Homeless Hotspots: Did SXSW just eat itself?

by Toby Manhire / 13 March, 2012
The plan: help the homeless by equipping them with wireless and T-shirts reading “I am a 4G hotspot”.
The author, Jon Mitchell, assures us this is not a parody – although he acknowledges in his post at Read Write Web that “pitch-perfect satire often strikes the exact same agonising chord as the real, terrible truth”.

And the truth, according to Mitchell, writing about an initiative promoted at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, is this:

An impossibly-named marketing company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty is doing a little human science experiment called Homeless Hotspots. It gives out 4G hotspots to homeless people along with a promotional t-shirt. The shirt doesn't say, “I have a 4G hotspot.” It says, “I am a 4G hotspot.”

You can guess what happens next. You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.

The Homeless Hotspot idea is arguably not as appalling as it might first sound. It is an attempt to modernise/digitise the street newspaper model – in which homeless people produce and sell a publication (the Big Issue, for example).

They explain at their website:

Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations.

As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope 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. SxSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference.

Burnt by a flurry of criticism following the Read Write Web piece, BBH dashed out a statement:

Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. It’s unfortunate how much information being shared is incorrect (an unresearched story by ReadWriteWeb, which has now been updated is the epicenter of that misinformation). So, without being defensive (we welcome the educated critiques), we wanted to share a few key facts:

- We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.

- This is a test program that was always scheduled to end today ...

- Each of the Hotspot Managers keeps all of the money they earn ...

- The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume). This is definitely a part of the vision of the program but alas we could not afford to create a custom log-in page because it’s through a device we didn’t make. However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.

But given the reputation of the SXSWi conference – an event at once admired, envied and lampooned – observers’ jaws had already well and truly dropped.

Gawker – poking its tongue all the way through its permanently dropped jaw – applauds a “simple, innovative solution to an important, pressing problem: lack of internet”. Although:

Wouldn't it be better to attack the systemic issues that create internetlessness in the first place — to address the decades' worth of cuts to infrastructure and aid, and the cultural biases that lead people to blame lack of internet on personal choices and moral failings? And isn't there a more compassionate and dignified way to treat those without internet than forcing them to stand next to homeless people wearing "I'm a 4G Hotspot" t-shirt?

But these are questions for another time. SXSW isn't about the long term. It's not for people who think about "complex systems" or "the roots of the problem." South By is about innovation. It's about shifting paradigms.

Mitchell, more earnestly, concludes:

This conference is so hugely, expensively over the top as a monument to the privilege of Internet access that I didn't think it could top itself. It just did.

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