Not Cool, Nerds: Company Turns Homeless into Hotspots

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There is a scene in the movie Scrooged where the family representing Bob Cratchit's impoverished clan in the Dickens classic, being too poor to afford a Christmas tree, decorate the Tiny Tim character with lights and turn them on as he stands there with a sad look on his face. The family struggles not to giggle, but ultimately removes the lights at the request of his mother.

None of his brothers and sisters mean any harm, but it's still a little awkward, especially knowing he doesn't speak because he saw his father murdered. When I read about a new "service" offered to people attending the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, I got that same uncomfortable feeling I did watching Tiny Tim lit up for the holidays.

The creepy offering in question is a mobile hotspot service that allows attendees better wi-fi signals when prowling the streets of our state's capital. Sounds like a great idea, right? It is, until you realize these mobile hotspots are strapped to homeless people.

Meet HomelessHotspots.org, a company that attaches wireless Internet devices to willing homeless men and women, giving SXSW patrons a better signal when they've just GOT to tweet about the awesome nonprofit knitting group from Brooklyn they just saw doing a free talk on a megaphone at the corner of 6th and Lavaca about how to be a "success" on the Web and they don't have time to go to the nearest Starbucks for a better signal.

I really admire anyone who wants to serve those less fortunate than themselves. I think it's admirable, and while turning homeless people into antennae for the benefit of beefing up a wireless connection may not rise to the level of turning people into batteries like in The Matrix, it sure is creepy.

The concept was apparently born out of the "street newspaper" movement that creates newspapers and magazines for homeless people to sell as a means of making money, which is something that has been around in one form or another for more than 20 years. According to the Homeless Hotspot Web site:

As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity. SxSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference.

Okay, so turning the homeless into wireless routers is a good thing because, well, no one reads the hard copies of newspapers anymore?

On one hand, I really admire the effort. This company is finding a way to help struggling people by filling a need for those clearly not struggling. Let's be honest, if your biggest problem is a poor wi-fi signal for your phone on the streets of Austin, you're doing better than about 80 percent of the world's population.

I suppose it gives people an excuse to give money to someone on the street who needs it more than that person giving it does and it provides a service in return. In a way, it turns homeless men and women into street vendors. It doesn't pay much, but it is work.

Still, I just can't get behind the notion that people on the street should walk up to a homeless guy wearing a "HOMELESS HOTSPOT" billboard and ask for access to his network. If they were paying college kids to stand out on the streets, fine. But homeless people?

It also underscores the tremendous divide in our country, and not the digital one. We're talking about people with every opportunity and every advantage paying a poor person a couple bucks to use technology a company has strapped to his back the homeless man could never come close to affording. For a couple bucks, some guy gets to keep from bumping up against his cell phone's bandwidth limit while the guy he paid for the service is living in a shelter. Weird.

Then there's the term: homeless hotspot. First off, the hotspot isn't homeless, the person carrying the technology is. It's the equivalent of calling a disabled person selling cookies "crippled cookies." That alliteration isn't clever. It's stupid. Also, he's not a hotspot, he's a person carrying a hotspot. That ridiculous name doesn't do anything but dehumanize this person who likely gets that kind of treatment virtually every day.

No matter how altruistic the people who created this service may be, I can't help thinking about the homeless men with portable wi-fi and how they remind me of Tiny Tim draped in Christmas lights. It just makes me uncomfortable.

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