This week, an ad agency (BBH Labs [see: previous stunt]) succeeded at its goal of grabbing headlines (see: Pitchfork and Wired) by employing homeless people as mobile WiFi hotspots for SXSW. While the scheme purports to be an attempt at “charitable innovation;” it is, in reality, a stunning expansion of neoliberal economic principles by turning exploitation into a feel-good sport.
The scheme distributes MiFi devices capable of sharing 4G connectivity to passersby. The homeless workers wear shirts that state “I’m [name], a 4G hotspot” and list the directions for connecting. Users must text the name of the homeless workers that they have encountered to a particular number and they then receive login credentials and a convenient link to a website that touts the benevolence of the ad agency responsible for helping both the user and the poor homeless person in front of them.
Users are also prompted to make a donation to the homeless person providing them with WiFi service. According to the firm’s “Director of Innovation, ” Saneel Radia, the program is a “charitable experiment” aimed at “charitable innovation.” The Homeless Hotspots website compares itself to street newspapers run by the homeless, explaining that the scheme
offer[s] 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.
The backlash against the publicity stunt was sharp and immediate; however, most commentaries have been largely superficial. Megan Garber of The Atlantic magazine, for example, criticizes Homeless Hotspots for engaging in what she calls “digital colonialism,” saying “the whole thing reek[s] of digital privilege and entitlement.” Unfortunately, she does not fully spell out what digital colonialism encompasses, though the term does seem us conjures several relevant issues: exploitation, blindness to privilege, and systemic racial/economic inequality.
Similarly, Tim Carmody (writing for Wired) said the scheme sounded like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia” and proceeded to elaborate a bit on the theme of exploitation, saying:
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, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.
Carmody’s statement is an implicit critique of neoliberal ideology which holds that social problems are best addressed by minimizing government regulation and maximizing private sector innovation; however, he never really build on the assertion stated above.
Jon Mitchell (on Read Write Web) has made what is, perhaps, the most developed critique of how the homeless are affected by the Homeless Hotspots scheme:
The Homeless Hotspots website frames this as an attempt “to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations.” There’s a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population. By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure. It’s like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage.
Mitchell captures a key shortcoming of the comparison between street newspapers and Homeless Hotspots: In the case of street newspapers, homeless people enjoy direct benefits from the thing they are helping to produce, while in the case of homeless hotspots, the homeless are turned into glorified wage labors. Importantly, Homeless Hotspot users do not purchase access to promote the cause of the homeless; they purchases access to promote themselves on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets. Interestingly, Radia acknowledged the validity of Mitchell’s argument, saying:
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.
However, Radia—and Carmody, for that matter—do not engage with the broader implications of their observations. It’s not merely that homeless people fail to directly benefit from the thing they are being put to work producing but that this form wage labor, guised as charity, also happens to be completely unregulated (e.g., homeless participants are guaranteed no minimum wage [update: BBH Labs posted a clarification that participants were paid a $50/day wage]). That is to say, the homeless hotspots scheme takes exploitation to extremes generally not tolerated in our society, plunging the homeless into a state of uncertainty regarding income that Marxian thinkers call “precariousness.”
Many readers will react by claiming “well, at least some possible income is better than no income for these individuals.” However, this argument is rather myopic; we also need to consider how this sort of scheme factors into the broader socio-economic system. What are the consequences of living a society that acquiesces the fact that its constituents are not even guaranteed $60 for a hard day’s work because their service is classified as charity and not as proper labor? What happens to the already vastly disproportionate distribution of wealth if companies can supplant their workforce with so-called charity cases? And, should we not find such an occurrence all the more outrageous at a time when workers are desperate for jobs, while companies in many sectors of the economy continue to enjoy deep profit margins? The homeless do not need marketing gimmicks; they need stable assistance programs and real economic opportunity. This sort of charity, in its intrinsically ad hoc nature, fails on both accounts.
As the example of Homeless Hotspots demonstrates, charity is most often merely a band-aid that treats the most egregious failures of neoliberal economics without addressing the fact that poverty is endemic to that system. Charity justifies and reinforces privilege, while making the “haves” feel good for alleviating the very problems they are complicit in creating.
Equally as problematic, Radia states that
We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.
This claim is patently false. What he means is that his agency is not being paid to represent a client for this particular venture. BBH Labs is, of course, using the stunt to build their own brand, whose logo happens to be neatly fixed at the bottom of the Homeless Hotspot webpage and which has been mentioned in each and every news articles covering the scheme. Sure, there is not direct commercial benefit, but the firm is accruing what sociologists call “cultural capital”—fame and recognition that can be cashed in on at a later date. As any sports star can tell you, achievement itself does not bring in the real dough; rather, commercial endorsements covert a celebrity’s fame into monetary assets. BBH Labs is going for something similar here.
Even if programs such as Homeless Hotspot do some good and “have their heart in the right place,” we must evaluate them in the broader context of the neoliberal economic system they both reflex and reinforce. We should spend more time thinking about how to fix the structural problems that create homelessness and less time thinking about we can use homelessness to improve our own situation and to make ourselves feel good.
PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist at the University of Maryland working to describe how social media and other technology reflect and change our culture and the economy.