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Monday, March 12, 2012

Teachable Moment: Personal Space, The Homeless and Wifi

This promotion may sounds like a hoax, but apparently, it's not. This from ReadWriteWeb:
South By Southwest 2012 can be summarized thusly: An impossibly-named marketing company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty is doing a little human science experiment called Homeless Hotspots. It gives out 4G hotspots to homeless people along with a promotional t-shirt. The shirt doesn't say, "I have a 4G hotspot." It says, "I am a 4G hotspot."
You can guess what happens next. You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.
Now, there are lots of ethical, moral, dignity and other issues around this story and I invite you to consider them. What I want to do is consider the geography of this experiment/business effort. Those behind it suggest its akin to homeless people selling a newspaper they create. In my city the paper is called Spare Change and deals with, among other things, homeless issues. Among the goals of that enterprise and the hotspots is a common goal: getting passersby to interact with the homeless. Said another way, it's a way to make the invisible, visible. That's sort of ironic since the product (ok service) is itself invisible.

While buying a paper takes a few seconds, paying for and using a hotspot takes longer. It means hanging around the human hotspot while you check e-mail or do a blog post or whatever. It means sharing a few minutes with, and getting a sense of a day in the life of,  your host. This business transaction enables that interaction, just as buying a copy of Spare Change does. These transactions are not scary because they are in public places and, I know from our Spare Change sellers, they must abide by certain rules including being courteous.

While it raises larger issues, I think it's a valuable question to ask how these hotspot wielding folks, identified by their t-shirts, changes the geography of homelessness.