There has been substantial debate, and much virtual ink spilt, over the Homeless Hotspot program in Austin, Texas. The program is relatively straightforward from the title: 13 homeless men and one woman with mobile wireless internet hotspots in their pockets hawking internet access on street corners. Launched at SXSW, the premier gathering of hip indie rockers, it has been read by many as the corporate horror-tech future to come, where poor people are little more than machines designed to serve as human infrastructure to extend the privilege of the few.
A old friend wrote me asking my opinion. He believed that the criticism was condescending, particularly given that the workers seemed to appreciate the jobs they were being given, which seemed far less demeaning than the work typically available to the most impoverished parts of society. He wanted to know if he was missing something.
I think it is important to consider the voices of the people involved, but I also think the program needs to be contextualized in an understanding of the political, economic, and culture milieu in which the program has developed. I cannot speak for the homeless, but I can speak about a few considerations that should inform how we think about the political, economic, and cultural context.
First, I think as a job, there are aspects of homeless hotspots program that are dehumanizing. As the copy inscribed upon their shirts pronouncing “I am … a 4G hotspot,” the program does literally transform people into part of the technological infrastructure.
There are two counter-arguments presented. This program gives homeless folks jobs, and jobs that, it can argued, contribute to humanizing homeless people. They are not simply hotspots but also people. The shirts not only pronounce their function but also their name: “I am Clarence / a 4G hotspot” for instance. This, so the argument goes, works against the prevailing dehumanization of homeless folks, as beyond consideration, less than people. We are confronted with their name.
However, a job is not simply a gift, it is part of an economic relationship, and most often an exploitative one. People are working for money, but inevitably their work is helping someone else make money, build brand image, etc … The exploitative nature of people making less than the full value of their work, is particularly clear in the homeless hotspots program. The homeless people who volunteered for the program are not paid as employees but rather provided a stipend of $20 dollars a day plus their earnings from wireless sales. The fact their work is worth more is evident in the fact that the company organizing this service had initially proposed a higher figure (remarkably and criminally acting against the interests of the population they are committed to serve, Front Steps, the homeless outreach program partnering in providing homeless hotspots, negotiated the stipend down).
Further, the homeless hotspot program is not only exploitative of homeless labour, it is also a commodification of homeless people’s identities and marginalization. It is literally marketing homeless people’s experience of impoverishment. In so doing it allows a bunch of hipsters – a subculture built on the appropriation of marginalized cultures as a way to be cool – to purchase a connection with homelessness. They can hear homeless people’s stories and via their personal connection to a homeless person get connected to the internet.
Homeless people as a condition of their work are being required to share their personal histories. While this program gives hipsters the opportunity to act cool and subversive, supposedly inverting the dehumanizing way most urban folks relate to homeless people, it also provides a means for them to reinforce their privilege. They are again appropriating marginalized identities as a resource to play cool.
However, this critique that homeless people should not have rent themselves out to carry around modems somewhat neglects the rather uncomfortable reality that these people are indeed homeless. Homelessness is not a condition that will be alleviated by banning the practice of providing them with opportunities on the basis that these opportunities are exploitative. But these jobs are not a panacea either. We need to address the fact people are homeless and forced by economic necessity to sell their labour in whatever way they can. Thus, beyond challenging another new way capitalism makes people into machines, we need to fight against the economic and political structures that leave some living on streets.