April 02, 2012
Peace Prize for Homeless Hotspots
When the media discovered the Homeless Hotspots “charitable experiment,” it responded with a torrent of moral condemnation. Critics wasted no time denouncing the initiative as a publicity stunt that cruelly objectified homeless people as technological infrastructure. Instead of equating the initiative with exploitation, perhaps a movement should be started that advocates Saneel Radia, head of innovation at BBH Labs, be given a Nobel Peace Prize. After all, in 2006 Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank received one largely for helping create the Village Phone program—an initiative praised for hiring impoverished and marginalized women as “Phone Ladies.”
On the surface, Homeless Hotspots looks like a typical conscientious enterprise. BBH Labs, a private company, partnered with Front Steps, a non-profit shelter located in Austin, Texas, to create a new business niche. Building off the model of employing homeless people to sell newspapers on the street, the Homeless Hotspots participants (sometimes reported as totaling 13, other times tallied at 20) offered 4G Internet to South by South West Interactive Festival attendees in exchange for $20 per day plus customer donations. The suggested donation—which anyone could refuse to pay—was $2 for every 15 minutes of Internet use. BBH labs, however, claims to have guaranteed the participants would earn a minimum of $50 per day.
Advocates applaud the program’s innovative entrepreneurialism—replacing the sale of outdated analog goods with an opportunity for homeless people to profit from customer demand for digital services. They also praise the endeavor for shining a bright light on the problem of homelessness. Radia, for example, emphasizes social justice: “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people.”
Controversy erupted largely because Homeless Hotspots participants wandered the festival in degrading attire. Their shirts stated, “I’m [Name] a 4G hotspot.” Comedian John Stewart rightly asks why more humane uniforms weren’t used—shirts acknowledging that the homeless vendors are flesh-and-blood people who deserve basic respect. “I’m [Name] and I manage a 4G hotspot” would have avoided equating people with a technological service and bypassed the harm that demeaning language can inflict upon vulnerable people.
Were existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre still alive, he might have made the same point. Sartre refused to accept a Nobel Prize because he felt that to do so meant losing freedom by being turned into a brand (in his words, “an institution”).
Stewart wasn’t the only one upset. Wired’s Tim Carmody offered the much-quoted quip that Homeless Hotspots: “Sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Jon Mitchell, at ReadWriteWeb, upped the ante by suggesting the program crystalizes the basic problems of technological inequality: “The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” Arnold Cohen, CEO of the Partnership for the Homeless, added visceral words of moral revulsion to the mix of vitriolic descriptions: “It's more than absurd—it’s stomach-turning.” Megan Garber at The Atlantic said the program represents the “normalization of a new power dynamic: digital colonialism.”
Critics didn’t portray Homeless Hotspots as stomach-turning simply because they found objectification offensive. Some viewed the payment plan as too modest. Garber noted that the program too easily blended poverty and privilege by representing the Homeless Hotspots participants on an interactive map where their avatars moved “merrily upon streets and avenues like so many bars and barber shops.” Mitchel rejected the newspaper comparison: “Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population. By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure.” Others, like Stewart, lamented that the program didn’t teach participants new computer skills.
Stewart also intimated that valorizing the program might set the tone for further exploitation. For heightened effect, he cast the slippery slope argument through an image depicting a park where homeless people are turned into a variety of objects, ranging from a chair to a toilet. A similar point comes across in a satirical piece that shows homeless people being used as street lighting.
Despite the exhaustive media attention, a crucial issue has gone unremarked. To appreciate it, we need to revisit the main moral concern: objectifying vulnerable people is bad. Let’s consider this view as a general moral proposition. If it is a valid critique, it should apply any time a vulnerable person gets depicted as a technological infrastructure. It should apply when vulnerable people get paid for offering goods and services to the “haves,” as in the Homeless Hotspots case. And, it should equally apply when vulnerable people get paid for offering goods and services to the “have-nots”. Helping out peers certainly eliminates concern about economic inequality. But, class disparity is irrelevant when we’re considering whether objectification is inherently morally problematic, or at least morally offensive when applied to low-income people.
Unfortunately, recent history reveals an inconsistent, if not downright hypocritical attitude towards objectification.
Just a few years ago, the world fell in love with the idea of what group of Bangladeshi women who were referred to by a technological name—“phone ladies” (phone bibi; “mobile call office” was used, too)—could accomplish. Through the Village Loan program, phone ladies received small loans (microcredit) from the Grameen Bank and used their money to rent out mobile phones to poor local villagers on a call-by-call basis.
This practice seemed highly desirable because only a limited number of landlines were available and prohibitive pricing (relative to local wages) prevented people from acquiring their own cell phones. Furthermore, phone access could further several important goals by reducing transaction costs and significantly enhancing the range of immediate communication. For example, family members abroad could be contacted while bypassing the constraints of illiteracy without going through the mediation of an imam. Real-time medical advice—for humans and livestock—could be obtained, as well relevant market information, which reduced the power middlemen could display. The political lobbying associated with the tradition of tabir could be furthered, too.
