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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Puleeze get over your angst-filled, bleeding-heart liberal selves!

At the recent 'South-by-Southwest' Technology Conference held in Austin Texas, a marketing company called BBH Labs decided to perform a 'charitable experiment' by hiring a bunch of homeless people to carry around Wi-Fi transmitters so that the crush of conference attendees (and their electronic gadgets) who were overwhelming the local cellular network could get, and stay, online.

It worked like this: 

BBH went to a local homeless shelter and hired 13 people for $20 a day (each), outfitted them with custom tee-shirts and a WiFi hotspot, and sent them out to mingle amongst the conference attendees. 

Their custom tee-shirts made the introduction, providing their name and the fact that for a fee, they could provide password-protected access to the Wi-Fi hotspot they were carrying.  The price for each connection was entirely negotiable... meaning the conference attendees were encourage to pay whatever they thought the service was worth.  And the homeless people were free to keep all of the payments they collected.  Sounds like win - win, no?


Not suprisingly, there was an outcry at the conference over the marketing ploy, and the New York Times even went so far as to write an article stating that it had 'backfired'.

Apparently what many of the conference attendees (and The Times) objected to was taking human beings and turning them into technical infrastructure (i.e. Wi-Fi- 'Hotspots').

Personally, I find this knee-jerk, liberal hand-wringing laughable.  Seriously people.  These are homeless people who were offered a paying temp job providing a service that was, by all indications, desperately in demand.  

Think about all the political campaigns and businesses that hire the unemployed to stuff leaflets under windshield wipers and stand on busy street corners wearing sandwich board ads.    One is a human transmitter and the other is a human billboard. How is that not the same thing?

But we don't have to go nearly that far. 

Most of us aren't affluent enough to be able to afford a staff of servants.  And even if we could, the very idea of servants - even well paid ones - is so remeniscent of slavery that even if money were no object, few would hire a butler and household staff. 

But if we step back and look at our lives, we all have a fairly large staff of paid servants to attend to our every need.  We just don't think of them that way. 

Who cuts our lawns and tends our gardens?  Who cooks and serves our meals when we're out... who comes in to clean the house, and who tutors our kids.  Even the cup of coffee we drink on the way to work in the morning is often brewed and served by someone with whom we barely make eye-contact.  And the cocktails we enjoy with friends are served by people who are expected to dress a little naughty so we might be inclined to tip them in return. 

We pay for all these services... but somehow, since these people are free lancers (i.e. serving many others as well), the guilt is diffused, making it okay to receive these kinds of ministrations.

So if we are okay with paying people to scratch so many of our itches, why does having homeless people providing internet access somehow cross the line?

I thought at first it might be because so many of the homeless are minorities.  If there's anything uptight, yuppie liberals hate it's even the appearance of prejudice.  But strangely that doesn't keep them from hiring Hispanic gardeners and African American housekeepers.

Several years ago in an episode of the TV drama 'West Wing' entitled 'A proportional Response', there was a telling conversation between Leo McGarry (White House Chief of Staff) and Admiral Percy 'Fitz' Fitzwallace (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who happened to be black) about the possibility of hiring a young black man named Charlie Young to be the President's personal aide:

LEO:  Uh, hey Fitz?


LEO:  The President’s personal aide, they’re looking at a kid. Do you have any problem
with a young black man waiting on the President?

FITZWALLACE:  I’m an old black man and I wait on the President.

LEO:  The kid’s gotta carry his bags...

FITZWALLACE:  You gonna pay him a decent wage?

LEO:  Yeah.

FITZWALLACE:  You gonna treat him with respect in the workplace?

LEO:  Yeah.

FITZWALLACE:  Then why the hell should I care?

LEO:  That’s what I thought.

FITZWALLACE:  I’ve got some real honest to God battles to fight Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

That exchange perfectly sums up what bothers me about those who objected to hiring homeless people to provide a necessary service at South-by-Southwest. 

