Not just part of the furniture

New York

You know how it feels - you're stuck in a city centre with an email to send and you can't get online. You start to panic. The feeling of being cut off from friends, colleagues and important tasks begins to nag at you. You scrape together money you can't afford for coffee you don't want, on the off chance that the drinks stand has wifi.

At the South by South-West music, film and technology convention in Austin, Texas, a man named Clarence has a solution to your problem. Video and photo footage shows him standing outside the conference centre, begging delegates with a hopeful smile to use him to fire up their smartphones. He wears a portable wifi connection and a T-shirt that says "I am a wireless hotspot". Clarence has been homeless since Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house in New Orleans.

Turning homeless people into wireless hotspots gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase "get connected". A little digging reveals that the idea of turning destitute men and women into living wifi hotspots was engineered by a New York PR firm for maximum press attention, but, publicity stunt or no, the spectacle of real homeless people serving the iPad-toting privileged got half the developed world talking.

The frightening thing is that once you push through the initial shock of seeing human beings marketed as glorified plug sockets, the idea makes an ugly sort of sense. What, apart from the piffling matter of a daily wage and a place to live, makes these homeless people, who were paid the grand sum of $20 (£12.70) a day, any different from those working inside the convention centre? Guests at the event reported men wandering around festooned with USB sockets for charging various devices, as well as the standard "booth babes" in knickers and latex paid to pose for pictures with heavy-breathing delegates.

Router 101
The rationale goes something like this: low-paid work is dehumanising anyway, so, as this is an age of austerity, why not objectify people just a little bit more and pay them a little bit less? If it creates jobs, why not round up all the unfortunates from the park benches and embankments and introduce them to fulfilling lives as wireless hotspots, coat stands and occasional tables?

The outcry over the idea of homeless people being fitted out to provide wireless connectivity, even as a publicity stunt, prompted a few liberals to ask themselves quite why a notionally charitable effort should produce such revulsion. The answer is that it's creepy in the way that it would be creepy to be introduced to a shaved and waxed chimpanzee in a business suit and told, "This is Clive from Accounts." It's got all the right bits, but a crucial element of humanity is missing.

What is missing is revulsion at the idea of homeless people becoming literally part of the furniture. The stunt is a ghoulish pastiche of the notion of the internet as a great social leveller. We live in an age of dazzling innovation and desperate inequality and yes, we probably do need to make better connections - but paying the homeless poverty wages to stand around while the rest of us check our Facebook is a terrible place to start.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism