The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference held annually in Austin Texas is the place to be if you’re trying to keep an eye on tech trends. Entities like Twitter and Foursquare found fame at SXSW in the past. This years’ antics brought fame to a few people and possibly infamy to the agency that put them in the spotlight.
“I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot. SMS HH CLARENCE to 25827 for access” read the shirt of a homeless man. Littered throughout Austin people with identical shirts (insert individuals name instead of “Clarence”) stood as human hotspots, offering wifi to tourists in areas of heavily saturated cell phone networks. South by Southwesters would then be prompted to make a donation of any amount for use of the hotspot.
You can imagine an event focusing on technological innovation having the kind of fans that want to share every experience on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Consider swimming in a kiddy pool with your entire extended family and a dump truck of cotton balls. This is the cellular networks at SXSW. A hotspot can be an oasis in the wilderness. It just makes good business sense to tap into this market. But the marketing firm BBH may have taken it a little too far. BBH describes itself as a full-service marketing company “...committed to the power of big enduring brand ideas built on simple human truths.”
I’d say they hit their mark. Homelessness is after all a glaring reflection of suffering and humility, a valid representation of these ‘unpretty’ human truths. Clarence, who prefers the term “houseless” rather than homeless has been struggling since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wiped out his home in New Orleans. He was paid $20 a day to stand in congested areas of Austin offering the digital service. Every donation made through Paypal for use of the his hotspot he also retained. When asked how he felt about it Clarence stated, “Everybody thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that. I love talking to people and it’s a job, an honest day of work and pay.”So is paying the homeless to carry around a cellular modem and offer wifi under the pretense of “yes, I am a homeless person selling you these services” exploitative or is it humanizing?
Are we uncomfortable because people down on their luck were degraded and dehumanized or are we uncomfortable because we have been forced to put a face to something socially shameful?
What do you think?
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