These homeless men and women were paid an agreed upon wage up front, and given the opportunity to make additional income by charging users for the service they were providing.  There was nothing demeaning about what they were doing.  And if anyone honestly felt demeaned... they didn't have to take the job.

Heck, they didn't even have to pay any start-up costs for the shirts, the transmitters or the service they were selling.  They were handed a ready-made business with no overhead!  Where's the downside?  Even a kid who wants to set up a lemonade stand has to invest in lemons, sugar, cups and the materials to make a decent sign, right?

I don't know... maybe someone can explain to me why it is more acceptable to let someone languish on the public dole rather than giving them an opportunity to benefit from an entrepreneurial windfall, however fleeting.

If you ask me, the whining is coming from a bunch of angst-filled, bleeding-heart liberals who can't admit that what was really bothering them was having the 'have-nots' shoved so far under the noses of the 'haves'. 

Well, to them I say, Sorry the sight of poor folk spoiled your good time, guys... but please get over yourselves.  Even the people who don't have iPhones and Blackberries deserve to enjoy the trickle-down of the high tech boom.

Posted by David Bogner on March 14, 2012 | Permalink


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Glad you wrote this - pretty much what I was thinking about the situation. Also, it's as if they don't think homeless people can speak up and say NO if they actually don't want to do something.

Posted by: Beth | Mar 14, 2012 5:20:17 PM

from my european sensitivity vantage point the fact that it isn't a fixed rate makes me feel uneasy - makes it feel too much like charity hand-out.

If there were a fixed rate (no matter how small) and tipping allowed/encouraged on top of it I'd consider it a great idea but then I am the product of a welfare state. ;-)

Posted by: Silke | Mar 14, 2012 5:27:35 PM

Silke, that was better than a fixed wage. That was an opportunity for entrepreneurship. The homeless guys providing the service had an opportunity to haggle with the consumers and possibly make more than what a fixed wage would have provided. That was a good incentive to work, sell the product and succeed.

Posted by: Karl Newman | Mar 14, 2012 5:36:40 PM

hmm, maybe i'm not really a liberal.

Posted by: weese | Mar 14, 2012 6:57:50 PM

Hey - count me as a liberal who was put off (offended would be too strong a word) by this. And here's why:

As a starting point, there is (or was) a great organization in NYC called the Doe Fund. It hired homeless people to sweep up litter around busy parts of the city. They wore jumpsuits that said "The Doe Fund" with contact info. It was, no more and no less, a real job that did some good. Only the people who followed up found out that it was entirely a charitable program.

What BBH did at SXSW was to advertise "HEY LOOK! WE GAVE JOBS TO HOMELESS PEOPLE!!!!" through every step of the process. It wasn't enough to hire these people and put out a press release, they actually had the people wearing clothes that advertised that they were being singled out as objects of charity (literally objects, as they were doing nothing but serving as mobile hot-spots). It's not that it wasn't a nice thing to create jobs, even temporary ones. It was they did so in a way that really demeaned the people doing it. To me it's like Ramabam's levels of charity - doing your best to preserve the dignity of the person asking for help is also important.

Yes, giving is important and shouldn't be impeded. But how you give is also important, and I don't think above critique.

Posted by: Michal | Mar 14, 2012 7:59:05 PM

I think you are spot-on, and will take it one step further.

In many public spaces (airports, cafes) and major events like this, WiFi access is provided for "free"--that is, subsidized and covered by the owner, organizer, or a major corporation.

I can't prove of course but suspect that if BBH Labs had simply hired the the homeless people to wander around the conference "radiating" Internet access that anyone could grab without having to actually INTERACT with them as individuals, there might have been no controversy (or much less).

Instead, the company put attendees in the position of (a) having to pay for something they want for "free" and (b) having to feel guilty about wanting to pay as little as possible for it.

Think about it--you're standing there with advanced gizmos that combined are worth perhaps $1k, holding a latte you spent nearly $5 on... and now you've got to look some guy in the eye and negotiate over whether you give him $1 or $3 or $5 or $10 to get online. That's a bummer.

