Kevin, the walking FedEx phone charger.

I was walking down Sixth Street, buried in my phone, when my husband, Jason, noticed something and stopped.

I didn’t see it at first. It was the late afternoon on Sunday and streams of people were flowing up and down both sides of the bar-lined corridor, Austin’s main nightlife artery. They stopped here and there to text, mingle, or consider an offer of no cover and free drinks. It was more insane than usual, but this is South by Southwest.

When I did spot it, it didn’t make sense. A group was huddled at the curb. Four, maybe five people. Extending from each of them to the center of the huddle was a wire, black or white and twitching. A phone charger wire. And each one was plugged into … a person?

His name was Kevin.

“I’ve been out here since 11 a.m.,” he said, flashing a grin. Kevin was wearing a dark bodysuit — a FedEx-branded dark bodysuit — covered in USB ports. It took me another second to put it together. People were charging their phones on him.

About the time Kevin finished stammering that he could plug about ten chargers into his jacket, I’d taken his picture and tweeted it. Every SXSW Interactive attendee obsesses about staying charged, day and night, and hiring Kevin and others like him was nothing less than brilliant marketing. “A great way for @fedex to literally be in the middle of the conversations,” Amazon’s (formerly TeachStreet’s) Joe Sunga tweeted to me moments later. A little weird for Kevin, probably, but eh. They were paying him and he was smiling. I went on my way.

Later, that night, I heard about Homeless Hotspots.

The story has made the rounds in all the big press. The New York Times. The Washington Post. The Daily MailCNN. A marketing agency called BBH launched what they called a “charitable experiment” at SXSW. They got 13 homeless men to each carry a Verizon MiFi 4G hotspot, hang around the streets of Austin near the festival and sell Internet connectivity to desperate geeks for a suggested minimum price of $2/15 minutes — every penny of it, plus $20 a day, money the homeless men get to keep.

When I told my friend Tamara Weikel just this much over dinner here, she lit up. Finally! she said. A reason for people to talk to the homeless, to look them in the eye, to hear their stories. How great!

Clarence, the BBH Labs MiFi hotspot.

But the SXSW Homeless Hotspots program —  a beta test, as BBH Labs describes it — isn’t one of the most talked about stories at SXSW because it’s great. It’s getting global media attention because, in the eyes of critics, it’s awful. “Shameful,” “dystopian” and “horrendous.” to name a few. Why? The product the homeless men sell gives no voice to their cause, unlike Seattle advocacy newspaper “Real Change” and other familiar media homeless employment models. The men wear t-shirts that say, for example, “I’m Clarence, a 4G hot spot” instead of, “I’m Clarence, I run a 4G hot spot,” a semantic detail that obscures a person already too invisible to much of society. And geeks don’t have to talk much to the men to get connected. They can just send a text to a number written on the mens’ t-shirts, negotiate a price, and surf away.

But the biggest pain point isn’t how Homeless Hotspots works. It’s how Homeless Hotspots feels. Ear-budded, digitized geeks in fresh jeans and designer glasses slouching next to homeless men, checking their Facebook feeds while Clarence rocks on his heels and wonders where he’s going to sleep.

“The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall,” Jon Mitchell wrote in an impassioned Read Write Web post. “When the infrastructure fails us, we turn human beings into infrastructure?” wrote David Gallagher of the New York Times Tumblr blog that got this all started.

Monica Guzman

The backlash was swift and certain. BBH got on the defensive, inviting attacks on the marketing company’s markety intentions. The media has already passed through all its stages of grief, according to the Atlantic. Either Clarence won’t get a gig like this again, or we’ll shrug our shoulders and accept that a world where people blab into Bluetooth sets while checking out at the grocery store is already brimming with unselfconscious gall.

So according to reaction, Kevin, a regular guy hired by FedEx, is a piece in a brilliant marketing game. And Clarence, a homeless guy hired by BBH Labs who says he really likes the job, is a victim.

What about the rest of us?

