Mark West (click for portrait) is one of the dozen or so “Homeless Hotspots” working for four days during the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas as part of a campaign from the Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency. Mark told me, Sarah Jaffe of Alternet and cartoonist Matt Bors that he’d become homeless after losing his job and relocating from Houston, but BBH’s website describes Mark’s situation thusly: “He considers homelessness a temporary situation related to bad choices he made in his life, but doesn’t let it define him.”
Mark says it’s like “having [his] own business,” but after SXSWi, BBH will take Mark’s 4G hotspot back from him, and Mark will have only the cash he earned via Paypal. You don’t hand Mark any cash directly; BBH suggests the connection is worth $2 per 15 minutes of use, paid over the web. Mark was stationed right outside the Austin Convention Center where much of SXSWi takes place, and where I am now writing from — using a free SXSW-provided wifi connection.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty describes the project as a potential replacement in the new digital age for street papers such as Street Sheet, produced and sold by homeless people. The problem with this analysis is that Street Sheets don’t just make small amounts of cash for the people who sell them — cash which is given immediately and directly — but they also provide news and information on topics such as, you know, homelessness. It’s a service that the people who sell the papers can actually use themselves, unlike a 4G hotspot which is useful only for those privileged with web-ready devices.
From Wired: “This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.”
Further reading about this and BBH’s past experiments with nearly unpaid homeless labor at Wired, Read Write Web and Alternet.