One story in particular drifting out of South By Southwest caught my attention: The outrage and indignity over a trial/marketing stunt program which gave Austin-area homeless individuals a 4G “hotspot” that nearby techies could log in to and browse the web, while introducing the wireless vendor and asking users for a small PayPal or cash donation.
The reaction was as swift as it was predictable. Wired’s excellent Tim Carmody blasted the Damning Backstory Behind ‘Homeless Hotspots’ at SXSW, while others took the initiative as another sign of the tech conferences jumping the shark – or worse, how out of touch the digerati are with real world problems.
To quote Carmody:
It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.
This program and the immediate media backlash reminded me of why so many promising, innovative projects inevitably sputter out, whether its in the world of startups, social work or plain vanilla corporate IT.
The basic idea behind the experiment, conceived of by marketing firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is simple and time tested: Give disadvantaged individuals an opportunity at respectful, accessible self-employment. Thousands of programs around the world are based on the same premise in. One popular version is the street newspaper, in which homeless individuals are given free or cheap newspapers to sell, and then keep the profit (I volunteer for one of these in the Boston area), and that’s the model Bartle Bogle Hegarty said they were building on, working with a local Austin shelter.
But what, exactly, made the experiment cause such a visceral reaction? A New York Times blog post dubs it “dystopian” before posing the question: “When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure?” Carmody goes even further, focusing on the project’s precursor, which provided mobile and social tools to the homeless to help them directly tell their story – before the project fell apart:
This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many, many well meaning projects fizzle out early on for one reason or another, whether old media or new. Awarding supporters of those projects a scarlet letter and expecting everyone to bat 1000 means that tried and true mediocrity becomes the only metric of success.
I think a lot of the gut-level reaction to the initiative stem mostly because BHH is trying something new and untested while raising uncomfortable truths (as a few commenters noted, nobody would otherwise be discussing homelessness amid the excess of SXSW).
The problem isn’t limited to public service or Silicon Valley’s endless chattering classes, the latter of which often feels like an echo chamber of “me too” companies that endlessly cookie cutter each other’s success. The attitude infects IT and technology decisions for understandable reasons – but ultimately ones that put IT in a reactive, defensive position.
One of the first expressions I learned at TechTarget was “Nobody ever got fired for buying Cisco,” a twist on the original (?) “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, both classic examples of the conservative habits of IT buyers. Because for years, not many people would get fired for following the path of least resistance and going with one of two “safe” vendors. But lately that thinking has left IT blind to the challenges advances like cloud computing, Bring Your Own Device and software-as-a-service everywhere have brought, leaving users to route around their conservatism with riskier, but more practical, tools and methods, or letting their business get swallowed up by a nimbler competitor.
In IT departments, the gut reaction is often, “If the user doesn’t follow our policy, fire them”. But the uncomfortable truth is that, in many areas, IT hasn’t kept up with the consumer world, and it’s easier to attack challenges to the status quo, whatever the topic, than to do the hard work of embracing change.