When I first read that homeless people were being used as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at Austin Texas' South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival, I didn't believe it. Believe it.
BBH Labs, a self-proclaimed skunkworks innovation branch of the marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty brought Homeless Hotspots, to SXSW they claim, as a “charitable experiment.”It works by giving the homeless 4G Mi-Fi devices. You, a SXSW tech. hipster are then supposed to “introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances).”
How can you tell if one is within range? By as BBH puts, :as you wander between locations murmuring to your coworker about how your connection sucks and you can’t download/stream/tweet/instagram/check-in, you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts."
Excuse me as I throw up.
BBH states “You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access.” Since the controversy over this has blown up, BBH has further clarified that “These volunteers 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.”
I get being poor. I was raised up dirt-poor in the backwoods of West Virgina, complete with dirt-road, out-house, but a two, not one, two-room school. While I've never been homeless, I know all about poverty. Still, even on my worst days, the ideal of standing around to provide a Wi-Fi fix to a twenty-something, iPad-toting trust fun kid makes me ill.
Saneel Radia, BBH's head of innovation, told Megan Garber of The Atlantic that the point “was not to objectify homeless people, or, more broadly, to treat human beings as tech infrastructure. On the contrary, he says: It's trying to empower them.”
I'm sorry, this charitable “experiment” does nothing but turn people into wetware: Walking, talking Wi-Fi hot spots. BBH would have it that by providing this service the homeless could replace such old-media work as selling newspapers. Really? You actually think there's a sustainable business for homeless people walking around offering Wi-Fi services? I Don't Think So.
Want to help the homeless? How about training them to work on Wi-Fi equipment, installation, and services? The world always needs more skilled technicians. Give them skills, not a demoralizing, make-work job.