One of those bizarre stories that makes you check the date carefully and make sure it’s not 1st April: homeless people are being used as mobile WiFi hotspots in Austin, Texas, during the South-By-South-West (SXSW) conference. Yes, you did read that correctly, and you can read the full report in The Atlantic here.
That piece is keen to emphasise that ‘it’s not as horrible as it seems,’ as the homeless people involved are, in a way, acting as not much more than vendors of The Big Issue, but providing a 4G digital service, for which those at the conference volunteer to pay what they think is appropriate.
Given that the price of a ticket to SXSW is around $1000, I hope that the payments these people are getting is generous.
The organisers of the service have tried to make a point: what they have done both provides a service in Austin’s rather stretched bandwidth, and highlight the homeless problem in the city. But I have some concerns about this.
A recent lecture given at Birkbeck college by Slavoj Zizek on the TV series The Wire made this brilliant point: what the show did for Baltimore was to expose to itself the ‘invisible people’ that everyone knew lived in the city, but most – the privileged anyway – were able to filter out almost completely. The Wire was explosive because it showed, over 5 seasons, that these filters were invalid. The media, the police, the dealers themselves, the junkies and the lawyers and the politicians and the trades unions and the education system – all of it was part of a web of responsibility. And the brilliance of The Wire was to make these invisible things, for a while, visible again.
So here’s my concern about the ‘homeless hotspots’: the invisible waves that these unfortunate people are selling, giving access to the internet to uber-privileged techno-neeks, are actually making them less visible, not more. They are commodified as hot-spots, and thus, through some small payment, able to be ignored. The systemic problems, the wide web of responsibility – and blame – is not revealed. And so the problem persists.
I hope that some of these guys do make some money, and then begin to find a way out of their situations. But let’s also hope that the great minds who come together to make expensive digital life-style products use their huge collective brainpower to do something more than make an iPad thinner, and try to make a genuine difference to people who are a very long way from caring about such trivialities.