Support 100 years of independent journalism.

15 March 2012updated 09 Feb 2015 12:21pm

Laurie Penny on human wifi: not just part of the furniture

The normalisation of exploitation is the real scandal here.

By Laurie Penny

The normalisation of exploitation is the real scandal here.

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 your friends, colleagues and important task begins to nag at you. You scrape together money you can’t afford for coffee you don’t want on the offchance that the drinks stand has wifi.

At the South by South-West music and technology convention in Austin, Texas, a man called Clarence has a solution to your problem. Video and photo footage show 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 New Orleans house.

Turning homeless people into wireless hotspots gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “get connected”. When I read the words “controversy” and “advertising agency” in the same sentence, my bullshit-o-meter starts honking, and sure enough, 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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Why else have these “hotspots” gather outside the largest assembly of technology and pop culture journalists in the US?

Publicity stunt or no, however, the spectacle of real homeless people “making a connection” with 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 issue 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? Conference attendees 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.

The argument goes something like this: low-paid work is dehumanising anyway, so, this being an age of austerity, why not objectify people just a little bit more and pay them a little bit less? If flogging humans as inanimate objects creates jobs, albeit jobs that leave them hungry and homeless, why not round up all the unfortunates from park benches and embankments and introduce them to fulfilling new lives as wireless hotspots, coat-stands and occasional tables?

Yes, low-paid work can be ridiculous and objectifying — and that’s a daily scandal that most people who do it have to struggle not to think about. But perhaps we should be just a little more scandalised.

The normalisation of exploitation is the real scandal here, and the fact that homelessness has become an acceptable part of modern city living in one of the richest nations on an earth, rather than the fact that some of those homeless people were on one occasion paid to wear wifi devices.

If there’s something uncanny about this particular publicity stunt, it’s only because it pushes social exploitation to its logical conclusion in a world where technology and inequality are both exploding.

There are already plenty of quasi-legitimate ways to turn a profit off the desperation of the workless without dabbling in weird conventions like paying a salary.

In Britain, until some noisy leftists spoiled the party, you could shovel the unemployed into menial jobs in Tesco, Poundland or Oxfam at well below minimum wage, and a similar “workfare” system has been in place for years in the United States, where poverty is at a mere twenty-year high.

This stunt, however, is creepy for a reason. It’s creepy in the way that it would be creepy to be introduced to a shaved, waxed chimpanzee in a business suit and told that this is Clive from accounts.

All the right bits are there, but a crucial element of humanity is missing. Here, the postures of everyday work and everyday poverty are recombined and made freakish, and we are forced to see what we choose to unsee almost every day: the normalisation of exploitation at work, and the fact that, despite the dizzying, breathless potential of modern technology, thousands of people are still sleeping rough in cities where mansions stand empty.

The spectacle of people who have fallen on hard times being used to help others “get connected” 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 to one another — but paying the homeless poverty wages to stand around whilst the rest of us check Facebook is no place to start.