Is turning homeless people into wi-fi hotspots hideous or brilliant?

A sampling of Austin’s current homeless hotspots

At first I read this article and thought, yeesh what a bad idea.  Then I got curious.  Then I thought yeesh again.  Then I started getting confused.

At the South by Southwest conference this week, a PR firm is working with local homeless advocates to help homeless people in Austin make some money by carrying around their own personal mi-fi boxes that they use to sell a few minutes of wireless access to people on the street.  Mi-fi is a kind of portable wi-fi emitter that creates a small bubble of wi-fi that you can use on the go (basically the same way that people can use their cell phones to create a small bubble of wifi for their ipads or their laptops).  It’s a small electronic box, maybe the size of a cigarette box but thinner, and it can pick up an Internet signal via the air and emit it as wi-fi for up to 20 or 30 feet or something.  A number of the homeless are walking around Austin with these emitters, and charging people to get the password for 15 minutes or whatever.

So here’s the dilemma.  Is this a brilliant way to help the homeless earn a living or is it some sickening Brave New World where homeless people have been turned into computer hardware for the benefit of the rich?

For all those who are mortified by this – and the overall reaction to this by people online has been uniform outrage – is this really the moral equivalent of dwarf tossing?  I.e., are we really taking advantage of the homeless?  How is selling wi-fi more demeaning than janitors cleaning our toilets, or blue collar garbagemen having to pick up the refuse of the rich?

I think part of the problem with this idea is the name of the project, “Homeless Hotspots.”  That right there makes it sound like we’ve dehumanized these peolpe.  The second problem is the income divide.  These homeless are becoming hotspots to help some very wealthy people get online while walking down the sidewalk, something in and of itself a bit of a luxury.  Is that why this project offends some people?  Would it be less offensive if a group of homeless people thought, hey, let’s get some mi-fis and sell wi-fi access to all the rich people at the conference, without the help of a PR firm – would we have then praised the ingenuity and spunk of those homeless people?  What if the homeless were selling wi-fi to other blue collar people who couldn’t otherwise afford it, would that make this more palatable?  Or what if the homeless were selling ice cream cones, would that be okay?

When I saw this story last night, I thought this was some PR stunt to advertise a mi-fi service.  But it appears not to be.  It’s quite literally a project to help homeless people.  Does that change your impression?

And one last question.  Shouldn’t it be up to the homeless themselves to decide whether they think it’s too humiliating to their personal dignity to make a few bucks by selling wi-fi access?  While all of us are poo-pooing how “awful” this is, clearly several homeless people don’t agree (then again, the dwarf agreed to be tossed, but I’m not sure that changes the ethics of the moment).  And if I were desperate for money, I’d do it, wouldn’t you? – though again, my desperation doesn’t prove that people aren’t using me in a demeaning fashion.

And how about this – Are we in fact being elitist by thinking that this is somehow elitist?  Aren’t we actually hurting the homeless by judging this as beneath them, and trying to take away a much-needed source of income for the next few days?

I don’t know.  Curious what you guys think.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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