If you peel back the judgmental layers of the recent SXSW Homeless Hotspots controversy — that it was meant to help the homeless, no it was a PR stunt, no it was a PR stunt that backfired, no it was a meta-PR stunt designed to backfire to create massive conversations that built even more PR — the deepest layer is why everyone got upset: We all fear technology. No one gave a damn when homeless people in Austin made a little money selling newspapers, but when BBH Labs had them hand out wireless connectivity, suddenly it was “degrading,” “dehumanizing,” “exploitation.” Really? If the transfer of product, value and information was the same, but only the conduit changed from ink to ether, then why is information transmitted on crushed wood pulp a better use of human value than data sent via airwaves? The user next to the homeless man or woman could receive the same story from the service, first on paper, second on a tablet. So who cares?
The answer to me is simple: Deep inside we are afraid of where technology is leading us, how it is disengaging humans from the real world, and this Hotspot effort which at superficial glance apparently merged poor people into technological antennae was thus a Frankenstein creation, an eerie look into the uncanny valley of morphed human gears, and that is distasteful.
People freaked out unfairly because human-technology singularity is damn freaky, and BBH unwittingly woke us up to that merger.
This reaction was completely illogical. But in my view, this was the greatest lesson from BBH Labs’ brave and noble experiment. We didn’t learn how to help the homeless, but we sure saw how scared we get when technology becomes part of our human souls.
Image: Tim Caynes