as a child because my father had problems with heroin. My mother’s a paranoid schizophrenic. I’m not really attached to her, she’s really sick. I feel pity for her - she doesn’t know why her hands slap if you know what I mean. My father always cared for me deeply. He had the hardest of lives. When he was a child his parents would beat him in the opulence of Hollywood. Over and over he would have major setbacks. Despite this, he became a well known actor and writer. But when I was born it really ruined his life. It was an unintended consequence if there ever was one. My mother told a number of lies and my father ended up in court at least 131 times over the course of 10 years to get custody of me. It ruined him financially. Emotionally he was tortured and destroyed. His body was in pain from a number of accidents including one when he was 10 years old. A drunk driver nearly killed him while was riding his bike. He was given a blood transfusion with tainted blood, later he found out it was Hepatitis C. Eventually all of this came to bear, to take its toll on his mind and body.
He really tried to be a good father but he failed in almost every traditional regard. As a result, I wasn’t in a good place in my life for a long time. I remember eating at Food not Bombs because I had neither food or bombs. I was so grateful
for that food.
I’ve always tried to better myself because I knew it was the only way to break the cycle of insanity. This happened when I got my first computer,which happened to be stolen, courtesy of my fathers ‘friends’. Over the years I really didn’t do well in normal society, I couldn’t relate to the middle class lives that had food on their shelves and one parent if not two in the home. My father was there physically most of the time but, nodding out to Law and Order, was not a parent to help with math homework. I couldn’t even relate to having a home. Home is where the heart is - I only knew where the roof was. I got older and I found some mental salvation in sexual outlets. It really probably saved my life to be able to lay down naked with whoever was my girlfriend.
To make ends, my father rented parts of our living space out to the weirdest people you’ve ever met. For a while I slept on my back exclusively because I shared a room with a crazy child molester who used to frantically masturbate when I would brush my teeth. Or really anytime I was around, to shy away in disgust. He’s one of many, believe me. I got deeper into the world of computers, making things out of found parts, dumpster diving. I got my first camera. It wasn’t really that long ago now that I think about it. I was 16 or so. It was a Pentax. I had no idea how to use it and I ended up in a photography class.
Esther: If I may interrupt, how old are you now?
Jacob: I’m 22. My father died 8 months and 10 days ago - or 20 days actually.
Jacob: It’s alright. Really, I suppose it is now. As much as it can ever be.
My photography teacher had to move buildings at some point and my work was lost. I was really discouraged at every turn. I had no family support, my brother (on my fathers side) never really was around. He was older, so again I just felt alone. Time moved on and so did I. I spent most of my time working with computers and being social. I didn’t fit in with anyone I knew and my social circles fluctuated. Eventually I tested out of high school and started at a Junior college. I hacked a number of my professors in a very public and embarrassing way, under direct challenges. Entirely legal and it earned me a few A’s. I had a real plan to become an academic. I knew I didn’t fit in with all the nerds detached from humanity. But I certainly used my brain too much to simply be an emotional wreck. So caught in the middle I stopped college and continued my education. Part of this was also class separation, I worked two jobs and went to school. It took its toll on me. I rode my bike everywhere and it took me a few months to even be able to afford the bike in the first place.
By this point I had been doing all sorts of photographs -people, places, things. I quit my job at the local independent movie theater and moved to Oakland. I lived in between the black ghetto and the Mexican ghetto. I was poor. My job constantly screwed me over. They almost never paid me. Eventually they told me to take a ‘vacation.’ I went to Europe and I really enjoyed myself. At this point my father was getting sick from hepatitis C. Things became sour with my traveling partner in Europe and everything got screwed up. I learned some of my first overseas traveling rules that still apply. Never carry more than what you can carry for 20Km.
I would write my father post cards and talk to him. Our relationship was always half distant and half closer than anyone could understand. Half was the drugs, half was the bond. Sometimes I don’t know which was which. I kept up my traveling and I did it on a shoe string. I’d hitch rides when I could, I’d carry only a single back pack with all my communications gear (laptop, camera, calling card) Eventually I started getting invited to speak at conferences about things I was doing, ideas
I had, skills I could share.
My father was getting sicker. Early 2004 I had to make a choice. At the time I was working for Greenpeace in Amsterdam and San Francisco. They forced my hand and I had to either move to Amsterdam or quit. I quit because I couldn’t bear to have
my father die alone.
