It didn’t have to be the worst idea ever. Offering employment to the homeless of Austin, while providing coveted Wi-Fi for the young technorati gathered there for South by Southwest. A win-win, right?
Wrong. If you’re like me, or like countless others who have been blogging or buzzing about the “Homeless Hotspots” project at SXSW, all that is needed is a simple gut check to realize that the project was doomed from the start. The idea of having homeless people holding Wi-Fi hotspots for payment is not, I think, a terminally bad idea. But referring to the homeless people themselves as the hotspots is what made this idea wrong, wrong, wrong.
No, Clarence is not a homeless hotspot. He’s a homeless person, and he’s being employed to provide a hotspot to the throngs of SXSW’s data-starved. And yet the shirt that BBH Labs, a wing of the marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty, outfitted Clarence with reads: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot. SMS HH Clarence to 25827 for access www.homelesshotspots.org.”
Tim Carmody is right to call this “like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” One of the most denigrating aspects of homelessness is that, on top of being homeless, the victim is ignored, treated as human waste, or as something less than human. This is why the idea of presenting homeless people as a thing, a cog in the infrastructure supporting the well-heeled and well-deviced, is pretty horribly misguided. Though obviously less severe, it smacks vaguely of the way the machines harvested humans for energy in The Matrix, or of the similarly sickening reveal of Soylent Green.
BBH may well have had good intentions. They are the firm behind an innovative project called Underheard in New York, which gave phones and a Twitter following to four homeless people in New York. This was a brilliant idea, but it’s fundamentally different in conception from the idea of the “homeless hotspot.” Homeless Hotspots—at least as the project was framed (which, after all, is what a marketing firm is supposed to be good at)—reinforces the tendency of people to shut themselves off to the humanity of homeless people. Underheard in New York did just the opposite, giving homeless people what they so often lack: a forum and a voice.
There is room for debate here, clearly. In fact, not all advocates for the homeless see the Homeless Hotspot project as a bad idea. Mark Horvath, the man behind the We Are Visible campaign, has written in support of it, saying, “I love this idea. I love anything that creates a positive interaction between the public and our homeless friends.” People may be having nice conversations with Clarence and others who are participating in the project. But can any interaction be truly, deeply positive when one of the members is wearing a shirt that declares himself to be a thing, not a person?
The idea of a homeless hotspot works only as dark, dark satire. Sadly, that’s not what BBH had in mind.