As a society, we are becoming more and more technology dependent. Innovations like facebook, twitter, iphone, ipad, and so on have begun blurring the lines between reality and “virtual reality.”  Just as earlier generations would question – if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Now we joke – if it isn’t “on facebook” did it really happen? All of this should make us pause and question our relationship not only to technology but to this “virtual connection” of the internet.”New technology” is not “good” simply because it is new. Technology in itself, I would propose, is neutral – whether a technological advancement is positive or negative is determined by intention, purpose, use and how it was developed.  Advancement of what? Advancement by what process? Advancement for whom?

This brings me to the recent furor over the “homeless hotspots” proposed by BHH marketing agency at this weeks “South by Southwest” technology conference. The basic ideaas reported in the NY times:

BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.

The smartphone-toting, social-networking crowds often overwhelm cellular networks in the area, creating a market that BBH Labs hoped to serve with the “Homeless Hotspots” project, which it called a “charitable experiment.” It paid each participant $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.

The NY Times has corrected that there is a discrepancy between what some of hte participants thought they were being paid ($20/day) vs. BHH statement of ($50/day). According  to today’s NY Post the immediate negative press and public outrage over the pilot “Homeless Hotspots” has almost immediately led BHH to pull the program.

After a trial run in Austin, Texas, officials at the Manhattan ad agency Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty had hoped to roll out their bizarre project in New York, but slammed on the brakes yesterday after they were ripped by homeless-rights advocates and city officials.

“We have no definite, specific future plans yet, in New York City or elsewhere. This was an initial trial program,” said Emma Cookson, chairman of BBH New York.

 We are now listening carefully to the high level of feedback, trying to learn and respond, and we will then consider what is appropriate to do next.”
In my opinion, the immediate outrage among homeless advocacy groups was warranted and BHH was right to quickly pull the program. But, I would like to take a minute to examine why I think  “homeless hotspots” is exploitative and a grave violation of human dignity – it turns people into hotspots and glosses over the profound injustice of homelessness in our society. It is a commodification of the human person – and exploiting those whose basic needs are not being met to further our own technology addiction.
Some will argue that creating homeless hotspots encourages (even perhaps forces) the non-homeless to interact with the local homeless population. Technology then is increasing awareness and “allowing the homeless to tell their story” as I heard on this morning” CNN coverage. Increasing awareness of homelessness is a good thing. One struggle in addressing the injustice of homelessness is that to most people – the  homeless are simply invisible. The problem with a model like “homeless hotspots” is that it sets up a paradigm where we recognize the homeless man in our local park BECAUSE he has suddenly become useful to us. Personal interactions of this kind can lead to conversion – which is always sought – however, more than likely this will perpetuate stereotypes and set up new means of discriminating against the homeless.  What is the status of those not participating in the “hotspot” program? Do they exist if they don’t have a wi-fi device?
Another problem within this pilot program is that it $50/day and suggested donations (the idea that it was suggested donations itself is a further ethical problem here) will not provide a path out of homelessness. That hundreds of thousands of people in this country are homeless is an injustice and violation of human rights; it is not a situation to try and make useful. Structurally – this program could not avoid being exploitative. Yet, it is possible for me to imagine a program involving wi-fi access and the homeless which could represent participation and a move towards justice. What would that look like? If a local cooperative of homeless persons and homeless focused advocacy groups organized from the ground up a system of wi-fi hot spots that was systematized, focused on gaining access to having their basic needs met and a path to stable permanent housing. What are some things that would involve?  A structured fee and wage schedule, job training – for ex. computer skills and technology education, a community of participation where this is treated as a ground up community and business organizing effort and not charity. We cannot, as Caritas in Veritate reminds us, properly speak of  charity if we have not first met the requirements of justice.
Technological advancement continually opens a flood of new ethical questions and new possibilities. Cell phones and the internet spread information quickly and globally – this opens up innumerable possibilities.We saw last spring how this technology contributed to the “Arab Spring,” organizations like SaveDarfur and the One Campaign have been quite successful using the internet to push campaigns in Washington. And there is a new effort by the Vincentians (VinMore) on facebook to examine how cell phones can be used in ministry and service to the poor. We should imagine and investigate the possibilities of USING technology as a means to serve the poor and for it to be used for empowerment, participation and organizing among the poor….however, we must always first question – does this endeavor begin with the dignity of the person? or with my desire for faster internet/smart phone access? When we are looking at the social structure of our society – we cannot let our desire for convenience to use our own technology eclipse the humanity of those around us and the inhumanity of our social situation where so many are without a home.
**UPDATE** My post is responding to idea, heard via radio and tv, that the South By Southwest program was a pilot endeavor with the intention of replicating in cities like New York. It was not responding to the idea of temporary hiring of homeless men for a 4 day temporary job at a convention. And I thank those who brought the confusion/distinction to my attention.