My mother before she had her psychotic break was apparently a nice person. She was raped at a party when she was young, I think 16. In those days it wasn’t acceptable to be the victim of a sex crime and the shame forced her mother to make her give it up. That’s my long lost brother. I didn’t meet him until I was 17. My brother on my father’s side was more distant than him, he was simply too old to connect. Neither of them are very close to me. So I felt like it was my job to be the father with my father. I had always felt like that. I was always taking care of him in some way or another. I’d help him walk off his accidental and attempted overdoses. I would cry and ask him about suicide notes he would claim were writing samples from his new monologue when I was just shy of 15.
From the time I was 19 until I turned 21, my father was clean. He went into rehab and turned his life around because he wanted to live. But being a junkie isn’t something you can turn off, wounds on your arms heal into scars. Things kept getting worse. And well, that forced me to stick around more and more. Eventually I was living with my father. I was taking care of
him and living in San Francisco with him. Over the course of several years I ended up having to leave. It was too hard to actually stay in his house. The junkie behavior was too much - blood in the dishes, blood on the toilet seats, blood on my toothbrush, blood on my razors. I became severely OCD - I showered 5, 6 sometimes 8 times in a day. I
couldn’t eat in my own kitchen. It started driving me insane, and I moved out in October of 2004.
Junkies moved in with my father, one of which was a man called ‘David.’ David was a liar. He told my father he had cancer in both his legs. My father would not listen to me when I said he had been conned. His whole life as an actor and director, one big show - he didn’t see the last act coming. Eventually this man would poison my father and rob his home three times. The last time they even took the gas stove. My father died alone in my arms in a hospital. None of his family came, no one but me. And I was really upset about it. Some of his family lived within 100 miles and couldn’t be bothered to drive up.
The funeral was terrible. My brother on my fathers side was emotionally disconnected and he snubbed me - he was too busy. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of it or perhaps that’s just how he deal with things. I’m not holding a grudge, I was simply hurt. While sitting at the grave saying my last goodbyes one of my asshole family members told me to leave the grave because the workers wanted to go home - “it was ‘late’, the sun was ‘almost setting’.” It was too dramatic to do justice and my family
all but disappeared with an exception being an aunt and my brothers. I felt even more robbed, depressed and destroyed. No one in the area offered their home for the wake. We were in LA and I didn’t even have a hotel. The Jewish custom is to bury the dead within a day of passing and I rushed to meet the deadline. My aunt was really helpful with this. However as a final insult of family bickering, my fathers last wish to be buried with his grandmother was denied. He was buried in another part
of the graveyard but I was not told until months later. They were worried I would be angry. Understandably, I was very angry and hurt.
The people that killed my father did so by giving him an infection. Everyday my father would get a shot that he thought was heroin but really was warm water in a dirty needle. It would go into the back of his legs while he lay on his bed sick. He was kicking heroin, not getting his diabetic medicine and now infected with what would become bacterial meningitis. Everyday he saw a needle filled with junk and every time, they’d switch it when it was behind his back. I gave the needle to the police, they destroyed it. Fingerprints and all. None of the doctors knew what he had until it was too late. His immune system was compromised; his liver disease took over and finished the job. So by late February I knew I had to leave town. The police had never helped me. Only a few of my friends were there for me anymore. All I talked about was my father and it obviously was something no one could relate to. The people that were looking for my father started looking for me. I
left to Canada. I met the woman who I’m now engaged to. I didn’t really understand how I felt for her at that point - I didn’t tell her I was in love with her until I was at a payphone in Turkey about to go into Iraq.
In Iraq I really felt different than I expected. I had almost no fear. Everyone told me that I was going to die. All my friends in Turkey, all my friends in America, all my friends all over really. Everyone except Jayme and Tyler in Iraq. So I went where I felt I could identify with people.
Esther: What did you identify with in the people of Iraq?
Jacob: I could identify with the people in Iraq who felt injustice, who felt oppressed by the people who were supposed to help them. They all knew people who died. They all lived their life knowing everyday was likely their last, regardless if it was by Iraqis or by Americans. I was in the same spot although they took care of me. I really liked every single one of them. Some of the people there broke my heart - men with guns that couldn’t read, they would follow you like a puppy dog and kill
like a bull raging. I started to understand that there are people in the world who are not yet awake. I had said it for years but I hadn’t really come to the full realization about it in my own life. I felt awake.