On Sunday I heard a great keynote by Ray Kurzweil, longtime futurist and thinker. One of the most captivating ideas he shared, so crisply, was that the merger of humans and technology — though not physical in the cyborg sense  — is no less complete. “When Wikipedia went on strike, I felt like part of my brain went on strike,” he said. And when we can’t connect to the portable devices that enhance so many of our abilities, we’re not just pissed. We feel less whole.

One of the most anticipated launches at the festival was the arrival of the Nike FuelBand, a wristband that helps goal setters track data about how they move and how much, how they sleep and how well, kind of like the FitBit or the Jawbone Up, “because the key to doing more is knowing more,” according to Nike’s promotional video. On Sunday night at the Cheezburger /Bing party, my friend Brad showed his off. It cost $150. “You’ve got to get one!” he said.

If we are our technologies, then neither Kevin in his bodysuit nor Clarence with his MiFi are strange, dehumanized objects, but manifestations of the new humans we’ve already become.

Or both.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

Comments

  • http://plexusengine.com/ Marshall Kirkpatrick

    A very thoughtful post on a complicated topic, thanks.

  • Ejebop

    It is definitely interesting that people tend to view things like the “homeless hot spots” as dehumanizing, while most people don’t think twice about completely ignoring a homeless person they encounter on the street. I understand why these things make people uncomfortable, and maybe feel a bit exploitative (remember ‘bumvertising”?) but I think the isolation and lack of acknowledgement that the homeless experience probably feels pretty dehumanizing in its own right.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Couldn’t agree more. It is amazing how good we can get at ignoring other human beings around us. I’m as guilty as anyone else. It happens with the homeless on the streets, but also with the people on the bus, the subways, elevators, etc. It’s the irony of an urban vs. the rural landscape: The closer we get together, the farther we feel apart. 

      Engaging with someone you’d typically never engage with in order to obtain a service you need in a simple way — that in itself does not strike me as dehumanizing. But the humanizing potential of the interaction isn’t enough. Individual people have to actually engage.

  • Ph4ever

    I think BBH labs just keeping Austin’s city motto “Keep Austin Weird”  going.  

  • Joe M.

    Interesting that someone points to “Real Change,” a completely and utterly useless product, complaining about something being provided as useful.

    Ask yourself, what would you rather do, sell a service people value and want or offer something of no value and hope people pay you for it in sympathy.

    I would bet that alot of homeless people have a bit of pride and are happy to have the opportunity to be able to offer something that others will want useful, and hopefully that might lead to a conversation with one of the customers and maybe another opportunity.

    Much, much better than “Real Change”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cameron-Newland/10700278 Cameron Newland

    I’m laughing out loud at the shameful critics, who themselves are labeling the Homeless Hotspot as “Shameful,” “dystopian” and “horrendous.” Even funnier is the purported reason:  “…the product the homeless men sell gives no voice to their cause, unlike Seattle advocacy newspaper Real Change.” Real Change provides absolutely no value to society. It is not a media property that is competitive with traditional newspapers in any way. It is a romantic idea for sure, and I’m certain that the homeless people who sell Real Change do gain interpersonal skills/job skills while hawking the paper, but the truth is that the entire project is quixotic and fruitless, because it employs homeless people to sell a product that is inferior to its competition. Initiatives like Real Change ought to see how they can employ homeless people to add value to society, to add value to individuals and businesses, rather than to produce a product whose only strong point is that it makes the buyer feel good about themselves for five minutes.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Though I see your point about a product that is highly useful to a consumer vs. one that is not, I would not say that Real Change provides “absolutely no value to society.” Advocacy is not easy, and people don’t always care. That’s just reality. Still, I’m glad a local publication exists that listens to voices that are not usually listened to and works to distribute their stories to the world.

  • Hayduke

    Yeah, it’s so much better that we just give them a couple of bucks to go buy a 40. God forbid their benefactors actually get anything in return for their generosity.

  • Hayduke

    Yeah, it’s so much better that we just give them a couple of bucks to go buy a 40. God forbid their benefactors actually get anything in return for their generosity.