If the experiment was designed to show that people are naturally selfish bastards, I'd judge it a success.

Posted by: Tex Shuvah | Mar 14, 2012 8:38:27 PM

Ambulatory hot spots. Love it. And I can see a future for the concept.

See, if all those people whining about the homeless were to actually put their money where their mouths are, the problem would probably go down to zilch. And these are often the same people who don't give a penny to a street person, because after all he might use it on drugs or cigarettes.

You know something? When someone is living half an inch from the gutter, drugs and cigarettes might be the better choice.
As they are for celebrities and many middle-class Americans also, btw.

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Mar 14, 2012 10:39:04 PM

I agree with you, and I think it was a brilliant idea. Interesting how the NYT had trouble coming up with enough opinions to cite in their article to actually back up the notion that the plan backfired -- even their explanation of the critics' position sounds like a compliment:

"But the program’s critics zeroed in on the divide between its impoverished vendors and Internet-bubble customers.

Adam Hanft, chief executive of the marketing advisory firm Hanft Projects, said that even if the effort was well intended, it seemed to turn a blind eye to that disconnect. 'There is already a sense that the Internet community has become so absurdly self-involved that they don’t think there’s any world outside of theirs,' he said."

If there's a divide between two sectors of society, and the population of one sector is "so absurdly self-involved that they don’t think there’s any world outside of theirs", isn't the best thing possible to create a situation where members of the two sectors mingle? And better yet, where the unnoticed ones provide a service to the ones who doesn't realize they exist??

I do think that Michal has a point, though, about the way they went about it. Having the T-shirts proclaim the website as www.homelesshotspots.org is a little too much of the PR company patting themselves on the back at the expense of the dignity of the people they hired....especially since they really could have and should have paid those people at least minimum wage for the day.

Posted by: Alisha | Mar 15, 2012 11:13:42 PM

If you were a company and were hiring someone to act as a hotspot, wouldn't you have to pay them minimum wage?
Did you read the tee shirts they're wearing? It actually says www.homelesshotspot.org, not the company name or just a teeshirt with a logo.
Can you say exploitation? You are aware that many homeless people have mental issues or drug abuse problems. You are taking the most vulnerable members of society, giving them a wage you wouldn't be allowed to offer a teenager flipping burgers, put a teeshirt on them that identifies them as homeless, and then putting them in a crowd to be objectified for a publicity stunt.
Do you think the people in the crowd approached them as worthy entrepreneurs or as a joke?

Posted by: Larry | Mar 16, 2012 3:52:17 PM

Larry... Once again you seem to be caught in the very trap I am criticizing. There is no minimum wage when hiring people for a task or a day. There was a screening process of sorts, presumably to screen out the mentally ill and obviously addicted. As to the terms of the employee-employer relationship, by your criticism you are exhibiting the kind of paternalistic, infantilizing sentiments that keeps many of the homeless down. They are adults with the ability to examine all aspects of a job offer before accepting it. Lastly, I think the attendees approached them to get wifi access, not to jeer at them. for thee most part most people are uncomfortable about being near the obviously homeless. By drawing attention to the situation of the workers, they were giving people a rare opportunity to be glad to see a homeless person.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Mar 16, 2012 4:46:12 PM

First, I want to apologize. I reread what I wrote and phrased it too strongly, and in a condescending manner. I guess that's the risk when you type and then just press send. I didn't mean my comment to sound so strident.
Second, I still don't agree. Let me use a criterion that I usually apply. Would I let my child work under these conditions?
No. I would not let my sixteen year old son or my thirteen year old daughter work for an entire day for the wages they would earn for 2 hours of babysitting. It's inappropriate, if not demeaning. Also, if my child were struggling with a financial or mental condition that might cause others to judge them in less than a glowing light, I would not let them wear a t-shirt that is clearly labeled "I'm homeless." if it's not insensitive (which it is), then it is certainly pandering.
Lastly, how certain are you that the 13 individuals they hired suffer from no conditions that might make hiring them for one day's work a good idea or that their rudimentary screening process actually weeded out those with mental illness.
And finally (after lastly), do you actually believe that the $20 they gave them and the brief interaction it allows actually improves the plight of the homeless?
The way to help the homeless is to provide shelter, healthcare, and training, not give them a "Jackson" for a full day's work. It does not raise them up to give them less than a working wage and put a teeshirt on them that essentially says "I'm homeless."
I have a feeling you and I will have to agree to disagree about this, but I just wanted to comment so that you know the opposing point of view is not far fetched. Quite the contrary.
I hope you are enjoying your Shabbat.