Esther: Awake to what? What was the difference between dream and day?
Jacob: I was awake to the inherent humanity in everyone. Regardless of nationality, race, faith and gender. People who were supposed to be dangerous, that were supposed to be the enemy - they were my friends. They were snipers, cab drivers, tea boys. We could talk about forbidden subjects and they treated me with respect even though I was very different. Nothing haraam (forbidden by Islam) was really unspeakable to them. I really could empathize with them when they told me how the world didn’t know their suffering, how the world didn’t care about them, how Americans weren’t paying attention to their own actions. I even heard people tell me they didn’t always feel this way. Often it was a single action or inaction that turned them away. At first these same people welcomed Americans but as things turned, that eroded respect for Americans. Years without stable power or clean water will do that to you. Then, they became worse than Saddam, and helping Americans was something that would often get you killed - your family as well. They felt abandoned, their nation was instantly shattered into many pieces. Religious zealots on both sides, both the American and the Iraqi ‘Taliban.’ By that I really mean inhuman scum that will send bombs raining on humans in the name of freedom justice and service to their god. I felt more and more
like I couldn’t let things like this happen. During my trip I became inspired to stop bitching about things and change them. All my work with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and other NGO/NP groups was one thing. But I decided to get a camera rolling and ask them questions. I realized that people don’t identify with each other because they’re not communicating in a meaningful way. They’re wearing blinders. It made me think that perhaps I should just start documenting things - photographing, writing, talking, videocasting.
In a way though, I’ve reached a point where I have gone into dangerous situations more often than my life partner would like. She’s worried about me. She’s probably worried about what it means for us. She doesn’t want to get a phone call from anyone but me regarding how I’m doing. So perhaps warzones and disaster areas aren’t the best place for me. I don’t know though. I fully understand and respect her. I’m torn on the course of my life as a result. I stopped being worried about my safety
when I made the choice to start traveling to document. I don’t sweat before flights, if it crashes, I’ll be dead anyway. I
don’t worry at check points, they’re just faux security anyway. I guess I don’t even worry about my safety anymore. I’m resigned about my mortality.
Esther: There’s a difference between those two things. It’s ironic to me that someone who woke up to the humanity of others would not worry about his own safety. Or, perhaps, not ironic, but confusing.
Jacob: Whatever restrictions are put in my way, I find as a challenge to my skills of breaking them.
Esther: The hacker ethos.
Jacob: I don’t worry about my safety because I’m doing something inherently dangerous. I try to make choices that will not get me killed. But ultimately, the first choice is the root of all issues.
Esther: You mean, the choice to go into New Orleans or to Iraq to begin with?
Jacob: Yes. After the point when I rolled across the Turkey/Iraq border, there was only living normally for me. I spent my whole life dodging needles and dead junkies in my bathtub. A few rocket launchers pointed at someone else aren’t really that scary in contrast. Luckily for me, I didn’t see any of those. But I thought about it and I knew that I had to experience a bigger tragedy than the ones personal to my life. Iraq did that for me. When I returned from Iraq and someone asked me what was new, I didn’t have to talk about my father, about my personal cause for which there was no solution.
Esther: It’s easy to see how you decided to go to Houston and to New Orleans based on these motivations. Your powerful commitment to reality makes it natural to go to a place like this and act as a conduit of information through photography, and facilitate the communications of others through information technology. In the mainstream media, Iraq and New Orleans after the hurricane and flood have been portrayed as events where individuals cannot come into contact with the affected people except through the public relations efforts of big organizations like the US government and the Red Cross. How did you come by the opportunity to make person to person connection in New Orleans?
Jacob: I was contacted by someone while in Houston, someone I had worked with previously. He told me that he needed me to establish communications systems at this house in Algiers. He put me in contact with Malik Rahim. [Rahim is a community activist, a former Black Panther based in the poor black neighborhood of Algiers, who has spoke widely about the racism and classism inherent in the Katrina response.] He told me that after that point, we needed to break the communications point out to more people in the area of Algiers. We’ve [Appelbaum and a colleague, Joel, an expert in wireless networking] been asked to bringing internet access and with it networking to whatever computers are here. Which to be honest isn’t much. AMD donated a number of small embedded computers.
Esther: What’s the purpose of the computers? How are the Internet wired systems expected to be used?
