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 Mail. CNN. 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!
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.
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.