An experiment involving the use of local homeless citizens to broadcast Wi-Fi connections via 4G has attracted much criticism over the last couple of days. A division of the global marketing agency BBH (BBH Labs) have made their presence known at the annual SXSW event in Austin, Texas by equipping homeless locals with shirts advertising how to attain a Wi-Fi connection broadcast from a 4G enabled device. The shirts read "I'm , a 4G hotspot" followed by details on how to SMS to attain access to the service.
The product, fittingly named Homeless Hotspots, aims to monetise the Wi-Fi access and allow all profits to be kept by the homeless, with a guarantee of at least $50 income per day. $2 per 15 minutes is rate of charge to users of the service.
Criticism was drawn over the claimed exploitation of homeless to push the product, with ReadWriteWeb describing the entire affair as a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall". BBH defended themselves from claims of the service being "patronising" and "dehumanising" with the statement "[Homeless Hotspots] attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations", making reference to current initiatives such as The Big Issue here in Australia.
The crux of the retaliation appears to stem from the method of which the service was advertised. Distinguishing the person from the product was blurred by the very shirt they were asked to wear, "I'm [name], a 4G hotspot" suggests that the person is nothing but a personified piece of computing infrastructure. It's no surprise that Wired.com commented that the entire affair "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Is there a wealth threshold where humans suddenly become facilitatorsof the better off?
One could argue that the entire backlash was overblown. The service does financially assist the homeless, and it's hardly difficult to re-establish the product as time-sharing of a Mi-Fi device. But then there's questions of sustainability, and whether there's a market for patches of Wi-Fi coverage at a price. It's a well known fact that people expect Wi-Fi for free, and awkwardly standing near a homeless person to benefit off their presence on the street is just a tad uncomfortable for all involved.
The project is currently on hold pending decisions on whether it should continue in its current form.
What do you think? Is equipping the homeless with Wi-Fi gear a slippery slope into a dystopian future, or a method of providing a legitimate service?