Jacob: Malik is a very community oriented man. He asked permission from the board of the west bank mosque and he along with others to start a community run health clinic. His house is also a large community oriented meeting place. People from all
over are here helping locals. Soon food not bombs will be here to cook for the community. A community needs to communicate and congregate to grow stronger.
Esther: That’s wonderful.
Jacob: The community run health center is helping people. Today I spoke with a man who said he was shot at when I asked about a gash in his head. But one of the people helping said it was likely debris during the storm. He was very disoriented but they watched over a very obviously lonely man. He has no family to care for him. Of all the places I could be, this is the best place. Malik has actually made me sort of a go to person. He’s been giving my name out over the phone for a contact person.
Esther: For the whole operation, not just the ‘net stuff?
Jacob: Directions, technical questions, whatever is needed. Everything. Although so far we’re still just acclimating.
Esther: Why is it important for Algiers to be wired to the Internet at this point?
Jacob: Because the people here requested communication. They had a single phone line, in Malik’s house.
In a way, this is a liberal strong hold. We’ve got people on the ground who acknowledge they’re getting no help and they’ve decided to self-organize. In a way it’s also a conservative strong hold, this is their land, their homes and they’ve got nothing else. No one is helping them, so they’re helping themselves. Really, it’s funny because everyone has put their silly politics aside and come together to survive.
Esther: So the communications are as much to help them self-organize..what does that mean? organize to what end?
Jacob: People have been coming in with skills, medical, technical, cooking, media, photographers, you name it, to help the people in the community who are staying. There is no evacuation order for this section of the city. People all over the city are staying. Most do not have a way to leave or a place to go outside of New Orleans. Some people have a hard time understanding it but many of the people here are so poor this may be the first computer on their block. They don’t ride in cars, let along actually owning one. They have nowhere to go.
Esther: If the computers are up and running yet - how are they being used?
Jacob: Currently we have a few laptops being used to distribute articles being written such as what I’ve been posting on. Photos, videos, needed information, etcetera.
Esther: Have you thought yet about how you are going to encourage adoption of their use in this ‘first computer on the block’ community? How do you envision adoption unfolding?
Jacob: The medical center will use it to help with their needs. I assume that means that they’re going to search for information relating to the care they’re giving. Also to give the staff information communication assistance which I think should improve morale. It’s a strange thing being in the middle of a community and feeling alone. Lots of people
get homesick. I guess sometimes it’s easier to just forget about the outside world without communications systems.
Esther: Or to have the outside world forget about, or misportray, you.
Jacob: I don’t need the outside world to tell me that people around me appreciate me. People told me they were happy to have that photo of the body I’ve just uploaded. It gives them proof of the blatant disregard for their neighborhood. The houses here haven’t been searched. When you walk down the road you see porch lights on where power has been restored. During the day the lights being on might seem like an oversight else where but one of the medics from our clinic pointed out that it’s possible someone died in the house. When you walk up to the porch and the wind blows through the house, through the broken windows, you can smell rotting flesh. Sometimes it’s rotting food. Sometimes it’s animals left behind. Today while walking down the streets of Algiers I came upon a bag that smelled like something had died. The bag was full of brown liquid at the base, it was bulging and covered in flies. When I walked down the road telling people about the health clinic I asked about the bag. It was a dog. Now it’s a plastic bag tied shut and rotting in the hot sun. The bag’s leaking liquid dog onto the road.
Esther: Where are the cleanup crews?
Jacob: I haven’t seen any for bodies. There are people working on power and military occasionally pushing trees aside.
Esther: Is Rahim’s community center, or anyone else in Algiers, requesting crews?
Jacob: Yes, people have called about the body for quite some time. I believe it’s been over a week. When the police saw Joel and I photographing the body, they laughed. When we said we hoped taking the photos would bring someone here to clean it up sooner. They actually laughed, which shows the magnitude of the death. One body, well jeez, that’s nothing.
(Jacob shows the photograph)
Esther: This is the body under sheet metal with the death sign painted on it? The death signs remind me of plague houses hundreds of years ago.
Jacob: Yes,that’s right. It’s the DMORT crew. They mark the bodies or the houses. It’s a grim part of life - death in your face, destruction at your doorstep. If there’s a step left.
Esther: Rahim has been a spokesman for the community remaining in the New Orleans metro area, and he’s talked about the racism and classism inherent in the disaster response. I cant help but think that its a part of the reason why that body is still there..
