Wi-Fi Hotspots Made of Homeless People: Not as Horrible as They Seem

South by Southwest now has its very own controversy. And it involves homeless people employed as, yes, wi-fi hotspots.

It seemed straight out of South by South Onion: the homeless people of Austin, being used as wi-fi hotspots for bandwidth-hungry, gadget-happy conference-goers. Wait, Homeless Hotspots? Wi-fi hotspots made out of homeless people? It's got to be a joke, right?

But, no. Homeless Hotspots is a very real -- and very earnest -- initiative, imported to Austin for this week's South by Southwest Interactive festival by BBH Labs, the skunkworks-y innovation unit of the marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty. (You may remember them from such projects as the Axe Body Spray oeuvre, as well as The Guardian's recent Three Little Pigs ad.) BBH Labs has worked in the past on the problem of homelessness in New York City, through its Underheard in New York project; Homeless Hotspots, they say, is an attempt to bring a similar "charitable experiment" to Austin.

Participants in the program carry MiFi devices with 4G connectivity. "Introduce yourself," BBH explains, "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), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access."

The point of the project, says Saneel Radia, the head of innovation at BBH Labs, 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.

The project attempts to modernize the street-newspaper model employed to support homeless populations, Radia explains.

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.

Again, though: Homeless. Hotspots. As Tim Carmody put it, "It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia."

So: publicity stunt, right? And, yes, in part. "Certainly, our goal was to have people talking about this," Radia told me. But it was a well-intentioned publicity stunt, he says. If, for a week in March, a hefty percentage of the U.S. media operation is roaming the streets of Austin, cursing the irony that is a digital media conference with awful web connectivity ... why not take advantage of that fact to publicize a problem that is much, much bigger than choppy wi-fi? Web connectivity is, at SXSW, the area "where supply and demand are most discrepant," Radia notes; it seemed a logical place to make a point.

The question is how best to make that point. On the one hand, it's hard to argue against publicizing homelessness as an ongoing problem, and harder still to argue against publicizing that problem given the backdrop of the privilegefest that is South by Southwest. It's also hard to argue against an initiative that ends with homeless people -- 14 men and one woman who are part of the Case Management program at Austin's Front Steps shelter -- earning money in exchange for providing a service that, at the wi-fi-strapped conference, has a market value.

But it's also hard not to think, overall, "UGH." Not only does the whole thing reek of digital privilege and entitlement and seem to symbolize, in two neat little words, everything that is wrong with South by Southwest/the economy/the world, it also suggests the normalization of a new power dynamic: digital colonialism. There's the project's name, first of all, with its cheerful union of poverty and privilege. There's the fact that Homeless Hotspots' Human Hotspots are, on the project's site, plotted on an interactive map for the benefit of Austin's wi-fi-seekers, their avatars floating merrily upon streets and avenues like so many bars and barber shops. There's the fact that the Human Hotspots designate themselves as such by wearing t-shirts proclaiming their Human Hotspot status. (And "the shirt doesn't say, 'I have a 4G hotspot,'" ReadWriteWeb's Jon Mitchell points out. "It says, 'I am a 4G hotspot.'") The practicality of the initiative collides, violently, with the morality of it. As a New York Times reporter who encountered a Human Hotspot put it: "It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us ... we turn human beings into infrastructure?"

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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