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Smart or 'Dystopian'? Marketing Ploy Uses Homeless People as Wi-Fi Hotspots


"The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware..."

Outside an annual tech startup conference in Austin, 13 homeless men wore white shirts that read,"I'm _____, a 4G hotspot."  Each one carried a wireless internet device, and for a PayPal donation, provided attendees with as much Internet as they wanted.

Orchestrated with the marketing firm BBH in cooperation with the homeless advocacy group Front Steps, "Homeless Hotspots" is being roundly criticized as exploitative and wrong.  David Gallagher of the NYT called it "a little dystopian," and it's not faring any better on Twitter:

@tcarmody: We did this, people. What happened? America happened...homeless being used as Wifi hotspots...

@km: Homeless hotspots at scares me...

@AustinAni: Anyone else find using homeless persons as "Homeless Hotspots" at SXSWi disturbing, dehumanizing, offensive?...

However, BBH and Front Steps aren't giving in to the criticism.

"We have very few tools to help homeless," said Saneel Radia of BBH, "and one is rooted in print media.  [It] just seems outdated —[but] the basic model seems to work."

Radia was referring to organizations like Big Issue, a newspaper "published on behalf and sold by homeless people."  The newspaper gives the homeless a way to earn money without begging, but lately, there have either been fewer patrons or people have paid for the newspaper without actually taking it.

"The model isn’t inherently broken, Radia explained, "It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age."  Their goal is to "create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity."

BBH and Front Steps have reiterated that the money goes directly to the homeless individual— neither group takes a percentage of the profit.

And reports suggest that the homeless participants enjoyed it, for the most part.  "One of the guys used the phrase, 'my small business' today."

Front Steps, the homeless advocacy organization that helped coordinate the event, also described their enthusiasm:

Thursday was our training day and there was so much energy in the room! Especially when each person received their t-shirts with their names on them and viewed their hotspot profiles for the first time. Friday and Saturday were pretty bleak... the downpour of rain had kept [participants] indoors or dashing from dry spot to dry spot, and thus not much business for our clients. They were a little down, but several were anxious to get back out there and try anyway. Great spirit. When the rain stopped... there was again that rush of energy as they dashed into the sunny afternoon.

So what do you think?  Is paying the homeless for Wi-Fi "dehumanizing," or is it dehumanizing not to let them work to provide for themselves?

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