9/11: There's an App for That

by by Maud Doyle

illustration by by Alexandra Corrigan

The first official memorial to the 9/11 tragedy was built in light, twin beams serving as an intangible but indelible memory of the buildings. Before that, though, there were the grassroots memorials, collections of objects left by disparate individuals—the missing posters preserved on the walls of St. Vincent’s Hospital, candles and flowers by the fences downtown, commemorative tiles painted by New Yorkers and hung on the chain-link fence around a 7th Avenue parking lot.

All of these versions of memorializing are far from the monolithic tradition of permanence and stone. Local Projects, a young media design firm, developed an iPhone app, Explore 9/11, to create a “Memorial Experience” with a GPS-guided tour of Ground Zero, complete with images and testimonies from the actual event. Local Projects creates interactives, websites, mobile apps, and digital and tangible installations for museums, public spaces, and public projects such as StoryCorps. They developed Explore 9/11 as one element of a suite of media projects for the 9/11 Memorial Foundation (which is responsible for both the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the 9/11 Memorial). The suite includes interfaces to navigate the memorial, and, with Thinc Design, the exhibition itself.
Jake Barton, the founder and principal of Local Projects, talked to the Independent about making an app for history.

The Independent: How did the Explore 9/11 take shape?

Jake Barton: The app takes its cues from the approach of the Museum itself, which is very much made up of the voices of witnesses to history. We created the website “Make History” to gather images, written stories, and videos of people’s experiences on 9/11. We wanted people to narrate the events of that day and the history that they created, and got thousands of submissions from around the world. We then took those submissions and composed them into the walking tour and storytelling experience that is Explore 9/11.

Indy: Traditionally, memorials are very permanent, both aesthetically and literally. On the other hand, the app is by nature temporal––it could be updated and reconfigured both by users and by programmers. Do you think of this project as a memorial or as something else?

JB: I think of this project as a Memorial Experience. 9/11 was witnessed by one-third of the world in the moment, and another third within the first 24 hours, meaning that 9/11 was an event of unprecedented human attention. This Memorial is made up of so many experiences, from those far away, to those at the sites themselves. The fluidity of digital media means that as we learn more and gather more material, Explore 9/11 can evolve with it.

Indy: So 9/11 was experienced by most of the world virtually, is what it comes down to.

JB: It’s hard with a consumer product like an iPhone to make something appropriate, and in fact, Fox News did an½ hour special where they asked people on the street if it was even okay to have stories like this on an iPhone. People didn’t seem to mind, given the way the stories themselves were treated with respect and were in the voice of the witnesses themselves.

Indy: I think that in this case the possibilities offered by a mixed-media platform with live GPS tracking actually enables more than it binds. Do you think of the app as an educational platform, or a memorializing one? Is there a difference?

JB: One is meant to be more didactic and explanatory, while the other looks to secure memory in a memorial fashion. They are intertwined here, but not the same.

The development team had always recognized that it would be a challenge to make an experience that could speak both to those who ran out of the burning buildings, whose lives were forever changed on that day, and then also to young adults who had no direct experiences of the event. We always wanted to have the one group describe the event to the other group. So we highlight the storytelling through oral histories and first-person accounts to create something authentic and meaningful for all visitors.

Indy: One of the things that struck me about the app experience was the facelessness of those offering us witness testimony. In the documentary tradition, we are used to attributing words and voices to individual faces. This version feels more anonymous to me. Perhaps by not anchoring the experience to an individual with distinct features, it offers one experience as an experience of many—or at least all of the individuals who appear in the slideshows being voiced over.

JB: While the speakers aren’t pictured, their voices are arguably more intimate and create a closer relationship then you might experience from just a photograph. Having a person tell you his story in your ear is a very individual experience.

Indy: Interesting, particularly because we’re accustomed to having individual conversations over the phone. Actually, the stories, as received through this app, are easier to concentrate on and really listen to than I think they would be in a museum setting. Sometimes, educational memorial museums feel cluttered and close. The app, on the other hand, offers images and words together, one at a time, orchestrating a simpler experience of the material. On the other hand, it cannot provide tangible relics. Is this a proposal for a new kind of memorial museum?

JB: The New York Times review said that the personal and intimate nature of the app experience offered the perfect memorial for 9/11 and how New Yorkers in particular feel about the event right now. But when the Museum opens, with the raw physicality of the artifacts, that will have such potency and presence, I believe it will really transform our relationship with 9/11, whether you are a New Yorker, whether you have an intimate personal experience, or whether you know very little of the event.

Indy: For me, the beauty of this app is its connection to physicality. It’s rooted in the spaces of downtown New York.

JB: There is a power to physical space and to the authenticity of being at the site itself that is indelible and chilling. The experience of memory can be heightened by that reality, so the intangible heightens the physical location.

Indy: Do you think that as this strange rupture that we call Ground Zero becomes the Freedom Tower—hopefully a living, functioning space—the nature of the app as a grounded thing will change? How do you avoid the replacement of memory with memorial?

JB: I think the space of our experience will change as the event grows into the past. There will be many who will never be able to get out of that day. However, there are young people today who won’t have that personal relationship with the event. Hopefully the app will allow them to feel like they are standing and witnessing history,and help them understand the experience a little more deeply.