Really? Using Homeless People As WiFi Hotspots?

This is a case where a horrible idea opened up possibilities and ideas that people could repurpose for their own uses; a case of a gold nugget inside a shit sandwich, if you will.
Publish date:
March 13, 2012
charity, homeless, technology, bad ideas

This is exactly the kind of thing hipsters would come up with: Using homeless people to provide wireless hotspots at the place to see-and-be-seen every March, SXSW. For the low, low suggested price of $2 per 15 minute session, attendees of the annual Austin event could get street wireless access from one of 13 members of the homeless community recruited by BBH Labs, a research arm of a marketing firm.

They wore shirts saying “I’m [name], a 4G hotspot.”

And the Internet promptly blew up.

There’s something in this that, well, as Tim Carmody put it, is like a “darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Send teams of homeless men out into the streets for middle class hipsters to use as wireless hotspots, since we certainly wouldn’t want them missing out on the next critical viral video. Someone, somewhere, is recording a cat doing something silly, you know. And as long as they're going to be out there anyway, they might as well be useful.

The very language of the campaign is deeply dehumanising: participants in the program weren’t providing or offering wireless access, they were wireless access, and that really changes the framing. Rather than providing a needed service for a fee, which is one way to make a living, they were the service itself; turned into objects, rather than people.

Carmody has deeper concerns about the campaign, worrying that it was more of a marketing stunt than anything else. BBH Labs was also behind the much more successful and socially engaged “Underheard in New York,” where members of the homeless community used cell phones to engage through social media, telling their stories on a platform where anyone could access them. The program was well-received because it was interesting and innovative, and put the actual voices of members of the homeless community front and center, unlike the wireless hotspot program.Of course, as soon as it ended, the company stopped paying for cell service and participants presumably returned to their daily lives -- so much for making lasting changes in the lives of homeless people, eh?

BBH is allegedly in negotiations to monetize “Underhead in New York,” which raises the question of how much of that money will go to the marketing firm, and how much will go to the participants. Carmody points out that the furor over the wireless hotspots is a pretty great gateway to publicity. He worries about the exploitative nature of BBH’s previous interactions with the homeless community, which don’t really speak to a company interested in social progress and innovation -- unless, of course, there’s profit in it for them.

The program involved a particular narrative of homelessness, as something that happens purely by luck and circumstance, but the actual stories of participants were very different. Sarah Jaffe noted that:

On the company's website, it describes Mark as "an avid chess player" who "considers homelessness a temporary situation related to bad choices he made in his life, but doesn’t let it define him."

The story he told us was quite different. He'd lost his job as an electrician because of the economy, and lost his home when he could no longer afford the rent. Originally from Houston, he had been living with family in North Carolina and when he moved to Austin, he found it hard to stay on his feet.

Supporters of the program argue that it provides a way for members of the homeless community to establish businesses and make a living, confronting stereotypes about homeless people as lazy and unmotivated. This includes some participants, like Mark, who stressed that he felt BBH was not taking advantage of the hotspot providers; it’s hard to say, however, whether Mark is aware of the company’s plans for the program, and whether he would feel the same way if he knew the firm plans to monetize its homeless initiatives.

BBH compares the program to The Big Issue, a newspaper put together and marketed by members of the homeless community. The publication is an example of self-sustaining journalism created by homeless people to support themselves, and it includes some political content as well as information about their communities; this is a far cry from being a passive object acting as little more than an Internet router. Instead, The Big Issue gives homeless people a voice as well as a vocation. I was curious to know how John Bird, one of the founders of The Big Issue, felt about this, and fortunately, he wrote a piece for The Guardian about it.

Bird was hesitant about the program, but stressed that rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it could potentially be turned into something much more interesting. Rather than regarding homeless people as static resources, they should be considered as what they are: dynamic and fully engaged members of their community. Homeless people can be navigators, guides, and so much more, and these skills could provide them with a much more legitimate vocation than being given some tech toys for a few days so they could provide Internet access to SXSW attendees.

His statements about the program align with mine. There’s a tendency in this reactive Internet age to immediately lash out at initiatives like this, turning them into starkly polarised issues. You’re either for them or against them, and there is no room for a middle ground. There’s not much room for thoughtful critique there, or a conversation about what the serious flaws of initiatives like this tell us about how to do them better.

The wireless hotspot concept was dehumanising, it didn’t provide participants with real opportunities since their equipment was taken away after four days, and it reinforced some troubling narratives about homelessness. It should never have happened. At the same time, though, there was a kernel of usefulness deep inside it, one that homeless communities themselves could develop into something that serves them, and that’s what I hope comes of this. That kernel was recognized by the people actually participating, and it’s rather patronizing to suggest that they didn’t know what they were doing or were hapless victims of the system. This is a case where a horrible idea opened up possibilities and ideas that people could repurpose for their own uses; a case of a gold nugget inside a shit sandwich, if you will.

Providing wireless access through a marketing firm isn’t sustainable, nor does it foster independence and self-reliance. But, as Bird pointed out, providing services to members of the public based on mobility and street knowledge is potentially a way for people to support themselves, and that’s what I would love to see growing out of BBH’s utter failure.