Columbus, Ohio USA
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Techie as Activist
Robb Ebright fosters community through technology, teaching, and mentoring
By Jory Farr
November/December 2012 Issue

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Robb Ebright working to build a better future.
Photo © Jory Farr

If technology seems to be more and more about creating a surveillance state and shackling us to predictable behavior for the benefit of corporations, Robb Ebright has another vision.

“Technology can enslave and isolate us. But I’m all about grassroots implementation of free and open software for community empowerment,” says Ebright. “It’s essential to a community’s ability to share knowledge. It’s essential to a community being able to define itself.”

Ebright, 33, is tall and skinny with a reddish beard. He has streaky, stringy blond-brown hair and wears a faded shirt, ripped blue jeans and Creamsicle-orange-and-white glasses. He seems to be omnipresent in Columbus, surfacing at events that are political (filming a talk by Democracy Now’s host Amy Goodman), communal (videotaping ComFest as part of a documentary) and technological (bringing emergency Internet to the Clintonville Community Market when the power outage cut off their cable modem).

A communitarian, he uses technology to emphasize the connection between the individual and the community. But he might best be described as a techie activist, vigorously advocating issues surrounding technology that have far-reaching implications for how we live.

In Columbus, he has been at the center of the indy media movement that includes a loose affiliation of geeks, leftists and activists who are trying to create authentic community via new – and sometimes even old – media and technology. To that end, Ebright works with groups ranging from the Clintonville Community Market and WCRS-FM radio to Video the Vote, a national organization that monitors the elections via video cameras, and Free Geek Columbus, a collection of techies that refurbish old computers with software for nonprofits and volunteer organizations.

Sometimes his work is simply an issue of using open software, as in the case of Clintonville Community Market, where Ebright saved the natural food co-op some $30,000 a few years ago by implementing a point-of-sales system run with Linux. But at other times, his work is aggressively political.

“With Video the Vote,” Ebright says, leaning forward with excitement, “we’ll be documenting in real time any issues people might have voting – from malfunctioning machines to misinformed officials, which might result in people losing their vote.”

“Robb has taken progressive ideas from all over the country and set them up here in Columbus,” says Suzanne Patzer, managing editor of the The Free Press, who has worked with Ebright for years. “Directing the Neighborhood Network, the license holder for WCRS radio, he’s taught a diverse group of people from the community – black and white, old and young – how to use the editing and audio equipment to produce radio shows. What’s impressed me is that he’s set up all these activist organizations and kept them running.”

Chuck Robol, a city planning doctoral candidate at OSU and a member of the University Area Commission, which reports on zoning and other issues to city council, has worked with Ebright over the years. “Robb has been a catalyst for Comfest, Free Geek and many other organizations in Columbus. He’s helped foster community through technology, teaching and mentoring. And he’s not just involved on a local level, but with national and international movements.”

Ebright’s work with WCRS is illustrative. As board chair of the Neighborhood Network, he essentially runs the station, troubleshooting technical problems, helping with fundraising, coordinating programming and recruiting volunteers.

“People are so distracted with the Internet that local radio doesn’t have the power it once had,” says Ebright. “But radio is a community-wide, geographical medium. It’s a way to create a voice that’s more than one person.”

Though he does design websites part-time for income, most of Ebright’s work is done gratis or for marginal payments. In a real sense, he’s giving Columbus a gift: a collective vision of a better future.

“So many people are keen to make fortunes in technology,” Ebright says. “But I’m not motivated by materialism. I’m motivated by ideas that help people build genuine community, by ideas that connect people.”

* * *

Ebright grew up in Columbus. His father had a company called Software Results which made components that connected to mainframe computers. His mother played saxophone in various bands. His parents split up when he was just five, around the time, he remembers, when he was reading a book series called, fittingly, “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

“They were interactive science fiction tales that put you through alternate story points,” he says with a wry smile.

Ebright says he was aware of the power of technology at an early age, but that going on the Internet in its infancy was life-changing.

“I got on the Net in 1992, when I was 13 years old, using one of the first Internet Service providers. What was amazing for me was to be able to talk to people all over the world. There was this whole cyber- reality of mostly college students.”

A year later, he built his first computer and taught himself some programming. By then he was a bona fide geek.

“I was the standard outsider in high school,” Ebright recalls. “I almost dropped out of Columbus High School. I wanted to be learning on my own. There were more rules and regulations than there was teaching. So it was definitely alienated by the emphasis on homework as opposed to the gaining of knowledge.”

He decided not to go to college. (He has since gotten a degree from Columbus State.) Instead, he moved to Chicago and got a tech support job at UPS. It was around that time that he got involved in the social aspect and politics of the Internet, issues of democracy and free speech, issues of how the new radical technology should be used in ways that were beneficial to humanity. Those themes would come to be his passion.

“Back then, the Net had a mystique. You were exploring an alternate reality. But now that alternate world is commercial and assaulting us. Then it was going into the computer. Now it’s the computer going into you. Anonymity is a desirable state. It’s a part of democracy. But the Internet today is stripping away anonymity.

“I saw so much potential with technology. I wanted to be involved with that. There was so much happening. But I soon discovered that the Internet has the ability to create shallow niche communities around points of interest. Sometimes that can result in real connections. But often it doesn’t. The thing is, the cyber world is no replacement for reality. For me, true community is accomplished face-to-face. Online, you don’t have a true connection. Your words could be meaning 20 different things to people.”

* * *

It’s a chilly day in early October, and Robb Ebright is teaching techie camp, sponsored by Techcorp, a non-profit dedicated to giving kids hands-on experience with technology. He wears a shirt emblazoned with a T on the front; on the back it says ‘I am the future I am a techie.” The subject for the weeklong class for fourth and fifth graders at Weinland Park Elementary School: How to build and control a robot.

The all-girls group of about 20 students is excited. They start assembling the small Lego robot vehicles. It calls for following a multi-page diagram, and some kids get the hang of it quickly.

“Yesterday they learned how to build basic robots,” says Ebright. “But today they’re going to learn how to build advanced robots that use sensors. The girls will be learning how to use the computer logic to affect how the robot behaves and responds to its environment.”

Ebright interacts effortlessly with the kids, finding them parts, making sure everything is in working order.

Flitting from table to table where the girls work in pairs, he says “Today we’ll be working on something called the line follower.”

“What’s the brains of the Lego called?” Ebright shouts out.

“A Mindstorm brick,” answers one of the girls.

Two girls, both 9, finish their robot. They turn the robot on, place it on a table and watch it as it follows along a twisty path set out by black adhesive tape. The robot motors through the path wherever it detects black tape and starts turning when it doesn’t.

“Way to go!” the two girls say and trade high fives. And Ebright just smiles.

“I can remember being that age. To make a robot is a really cool thing.”

© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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