Rachael Levy writes in Slate:
“If you’re looking for WiFi at the South by Southwest tech conference this week, instead of heading to a cafe or bumming off of a neighbor, you might just ask a homeless person.
That’s right. New York-based advertising agency BBH Labs introduced a trial run of its new project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” at the tech startup conference in Austin, which started Friday. While potentially practical, the pilot program isn’t exactly getting rave reviews from everyone.
Wired magazine reports that the homeless individuals hawking the service were recruited from a local shelter and are walking around carrying MiFi devices (techspeak for mobile WiFi hotpots) and wearing t-shirts with this:
I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME]
TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
Those who wish to connect to the 4G network offer a donation that goes directly to the homeless person. BBH Labs recommends a $2 donation per 15 minutes of use—which can be paid through PayPal—but leaves the ultimate payment up to each Internet user.
BBH Labs has described the program as a possible auto-entrepreneurship project akin to programs in which homeless persons sell locally produced street papers, only better. “We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” the company wrote on its blog.
But the program, which BBH reiterated on Monday was meant only as an experiment during the tech show, has faced plenty of scrutiny in the blogosphere. BuzzFeed writes that the controversy, which largely centered around the ethics of using humans as walking commodities, even earned its own Twitter hashtag on Sunday night, with one angry Twitter user asking whether anyone else thought using homeless people as wireless hotspots was “disturbing, dehumanizing, offensive?
One homeless vendor at the conference spoke of the mixed reactions to CNN: “Some people want nothing to do with it, for whatever reason.” But the man also added: “I think it’s a great thing. It’s an opportunity.”
I don’t find the “Homeless Hotspot” program “disturbing, dehumanizing, and offensive”: the people participating in the program are doing so voluntarily, providing a service in exchange for pay, and presumably they are participating because participating makes them better off than not participating.
What is dehumanizing, however, is the idea that homeless people are too stupid, or too poor, or too homeless to decide for themselves whether a temporary existence as a paid source of public Internet access is worthwhile.