Homeless People as WiFi Hotspots | The Wire | Seeing the Invisible

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.


3 responses to “Homeless People as WiFi Hotspots | The Wire | Seeing the Invisible”

  1. Hi Kester,
    I reacted the same way but the piece does point out that this is allowing the people selling the bandwidth to actually engage with others whereas some of the other work that the homeless are traditionally hired for are the “out of sight out of mind” category. I don’t know, I’m unsettled but the rush to judgement also puts me off.

  2. “Usually, the conference-goers just pass them by. They don’t stop to talk to them. They actively ignore them. Because of this program, these people are having loads and loads of conversations about their background, about their situation, and it’s interesting.”

    heard about this on NPR today. The organization who set it up (and of course they had reason to spin this in their favor) say that it created engagement rather than allowing people to ignore the homeless. I thought it was a fascinating way to think – by giving the disadvantaged something that the advantaged want, and juxtaposing this very very first world problem (I need signal!) with this utterly human one…I don’t know if it’s good or bad, really, but I admired the world-turned-upside down aspect of it.

  3. I think there is something to admire here… but there’s also something troubling about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think it’s partly the problem of the way market exchanges decrease visibility. As I discuss in some depth in Other, one of the reasons we like money is that it means that we don’t have to rely on an economy of reciprocal favours, because that would mean actually having to encounter the other – and in a busy urban situation that’s not something that we want to do (though we might nostalgically want it in a rural idyll.)

    So what projects like the Big Issue can end up doing is – I sometimes worry – make the homeless person less visible, because our interaction with them is through a market exchange. This is complex, because I do support the Big Issue model in many ways, but I’m trying to tease out some of its risks too. I think it’s the same reason I just cannot support Brand Red. That the world’s problems can be sorted out by us consuming more – and giving some minute percentage of profits to good causes is so wrong-headed I don’t know where to start. Moreover, it can actually allow us to justify continuing the very lifestyles that are part of the systemic cause of these problems, rather than being challenged to make fundamental changes.

    By buying WiFi from a homeless person we can carry on our day with a warm feeling in our heart that we did our bit… while the same shitty practices that led to this person being alienated and out on the street are no closer to being solved. Homeless people are rarely just economically alienated – there are deeper issues here to do with community.

    So I worry that this could end up with people less envisioned to do something that gets to the route(r) of the problem…and yet ironically feeling that they’ve done more by buying a few bucks worth of wifi.