The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference held annually in Austin, Texas, draws people from around the world who want to stay up to date on the latest trends in music, film, and technology. Both established companies and startups bring their A-games to demonstrate their new ideas in interactivity, but one organization has been accused of going too far with it’s “homeless hotspots.” As reported by The New York Times:
BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.
The smartphone-toting, social-networking crowds often overwhelm cellular networks in the area, creating a market that BBH Labs hoped to serve with the “Homeless Hotspots” project, which it called a “charitable experiment.” It paid each participant $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
If you’ve ever been to a sporting event or concert you can imagine how jammed up the cell phone and wi-fi coverage must be at a conference filled with techies, but is outfitting fellow human beings with electronics an acceptable solution? There’s so much to be said for the fact that this effort is a form of charity and the rest of the companies at SXSW probably gave Austin’s homeless population no attention and certainly not the chance to earn an honest days living — indeed the real tragedy is that homelessness exists at all. Yet at its best, this form of charity features wages that are insultingly low ($20 for an entire day?) and the sense that the humanity of these “hotspot” individuals is being thrown by the wayside.