Posted by: Larry | Mar 16, 2012 8:14:26 PM

Larry... I used the word paternalistic for a reason. These are not your children, nor your responsibility. They are thinking adults who were offered an opportunity to earn a base salary of 20 bucks a day to carry around a small transmitter, and the potential to earn more money from the end users at the conference. All in all, the potential earnings were far more than a babysitter. If someone were asking an adult to do something illegal or dangerous, then you get to object. But if you want to object to something that is manipulative and/or exploitive, find a kiddy beauty contest and I'll be right there with you protesting.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Mar 17, 2012 11:29:46 PM

Is the backlash because the organizers hired homeless folks, or the fact they were paid only $20 a day plus donations. Perhaps if they were paid minimum wage plus commission -it wouldn't have a negative impact. Personally, what they did is really no different than any other type "brand ambassador" or experimental promoter may do at a tradeshow, however, most people hired for those jobs aren't paid less than $2.50 an hour if they were doing this for an 8 hour shift. That to me is where it seems its exploiting them under the guise of "community relations/social responsibility outreach".

Posted by: Jaime | Mar 18, 2012 8:14:27 AM

Personally, I think they should expand the project. I'd be more than happy to wear a shirt with some sort of logo/advertisement on it, get paid $20 per day plus negotiated extras, and provide password-protected wi/fi. BTW, Trep, thanks for writing this. From what I previously understood, the homeless people were paid nothing except negotiated pricing, and had no way to deny access. If that had been the case, then yes I would have agreed that they were being exploited. But given what you laid out in this post, I have no problem.

Posted by: Amanda | Mar 18, 2012 8:33:58 PM

It's been a long time since I did labor law, but I think that you have to pay the per-hour minimum wage unless the person is an independent contractor -- and these people weren't -- or you can show that with tips added in, their compensation met or exceeded minimum wage, as with restaurant servers. I also feel it was demeaning to announce on their T-shirts that they were homeless, and make them effectively beg for "tips," which aren't really tips in this context, because these people weren't really performing a service. I'm sure the employer meant well, but I'm with Weese and Michal -- at least from a Jewish perspective the manner of giving left something to be desired.

Posted by: Kevin | Mar 20, 2012 4:56:45 AM

David, I think Larry and some others here are staking out a good middle ground. You are right that done properly, this isn't an objectively odious idea. But why not pay minimum wage? Why not put wording on the tee shirt that is less demeaning? Not to mention that if you or I were homeless, yes, we would gladly do whatever work we could to make something to put a roof over our heads. But lets not make believe that stunts like this have anything to do with a true solution to the homeless problem. Doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but perhaps do it more thoughtfully.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Mar 21, 2012 4:52:00 PM

"Like" Kevin

Posted by: Jaime | Mar 22, 2012 6:47:34 AM

Am I happy some people who need resources badly got some? Of course. But I must agree that the bigger picture is terrible. Why can't we provide homes for our citizens? Why aren't we meeting their most basic needs? We have homeless students in the Atlanta Public School system.

I agree that so many of these people are mentally ill and/or addicts. And of course they should receive minimum wage.

Micro-view = some poor people got a few bucks

Macro-view = there is something horribly wrong with the way we treat our fellow man in this country

Thanks for making me think this AM. Have a beautiful day.

Posted by: Alice | Mar 25, 2012 2:15:08 PM

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