  • http://www.heybige.com/ HeyBigE

    I don’t get the ‘Homeless Hotspot’ controversy – if a homeless person came up with this idea themselves (procure a hotspot and charge access for it, presumably making making a profit after costs), everyone would be applauding his or her business sense…?

  • http://twitter.com/KellyMitten Kelly

    This is pretty awesome!! I have a friend who has sold the homeless newspaper Real Change in Seattle [other major cities do this too] and it makes such a huge difference in the environment/attitude of the public when the person is providing a good or service versus just standing outside asking for change.

    Creative ideas like this are what will really transform the homeless community. Good job and keep em coming!!

  • http://twitter.com/KellyMitten Kelly

    Great marketing tool for FedEx and others that follow suit as well!

  • http://twitter.com/Roebot Aaron Roe Fulkerson

    Excellent and thoughtful post.

  • Jhadle

    I like all three/services — the Homeless Hotspot, the Fed Ex battery rechargers, and Real Change. From what I have heard, the homeless involved also like all three services. 

  • Andrea James

    Thanks for such an insightful post. I like how you combine intellect, analysis and a sense of our shared humanity to come up with something that is enjoyable to read and non-sensational.

    What if a company determined that it were not mobile hotspots that most mattered to this group of conference attendees, but shiny shoes. Suppose shiny shoes were what people craved and a company created shoe-shine stands on the corners, and rounded up some homeless guys to help staff the stands.Would we be as offended?

    I think that we wouldn’t be any more uncomfortable with that as we would be with any type of shoe-shine stand. What if we contracted homeless people to perform physical labor to carry boxes into the exhibit floor and set up tables. Would we be uncomfortable with that?

    Manning a hotspot is a form of physical labor — they have to make sure nobody steals the technology, physically remain present to protect it and take payments — and yet, you get a bunch of discomfort from folks.

    Why?

    The discomfort comes from the fact that it’s a new concept and gives us insight into new behaviors that crop up around technological change.

    The contrast of technology (squeaky! clean! new! symbolizes wealth!) with that of a homeless person (not so squeaky and clean, an uncomfortable topic for most of us anyway) makes us shift around a little bit. Eh, doesn’t feel right. We may not even be sure why. 

    I think that so long as you’ve empowered the employee (homeless or not) there is not a problem. The homeless person is empowered to accept the job or not. Let him or her decide for themselves if this is an acceptable practice. 

    • Andrea James

      PS: Homeless people selling street newspapers aren’t really selling street newspapers. They are selling passers by a way to alleviate their guilt.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I think in a lot of ways, the most fascinating aspect of the Homeless Hotspots controversy isn’t what it says about the homeless and how they should or not be helped, but what it says about those of us who are not homeless, and the mix of emotions we have toward people who are. There are always good intentions, undoubtedly, but sometimes I detect a presumption that we, as sensitive and compassionate as we are, understand their situation better than they understand it. I like what @heybige:disqus asked — if the homeless men in Austin thought up this program themselves, would geeks and others have had such a problem with it? I think absolutely not. The fact that it was a marketing company that came up with the idea, and not a nonprofit charity — despite the fact that it is essentially a nonprofit project — I think also bugs us. Is this exploitation? Is this objectification? Is this dehumanization? @0fe764fa422b249797106c1163adf39b:disqus is right: the homeless are dehumanized every day, by each and every one of us who turns the other way, shakes her head to clear the thoughts a homeless person’s very presence inspires, etc. Does it feel weird and look weird, polished geeks using WiFi next to homeless men? Of course. But let’s be honest: Everything done next to homeless people, near homeless people, around homeless people, feels weird to those who are not homeless. That’s our society. That’s guilt. That’s human nature. If we are encouraged to interact, that’s got to be a step in the right direction.

  • http://twitter.com/EricBurgess Eric Burgess

    I think it’s great! If they’re happy to do it and it helps give them a sense of community and job ownership for the duration of SXSW than why not! Kudos to them!

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