Understanding technology within the terms of what’s socially acceptable: how far will our generation go to be plugged in?

TEMP ORARY November 14, 2012 0

I caved to the tech craze about a month ago and bought an iPhone. Now that I have one, I must say that I feel pretty plugged in. I can surf the web, watch ESPN on my phone and update Facebook anytime I want. My old phone could hardly tell me what the weather was or send a picture, so I am thrilled. As I held my phone in my hand one night, I wondered, what do these nifty smart phones do to our society? Could they affect our perceptions of human decency? How far will we push the boundaries?
I remembered a news story I heard last year concerning the homeless. A marketing agency called BBH Labs recruited 13 homeless citizens to become mobile wireless hotspots. These individuals wore wireless devices during the duration of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. According to a New York Times report by Jenna Wortham, “BBH outfitted volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and a T-shirt bearing their names: I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.”
This endeavor in social media was deemed to be a “Charitable Experiment” by BBH director Saneel Radia. According to Wortham, “They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.” The charitable label may stem from the fact that BBH endorsed a donor system. Patrons of the “Homeless Hotspots” were encouraged to donate $2 for every 15 minutes they used the Wi-Fi. The proceeds benefited Front Steps, a local homeless shelter.
Some argue this “experiment” gave otherwise unemployed individuals a chance to do an honest day of work. They were provided with a job description and the tools to complete the job and received compensation for their work. Those individuals argue that this opportunity helped the homeless get back on their feet. Furthermore, their participation in the project also benefited others in similar situations.
However, not everyone agrees with the previous assessment of the hot spot project. Tech blogger Tim Carmody characterized the project as “completely problematic” and sounding like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Those who agree with Carmody claim that the hot spot project undermined the human rights of those citizens. They were treated like movable pieces of equipment and used as a marketing play for BBH Labs.
In addition, some argue that this project objectified the homeless individuals. The shirts they had to wear didn’t identify their value as people. Instead, they proclaimed that they possessed a piece of hardware that could fill a need.
Comments found on a BBH blog by Wortham support this assessment saying the hot spots objectify the homeless individuals and discredit their existence as people. Some patrons base their judgment upon the signal the hot spots provided. According to Wortham, one particular commentator wrote that “my homeless hot spot keeps wandering out of range, and its ruining all my day trades!”
Statements such as these indicate that our standards of human decency are slipping. Instead of valuing the man, the commentator attacked his quality of service as if he were a machine. Without the hot spots provided by the homeless, the aforementioned commentator would not have been able to make those day trades at all. Overall, this example displays that even in our “civilized” society, citizens can still be exploited by consumers and corporations.
Creating any other such experiments would only reinforce this type of exploitation as an acceptable part of our culture. It would desensitize individuals to the conditions of their fellow men. In some cases, certainly not all, I could see individuals treating homeless employees as subhuman, as they are already on the lowest economic rung of society. In addition, who would speak against a consumer or a corporation if the rights of the employee were violated in any way?
We must carefully consider all of these elements. Our generation will determine how technology is utilized and what is socially acceptable. How far will we go to be plugged in? How much will we pay to get the technology we crave? Personally, if having my iPhone ever violates the rights of another human being in such a way, I will stop using it. The liberty of another human being is far greater than my need to surf the Web.

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