Praise ran so high that phone ladies were represented in popular and scholarly literatures as icons of digital development.
Beyond the benefit to clients, the Village Phone program also was praised for its ability to “empower” the phone ladies themselves. Lots of reasons were mentioned, but the following six took center stage. First, the program recognized the potential of an ignored population that is typically denied access to credit and exploited by moneylenders. Second, the initiative gave women employment opportunities denied by traditional Muslim purdah customs. Under these customs, women are restricted to home-based domestic work and discouraged from speaking with males who are not relatives. Third, it provided women with a new sense of authority and respect. Spouses and communities were said to treat women better once they earned higher wages. Phone ladies were said to gain newfound decision-making power, including being given more say in their children’s educational plans.
Fourth, the Village Phone program was valorized for embracing a positive social agenda rooted in the modern values espoused in its “Sixteen Resolutions”. In order to qualify for loans, phone ladies needed to reject the repressive custom of dowry and learn skills that instill self-discipline and appreciation for wellness (e.g., nutrition, sanitation, and family planning are emphasized). Fifth, the initiative was praised for promoting the virtue of solidarity; in fulfilling the requirements for obtaining loans, phone ladies pledged to look after one another. Sixth, by promoting “entrepreneurialism,” the Village Phone program was commended for accomplishing something that falls outside the scope of charity—instilling pride and confidence in phone ladies, characteristics that form the psychological foundation for civic participation.
Alas, things were not as rosy as the typical coverage of the phone ladies’ lives and working conditions suggested. I raised concern about idealized portrayals of the Village Phone program obscuring troubling issues (“Does Micro-credit “Empower”? Reflections on the Grameen Bank Debate” and “Towards a Reflexive Framework for Development: Technology Transfer After the Empirical Turn”). Only a few others, including libertarian Jeffrey Tucker and anthropologist Aminur Rahman, scratched below the surface.
Dissention remained rare until the dark side of micro-credit practices, including microfinance-related suicides, became so pronounced that the angelic glow finally began to fade. Only now are people like Tim West writing pieces like “Microcredit doesn’t end poverty, despite all the hype” that advance scathing claims: “There has been enough time and evidence now to explore the full impact of microcredit in depth, and, set against its vaunted reputation, my verdict is dour: Microcredit rarely transforms lives. Some people do better after getting a small business loan, while some do worse — but very few climb into the middle class. It’s a constructive endeavor, but it has been vastly overhyped. And the hype has undermined the good that the movement can achieve.”
My academic contributions didn’t morally condemn the Village Phone program. They did, however, contend that the standard stories omitted crucial sociological data, including: the problem of husbands seizing control of the phone ladies’ income (effectively phone pimping); the violence sometimes found in loan circles that ensured re-payment through peer-pressure and coercion (the dark side of using a communal alternative to collateral-based lending practices); the specter of retaliation arising if the men who dominated the male-dominated society felt provoked by a loss of power; the potential for the loans to bring borrowers further into debt and make them increasingly micro-credit dependent; and, culture-based reasons to be skeptical that phone ladies answered their professional assessment surveys truthfully (would you complain about your job if doing so meant your spouse would beat you?).
Beyond these issues, I called attention to the objectification problem and emphasized its connection to dependency relations. Like Homeless Hotspot participants, phone ladies were referred to in technological terms. These terms correlated with a job that required female workers to be so passive that the cultural norms surrounding purdah were reinforced, not challenged, e.g., the so-called “virtues” of submissiveness, modesty, purity, respectability, and humility. This structure, which I referred to as a techno-economic “script,” has the following agency restricting features: phone ladies needed to be silent to allow customers to speak without distraction; phone ladies needed to promote the one service provided by Village Phone program, without having any opportunity to offer their opinions on technological alternatives; and, as with John Stewart’s criticism of Homeless Hotspots, phone ladies were surrounded by technologies and infrastructures that they were not taught to understand, repair, or adjust. Put in terms of dependency, phone ladies relied upon: the Grameen Bank’s continual support; the willingness of GrameenPhone and GrameenTelecom to provide them with advantageous calling rates; a passive service protocol; and, other people’s technological knowledge and skill.
Why, then, were Homeless Hotspots condemned but phone ladies praised? At the height of the micro-credit hype, Yunus proudly announced his hope that in the future he’d be able to introduce the new job of “Internet ladies”. At root, these inconsistencies are less about attitudes towards technology per se and more about how the categories of “homeless in America” and “empowered abroad” are constructed. Within the dominant imagination, the phone ladies couldn't be dehumanized. As abstractions, they were never human to begin with.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 09:39 AM | Permalink