A marketing company is getting slammed after it got homeless people to work as human WiFi spots at SXSW in Austin last week.
Walking around in T-shirts reading “ I am a 4G hotspot,” the enlisted homeless carried WiFi devices; those looking for a data connection paid what they wanted, with donations going to the people shilling for them.
The global ad agency BBH behind the project, “Homeless Hotspots,” suggested a $2 donation for 15 minutes of WiFi access, arguing that the tech endeavour is simply a modern take on the street newspapers that some homeless sell.
“We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” wrote BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia.
“Our system is built to encourage interaction with these people,” he later added in response to critical commenters.
“It’s taking a need at a conference full of affluent people and delivering on it in a way that actually gets them to stop and connect with people whose biggest issue is they aren’t given a chance to engage, or to be employed.”
Prior to Homeless Hotspots, the marketing company created “ Underheard in New York,” a well-received initiative that provided four homeless men with cell phones, Twitter accounts and a month of unlimited texting to tell their stories.
Homeless Hotspots has not faired as well, with some critics suggesting that BBH is commodifying human life.
“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?” wrote the New York Times’ David Gallagher, who spotted it early on.
“This is my worry,” Tim Carmody wrote at Wired News. “The homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future.”
Homeless as WiFi spots: inventive or exploitative?