Controversy Comes To Boil Over 'Homeless Hotspots'

For this year's South By South West conference, some of Austin's homeless were equipped with mobile Wi-Fi devices and t-shirts inviting attendees to use these hotspots to get online. Reactions have ranged from support, to disbelief, to outrage. Host Michel Martin discusses the ethical implications with a technology reporter and an ethicist.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, a program aimed at curbing bullying in schools is airing on a popular cable channel this weekend. It's called "Speak Up." We'll talk with one of the young men who was featured in the film about why his own parents didn't even know he was being bullied until they saw the film. That conversation is in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about a story that caught our eye and, apparently, a lot of yours. We've been hearing a lot about this online. The annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin showcases all that is cool in technology, music and film.

And, when surrounded by all that cool stuff, you kind of want to spread the word. One company, BBH, thought that they had come up with an innovative way to connect to the Internet at the conference. They handed Wi-Fi hotspots to individuals from a local homeless shelter. They let passers by know they could log on and pay whatever they wanted for the service.

Once word got out that this plan was underway, the response from the public beyond Austin ranged from support to outrage. So we wanted to talk some more about this.

To get the facts straight, we've called upon New York Times technology reporter Jenna Wortham. She was in Austin for the South by Southwest Festival, and she reported on this story.

And, also, to talk about the ethical implications, we've called, once again, Jack Marshall, the president and founder of ProEthics, an ethics consulting group.

Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

JACK MARSHALL: Thank you.

JENNA WORTHAM: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Jenna, what was the idea behind this project that the BBH Labs called Homeless Hotspots?

WORTHAM: Well, BBH thought they would sort of kill two birds with one stone. At something like South by Southwest, there's always a problem of getting Internet access or connecting to the Internet while you're walking around. And they also wanted to bring attention to the relatively large population of homeless people that live in Austin. So they thought they would sort of employ some of those people, enroll them in this voluntary program and have them walk around and talk to local conference-goers and tell them their story, as well as help them get online for a few minutes.

MARTIN: What was the response?

WORTHAM: You know, it was all over the place. I mean, I think people that actually did, you know, interact with some of the people, you know, who were participating in the Homeless Hotspots Program sort of - they enjoyed talking to them. Everyone in the program was very, you know, lively and excited and, you know, having a good time being out there. But other people were very discomforted by it. I mean, there was something very, very unsettling about this kind of disconnect between what's a very real world problem, which is homelessness, and kind of this first-world problem of not being able to, you know, check your Twitter from your iPhone.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip from Emma Cookson, the chairman of BBH New York. That's the parent company behind the project. She was interviewed yesterday on CNN, and she wanted to talk about what some of the participants thought of the program. Let's just listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

EMMA COOKSON: Usually, the conference-goers just pass them by. They don't stop to talk to them. They actively ignore them. Because of this program, these people are having loads and loads of conversations about their background, about their situation, and it's interesting. A couple of the guys referred to it as my temporary little business.

MARTIN: So, Jack Marshall, let's bring you into this conversation. How did you respond to this? I mean, Jenna said that a lot of people were discomforted by that. And why do you think that is?

MARSHALL: Well, part of it is a phenomenon that I see a lot, and I call it the ick factor, which is that when something is strange and unusual and takes us by surprise, our initial reaction is to say it's bad or it's unethical. But if we try to think about why it's unethical, we actually can't find out something. I think that was at work strong here.

And the other tendency is that we tend to look at conduct by what we presume the motives behind it are, whereas judging the conduct, there are things where we do the right thing for the wrong reason. I wouldn't be surprised - I'm cynical that this was, in fact, done for the benefit of the homeless. But the fact is, I think it did benefit the homeless. And if we were - when I finally thought about it, I realized, if they had hired, you know, some cheerleaders in bikinis or students to do this, nobody would be outraged at all. They'd say, it's a job.

Well, here are 13 volunteers who consented to it, and they benefited from it. I mean, they had a better day and met some people. So I find it odd that we would criticize the organization for trying this, when most of us pay no attention to the homeless people at all.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Jack Marshall - he is an ethics consultant - and Jenna Wortham, a technology reporter, on a story that caught our attention about homeless people being used as Wi-Fi hotspots at the South by Southwest Festival that just concluded in Austin.

So, Jenna, what about that? Did people talk to you about this? When you were reporting your story, what did people say to you? Was there kind of the ick factor? People said they were uncomfortable, but they didn't really know why?

WORTHAM: Absolutely. I think that's fair. But I think the underlying issue there, though, was that, you know, BBH said they were going to pay each participant a stipend of $20 per day, plus, you know, they were able to accept donations for conference-goers. They could pay what they wanted to for an access to the Internet through these hotspots. And then BBH also said they would make sure that each participant got $50 or $60 per day for their help.

And I think there's a sense that that's not really - of course, they were advised on how much - on that pricing to sort of what would be responsible and a reasonable amount for the people in the program. But there's a sense that you're not actually going to ever, you know, become - you know, get out of homelessness if that's how much money that you're making per day. I mean, that doesn't feel like a living wage to a lot of people. And I think that's the sense. I mean, these aren't college kids. They aren't interns. They are, you know, grown men and women who are actually trying to, you know, transition back into a regular living and working situation. This is not necessarily going to get them there.

MARTIN: But it is interesting. I mean, you heard Jack Marshall's point, which is that $20 that you did get is better than the $20 that you didn't get, and that if people were college students or something, people really wouldn't have thought about this at all.

I mean, I'm interested. What's your - Jenna, what was the most kind of clearly articulated objection that you heard? Was it the idea that they're not - it's not a living wage and that it's somehow demeaning to pay these adults this? Or is it the idea of your turning the human being into an object, in a way? You're turning the - it's the idea of the human hotspot, somehow, like the walking billboard. Some things - people find that disturbing.

What was the most clearly articulated objection that you heard?

WORTHAM: I think it was that. I think it was the sense that when the actual technical infrastructure, you know, of the cellular networks just, you know, crumbled down or fell apart, we turned to humans and used humans as infrastructure. And I think people felt that that sort of was incredibly dehumanizing and sort of very reductive in a way that was just very unsettling. I mean, I think that was the clearest thing that made people uncomfortable.

MARTIN: So, Jack, you've tossed this around in your head and I think you gave us a clue about where you're heading on this. Did you start out thinking it was a bad idea and then turned - came around to the idea that it wasn't, after all? And what was kind of the hinge pin - the lynchpin of this for you?

MARSHALL: That's exactly right. And, actually, I think the moment - the epiphanal moment for me was I was in New York yesterday and I saw a guy in a full Woody costume from "Toy Story" handing out fliers. And I said, now, that is worse than having to walk around, being wired. I mean, actually, what these guys were doing was interesting. It was presented in a, perhaps, a dehumanizing way, but I guess what we're talking about then is the phrasing of the lettering on the t-shirt, which said: I am a hotspot.

All right. Maybe the phrasing was incorrect. But the fact is, the alternative for these guys is not a living wage or a new career. It's begging on the street or having an experience that might, in fact, motivate them and excite them to do something else. So it looks to me like all the results are positive, and the revulsion at it really is, I think, the ick factor at work.

And, if the end result is we focus more attention at the homeless problem generally, then that's a good result, as well.

MARTIN: Jack Marshall is the president and founder of ProEthics, an ethics consultancy group. He was kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Jack, thanks so much.

MARSHALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jenna Wortham is the technology reporter for the New York Times, and she joined us from her office in New York. Jenna, thank you so much.

WORTHAM: My pleasure.

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