Jacob: Yes. I agree entirely. Joel [http://www.gizmodo.com/gadgets/katrina/] and I were discussing this today while driving. It’s indicative of the attitude for the entire areas response. Only recently has FEMA setup a distribution center on this side of the river. I saw it today for the first time. The first thing they put up was razor wire according to locals.
Esther: How are agencies - FEMA, law enforcement, Red Cross, operating in Algiers?
Jacob: FEMA has one station that I know of next to the river and people are afraid to go there for help because they don’t want to be forced to leave. The reason for the health clinic is because people are afraid of the Red Cross. The Red Cross does not have a positive reputation here. It’s funny reading about how the Red Cross wasn’t let into New Orleans but as far as I can tell they never bothered to come help the people here in Algiers, which for those at home who haven’t seen a map, it’s right on the other side of the Mississippi river. It’s strange, I’ve gotten a few criticisms of being here via
email today. One of them was from a friend who said: ‘I’m psyched about what you are doing… I think its valuable and important to witness with one’s own eyes crazy human/inhuman events… and it’s vital that you are reporting it… I’m into it…one strange criticism I heard specifically about your journey is that its unclear exactly what your motive might be
for visiting these places of devastation and occupation…I’m definitely interested in the ‘why you are there’ type questions…’
It’s really hard to respond to people who ask that question. My first response is to ask why they’re not here. It’s
so strange to have to justify being here.
Esther: Well, a friend of mine, who is a man from Dominica, said that the inequality that underlies the Gulf situation is everywhere in the US and that those that wish to help should work where they are.
Jacob: But if I were to have to justify being here, or going to Iraq it’s to tell a story about my travel. It’s to document my story with photos and writing. It’s to hope for a better world through understanding. Even if I disagree with the viewpoints. It’s to better myself and to document what I’m experiencing as person. I’m getting experience that’s impossible to do without traveling to far off places.
Esther: But I think that focus and mediation are important. I think you are doing good being there, rather than in SF, because people’s eyes are there. People, for now, are watching the situation, and this is advantageous in your ‘humanizing project.’
Jacob: When people read what I write and see photos of what I’m experiencing it brings them in touch with a story that almost without surprise isn’t interesting to lots of people. The war in Iraq is still going on? The people in New Orleans still have dead bodies in the street? ‘I had no idea.’ Even when they see it on the news, on CNN, on FOX, online with Indymedia. It’s always the same stuff. Reporters, politicians, bullshit. I suppose what I’m writing is bullshit also. If you’re going to agree with it perhaps you won’t think it’s bullshit. If you like what you see in terms of aesthetics or information or what have you, you might not think it’s bullshit. Some people have even written to thank me. Others have written to tell me that I’m a horrible person and they hope someone shoots me. Life goes on for them. They’re not here. They’re not interested in being reminded of what’s going on here.
Esther: But you said, “I’m very unhappy with the way that traditional media is presented. I’m unhappy that people watch the news and don’t have trouble sleeping.” I think earlier there, you made what you are doing distinct, a different class of information than that which is reported by FOX, CNN or even indymedia.
Jacob: Yes, I did. But that doesn’t mean how I feel is how other people feel. People accuse me of being a profiteer and even call me a journalist as an insult.
Esther: I think that is always true. The totalization of perspectives - the way Bush does it - is a part of the basic problem mainstream media has in perceiving reality I think the way that your work is different is that you are giving people skills and equipment to tell their own stories to their own chosen audiences. Everyone in the experience has a story.. even Anderson Cooper ‘came awake’ as you put it, when he saw rats in the streets eating bodies.
Esther: Can you talk a bit about Houston.. Why did you decide to attempt the radio station? It seems somewhat counter intuitive to some people - to make a radio station in an enclosed space, where people are nose-close to services provided by the government and red cross.
Jacob: First of all, it wasn’t my idea. I called Xeni Jardin [an editor at boingboing.net] the day after I got laid off. I told her I wanted to help with whatever I could. I’m a photographer, I’m a hacker, I am able to write, I know how to build things, so what could I do? How could I make myself the most useful? Anyone can slop food on a tray and it’s important, no
doubt about it. But not everyone is willing to travel on their own dime. Perhaps someone will pay for some of the stuff we’re putting here, or the tickets that got us here but I personally don’t care. By coming here, bringing my own food, water, fuel and other things to help, I’m not a burden. My money is going to directly help these people by getting me here and being self sustaining. The radio station in Houston was simply thing the on the ground to do when we got in. The people Joel had
talked to asked us for our help.
