Are homeless hotspots the solution to ‘self-involved’ digerati at SXSW?

Who didn’t shudder a little at the news Monday that BBH, a New York marketing firm, strapped compact wireless routers to homeless people and deployed them around Austin, Texas, wearing T-shirts saying, for example, “I’m Clarence, and I’m a 4G hotspot”? There’s an undeniable “ick” factor to the idea, one that the project’s organizers hope will trigger conversation about homelessness after the urge to abandon the human race altogether fades. What they’ve actually inspired: conversations about strapping compact wireless routers to homeless people (the program ended Monday), but I guess there’s an opening there for further discussion.

The ick: People are doing a job usually farmed out to walls and tables. Also, the organizers’ stated goal that homeless hotspots are equivalent to selling newspapers is problematic: John Bird, an advocate for the homeless, writes that selling The Big Issue, a British homeless publication, “was a highly complex task. You had to develop many of the abilities of a marketeer, and a diplomat, with the hope that many of these new-formed skills could get you off the streets.”

The counter-ick: The jobs were competitive, and anyone wishing to take advantage of the signal is encouraged to pay the people doing them directly. “What BBH is advocating, and I hope it stays true to its words, is that this could be the beginning of a new form of work for the homeless that is not demeaning,” Bird writes. On its blog, BBH writes that the hotspotters “were guaranteed make at least $50/day, for a maximum of 6 hours work. This amount equates to more than the Texas state minimum wage of $7.25/hr for the same number hours. Based on donations already received, we know their earnings will be higher than $50 for each of them – as was our intention. What’s been misunderstood is the break-out of money in cash per day vs. what’s received after the program ends. BBH provides a $20 cash ”stipend” to the volunteers each day regardless of their own sales.”

The ick: Privileged attendees of a festival about technology are getting a boost for their mobile computing devices via people whose place on the economic spectrum is far different to theirs. Jenna Wortham writes: “Adam Hanft, chief executive of the marketing advisory firm Hanft Projects, said that even if the effort was well intended, it seemed to turn a blind eye to that disconnect. ‘There is already a sense that the Internet community has become so absurdly self-involved that they don’t think there’s any world outside of theirs,’ he said.” Jon Mitchell echoes that thought: “Honestly, anyone worried enough about connectivity at SXSW enough to pay someone on the street for it has a longer list of problems than first-world guilt. But this conference is so hugely, expensively over the top as a monument to the privilege of Internet access that I didn’t think it could top itself.”

The counter-ick: I’m typing this on a computer made under conditions that are miserable for many of the people who worked on them. Am I in any position to argue about who’s being worse to the rest of the world? A worry like that, Tom Cheredar writes, is “more telling of our own society than it is about allowing homeless people to better themselves during a busy time in a big city.”

The ick: BBH (short for the somewhat more Roald Dahl-esque Bartel Bogle Hegarty) is a marketing firm, and this project by its “Labs” division was a publicity stunt. Whether you bought access from the hotspots or blogged your outrage about them, the stunt worked.

The counter-ick: Take it away, Megan Garber:

BBH is taking a bad situation — the fact that Austin has people who lack homes and jobs and who, given the choice, would prefer to have both — and trying to do something constructive with it. Yes, it’s gimmicky; yes, it’s weird; yes, it’s initially kind of offensive. It’s right that our gut reaction to Homeless Hotspots is disbelief and disgust; it’s right that we’re alarmed at the idea of turning people into platforms. It’s also right, though, that we take the next step to ask ourselves: What’s the alternative? That we go on ignoring homelessness? It’s nice to be reminded that Austin, even in March, is about more than serendipity apps and rooftop pool parties.

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  • Jim Hopkins

    I honestly think the problem boils down to this: “I’m a 4G hotspot.” It turned a human being into an antenna, and that’s not humane.

    On the other hand, if the homeless people instead wore t-shirts or carried signs that said: “4G hotspot availability here — ask me how” — well, I suspect the reaction would have been different.