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Some Say, “Wi-Fi?” I Say, “Why Not?”

A huge, unpleasant controversy erupted recently when an international marketing agency, whose higher-ups seemed to have a few screws loose, …

A huge, unpleasant controversy erupted recently when an international marketing agency, whose higher-ups seemed to have a few screws loose, hired a bunch of homeless people in Austin, Texas to walk around and serve as human, Wi-Fi transmitters. The zany idea, devised by BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the marketing agency BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty), was introduced at the South by Southwest arts and technology festival in Austin earlier this month. The idea was to turn cash-strapped, homeless people into roving Wi-Fi aerials. The homeless, kitted out in T-shirts bearing their names directly above the logos “I’m a 4G Hotspot,” were supplied with Wi-Fi devices they were then asked to distribute to conference participants, offering Internet access in exchange for charitable donations. Participants received $20 a day for their services and could also keep the donations. At least a few seemed happy to have the work.

The campaign was a public-relations disaster, as outraged Americans the length and breadth of the country lit up the blogosphere to savage the marketers for their jaw-dropping crassness and insensitivity. One enraged party described it as “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Another said the campaign was “straight from a human, horror story.” Caught off guard, the company argued that it was merely trying to raise the profile of the homeless, thereby easing their suffering. It said that the project had drawn its inspiration from the buck-a-copy street newspapers that homeless people sell in New York. In BBH’s view, hiring the homeless to serve as human hot-spots was not cruel; it was brimming with thoughtfulness and compassion.

But nobody seemed to be buying it. Not since Ben & Jerry offered to supply cardboard boxes to homeless New Yorkers back in the nineties had any conversation involving the poor so shocked and enraged the citizenry. It seemed like something out of J.G. Ballard or H.P Lovekraft or Roald Dahl or Texas.

I agree that using homeless people as human hot-spots is tacky and immoral and disgusting. It dehumanizes people who have already been thoroughly dehumanized. That said, I am not entirely opposed to the idea of using human beings as ambulatory hotspots, so long as they are treated respectfully, well-remunerated for their services, and volunteer to take the job. Here, I am referring to people in this country who don’t really do much, don’t have any great demands on their time, don’t seem terribly concerned about their own dignity, and have long demonstrated a readiness to cut corners if they can pick up a bit of spare cash on the side. No, I am not talking about retirees. I am talking about politicians.

Unlike homeless people, who have arrived in their current situations because of illness, psychological failings or financial reverses, and who don’t really contribute all that much to society on a daily basis, politicians have made a deliberate choice to be inert, ineffective, unreliable and just basically useless. They can’t pass budgets. They can’t agree on desperately needed changes to entitlement programs that are bankrupting the nation. They can’t reach a decision about the debt ceiling. They yak and yak and yak and yak and never get any closer to solving any of the nation’s pressing problems. What’s more, unlike most homeless people, they don’t seem terribly courteous or friendly.

Politicians do have one attribute that could prove useful to society. They move around a lot. They go to lunches. They go to fundraisers. They go to cocktail parties. They go to barbecues. They go to ball games. They go to pig roasts. They ride planes. They ride trains. They wander hither. They wander yon. So, why not employ them as peripatetic, Wi-Fi hot spots? It would put a few extra bucks in their pockets and the rest of us wouldn’t have to worry about our Netflix movies suddenly cutting out while riding public transportation or important day trades getting voided because we keep moving out of Wi-Fi range.

The beauty of using politicians—at the municipal, state or national level—as itinerant, Wi-Fi hot spots is that, for once in our lives, the rest of us would get some kind of return on our investment. Politicians can’t do anything about our taxes, they can’t do anything about our schools, and they can’t do anything about the economy, but at least they could make themselves useful by improving our Wi-Fi reception. It’s not much. It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s a start.

And, oh yes, the politicians would not only receive a salary, but they would get to keep any and all donations. Don’t they always?

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.