Esther: But why was it useful? Remember, most general readers have a concept of a radio station that’s rather curtailed by media consolidation.
Jacob:Ah. Well, had the radio station gone up when it was first proposed it would have served as the main information conduit. Food information, housing information, funding, job interviews, missing/found persons. Anytime and anywhere. Loud speakers don’t work when you’re in the shower. In addition music selected by the people there would have
helped to raise morale. Imagine being able to hear your favorite song.
Some sort of hope through sound.
(Note: The station was subsequently approved.)
Esther: who would have administered and programmed the station?
Jacob: The locals and volunteers. Anyone with information.
Esther: You had a person-to-person entry into Algiers - that being your friend and former colleague who knows Rahim. I’m interested to know how you came to the Astrodome, you and the rest of the crew - was it a similar sort of contact?
Jacob: The contacts made in Houston were through cuwireless.net, the Champaign-Urbana community wireless network. Sascha, an organizer there, put us in contact with people who needed help.
Esther: It seems that the original plan for an Astrodome based station have been stymied for good.. but it’s moving to a station with administration and programming distributed across Houston?
Jacob: Perhaps. The Astrodome is going to be emptied by the 17th I believe. To make way for a sports game.
Esther: Oh, hell. It seems like the residents of New Orleans are supposed to be multiply displaced, split up and de-localized according to the government plan. Ironically, they’re not getting the consideration that the ‘third world refugees’ they are trying not to be compared to get - that is, the right to live as communities when displaced.
Jacob: Indeed. I just heard that they’re not going to force evacuations anymore.
Esther: Good - but I hope those who stay stay due to choice, and not due to lack of choice, and that they are supported by an economy of their choosing, and that they have an opportunity to decide how the rebuilding
is to occur.
Jacob:Many people will stay because they have no choice. Those people in this area are going to get help from FEMA eventually but they’re getting medical help from Malik’s community network now. Malik has really created something here, something the rest of New Orleans is sorely lacking but not without reason. There aren’t enough people like Malik.
Esther: And what do you think will happen to the network once Fema moves in to help - and fully occupy - Algiers?
Jacob: First of all, I don’t think they will occupy Algiers entirely, unless you count the mandatory curfew and the patrols randomly. Secondly, it will build a stronger community.
Jacob: In a similar way to how I feel what Joel and I are doing will help build a stronger community, both locally and globally. Or nationally depending on what you care about. It’s going to be stronger because it will be better connected. It will almost certainly keep all the hardware everyone brings. People who would otherwise never touch a computer, their children and so on.
Esther: This is what quickens my heart, Jacob, and sparks my interest in your project. Decades of racism and apartheid can’t be bridged by computers. But how will they deploy in a house, a block, a city? What will it mean?
Jacob: It will start by being useful. It will start by saving people from being sick now. It will help by letting the world know a bunch of community workers are beating FEMA at their own job with their own money. The digital divide won’t be beaten here if we don’t try.
Esther: I think that one of the reasons people dislike this approach is that instead of restoring the previous order, giving displaced people tech resources can create a community that may oppose this order. Which, I think, you may agree with this aim, based on your expressed dissatisfaction with the world. Although, there’s nothing saying that the attempts to bridge the digital divide from you and friends including cuwireless and prometheus and such will do that.
In any case this is all speculation on my part. I know the radio station was foiled. To what extent has digital infrastructure deployed in Astrodome? And to what extent has this infrastructure been used for self-organizing purposes there?
Jacob: The digital infrastructure in the Astrodome is as deployed as its going to get. As far as I know the radio station still hasn’t been given the go ahead. The stuff in place there isn’t the same as it is here. It was meant as direct information source and it was basically stepped on for no real reason.
Esther: As time goes on in this disaster aftermath, in what ways will the digital divide bridging efforts continue? Do you think information collectively produced by the displaced people has a higher standard of truth than the content produced by traditional journalism?
Jacob: I think that people in this area will become more computer literate and those people will teach their neighbors. They will learn the value of networking. I don’t know if it’s better than traditional journalism but I know it’s going to hit home for the people who collectively produce it for a greater good of a community.