Culture Guides

Downloading in Disaster Zones

While the bombs are falling, the plague victims are scrabbling at the tent doors, our main man, Erik is plugged into his Ipod listening to new downloads. When he’s not having Disaster Sex…

I was born in the 70’s, the so-called ‘golden age’ of porn, the decade when the term ‘swinging’ first hit the street and the Weather Underground and others were trying to ‘smash monogamy.’ While I’d guess that only a marginal American minority may have actually ‘swung,’ these were nevertheless the years of drugs and disco, when casual sex and one-night stands first became mainstream.

I came of age in the 80’s, when saw the backlash: the Reagan years, the return of conservatism, the war on drugs, and the very real scourge of AIDS. That brief era of free sex without apparent consequences was lost forever. While wife swapping these days may not be common, the explosion of technology in the past ten years has meant that something else is getting swapped, and in large volumes: digital content.

As the emergency relief director for an international non-government organization, or NGO, my job takes me to strange places. Though based in Denmark, any given week is just as likely to find me in Islamabad or Nairobi, Brussels or Berlin. The places I visit are either in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, or are hubs on the wheels of the vast aid machine that churns out emergency assistance to those people whom both nature and governments have failed.

My job has given me a unique perspective on the swapping phenomenon. There is something in my digital swapping experience that somehow reflects the zeitgeist of this particular moment in world history: I have a front row seat to all of the most gut-wrenching humanitarian disasters and the subsequent international responses, while I’ve got another ear tuned to the frequency of the developed world, nearly oblivious to the plight of the poor, spewing a steady diet of entertainment while the first world gorges itself in a digital orgy.

Last year found me in Lilongwe, Malawi. I was doing an evaluation of my organization’s response to a small scale hunger crisis in a country where the staggering prevalence of AIDS makes the population even more vulnerable to famine; countries from Somalia on Africa’s horn all the way down through to Southern Africa get hit with such small scale hunger crises every year.

The night before I left Malawi I met a guy who happened to come from Copenhagen, where I now live, and a few minutes after meeting, we discovered a common love for films, and a few minutes after that we were trading content. I downloaded about 12 films off of him, most of which hadn’t yet seen theatrical release in Denmark. I told him about some political documentaries, including a few 9/11 conspiracy films and he was interested.

Pirated films are available all across the world but often they’re taken from bootleg cameras filming theatre screens. The audio sucks, the image sucks, and without fail some guy in the first row will get up half way through the picture and his shadow will walk across your screen. And while in my job I hear nothing but talk about AIDS, sometimes I’m more concerned about a nasty dose of the ‘digital clap’: a virus, spyware, a worm, or some other bug.

I was in Darfur a couple months later when I hit my second big jackpot: 21 GigaBytes of music, over 4,000 songs. I was there to do an evaluation of our water and sanitation program. When the crisis in Darfur first erupted in 2004, my organization started a one year, 1.2 million Euro project to provide water, sanitation and hygiene to 400,000 internally displaced people, which is what we call refugees that haven’t crossed an international border. I was there, as usual, to ask the hard questions: have we succeeded in meeting the needs of the people? Has our aid operation had unintended consequences that have exacerbated the conflict? And last, but not least, has anyone got anything to download?

I got the 21 G’s from a woman whom, again, I had only met a few hours before. It all sounds so tawdry now. It was only a fraction of what she had; her friends had given her an 80 GB hard drive full of music and films as a going away present before she left for her first mission as an aid worker. I sat on the woven plastic chair in the sweltering night-time heat, listening to countless insects suicidally fling themselves toward the light, loading my laptop with all of that digital ear candy.

Another woman on my evaluation team anxiously awaited her turn – good taste prohibits me from drawing yet another free sex comparison here. The water and sanitation program was, by and large, doing what it was supposed to, and my organization will likely keep running the program until the United States, China, and the other power players in the international game can force Sudan to reign in the militias who are still in the midst of a carefully executed, small-scale genocide. While most aid workers enter the field with a well-intentioned desire to make a difference, cynicism is an occupational hazard. Perhaps it sounds a bit hard-hearted to hop from disaster response to sharing digital entertainment, and I suppose it is.

Then I was in Lebanon. While the Israeli bombs were still falling my agency immediately set up a program to distribute non-food emergency items to the internally displaced, and shortly after the war ended we started an operation to clear the more than 1 million unexploded cluster munitions in the South, explosive remnants of the carpet bombing of the last few days of the war. They have since killed or wounded over 200 hundred civilians, many of them children.

Me? I was there to help set up the operation and give management support to our Country Director. We began the process of local registration, procurement of the technical items, and training the Lebanese de-miners. Over beers I learned that our French logistician had around 50 GB’s of music. Over the course of a few nights, we traded what we had. She had lots of French hip hop, as well as a few new films, including Blood Diamond, which hadn’t yet reached the theatres in Denmark. The film is set in Sierra Leone, where I had run a medical program during the civil war, and so I couldn’t wait to see it.

By this point I had so much content I had to buy another 80 GB external hard drive. It’s unlikely that I’ll buy another CD for years. I have had other swaps in other places since then, and countless ecstatic moments when I’ve found a stunning new band or song that I’ve never heard of buried amongst the files.

I suppose that the somewhat cynical indifference that enables me to be both professional in a disaster and download entertainment at night without any crisis of conscience strikes me as evocative of the spirit of our own cynical age. From the inside, few things are more cynical than that supposedly altruistic but ultimately neo-colonial enterprise known as the international aid business. Aid workers hand out band aids in places like Darfur, knowing full well that the real solution to any big disaster is political, and that those who pay for the aid – be they public givers or the big institutional donors – represent the same governments that refuse to address the real causes of injustice for fear that they might upset the global chess game, or that the real solutions might mean no more SUVs and no more Big Macs.

What does any of this really have to do with sex? ‘Disaster Sex’ is a commonly known fact of life for the aid worker; as in, ‘We’re in a disaster, so let’s have sex.’ Three UN staff recently published a book of the same name about their exploits in the field. After the emotional stress of countless 12 hour work days trying to meet the needs of suffering people, aid workers have a well known propensity to drink copious amounts of alcohol and shag each other blind. So perhaps there is more being exchanged outside the refugee camp than digital music.

Erik Johnson