03/17/2012 10:52 am ET Updated May 17, 2012

Think Again: Homeless Hotspots? Reality Bites

American novelist Philip Roth complains that the "real world" has grown so berserk that fiction has no hope of keeping up and remaining credible at the same time. I was perhaps not the only person to recall his complaint upon reading that BBH Labs -- the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH -- hired homeless people to walk around this year's South by Southwest technology conference carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering Internet access in exchange for donations.

The "Homeless Hotspots" project paid its walking advertisements just $20 a day and encouraged them to beg for more. "We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people," said Saneel Radia, the director of innovation at BBH Labs who oversaw the project. "The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story." One is tempted to credit Radia's motives, were it not for the small matter of the actual pay. Twenty bucks a day is not a sign of respect in a city where lattes run six bucks.

It's a pity nobody thought of doing this at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as reported by The New Yorker in its March 5 edition.: "Jamie Dimon, running shoes in hand, near the espresso stand by the Global Leadership Fellows Program, in the late afternoon," and "Fareed Zakaria, happily besieged, in the Industry Partners Lounge, just before lunch" might have found it amusing, as well as convenient. Then again, all those "[c]entral bankers, industrial chiefs, hedge-fund titans, gloomy forecasters, astrophysicists, monks, rabbis, tech wizards, museum curators, university presidents, financial bloggers, [and] virtuous heirs" and Mick Jagger might have enjoyed having their awareness raised, as well -- though I suppose homeless folk are a great deal more difficult to come by in Davos than in Austin, and might have pushed the price up higher than just a Jackson.

Then again, it doesn't sound like money would have been a problem:

A basic W.E.F. membership is fifty-five thousand dollars, and for a member to come to Davos costs an extra twenty-seven thousand. The Forum has a hundred so-called Strategic Partners -- corporate members who pay dues of more than half a million dollars a year -- and two hundred and fifty Industry Partners, who pay more than a quarter of a million.

Heck, they could give the homeless a thousand bucks and term it a rounding error.

Nor am I up on the various homeless populations in the locations for conferences I read about recently in New York Magazine such as:

... Renaissance Weekend, for a largely political crowd; Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley retreat, for media machers... PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, Solve for X (Google's conference for "moonshot thinking"). And beyond the higher-profile events, a lengthening tail of gatherings you've never heard of like the Feast, Do Lectures, the 99% Conference, and Techonomy.

As author Benjamin Wallace notes, all of these conferences promise pretty much the same deal: "a velvet rope to keep out the attitudinally unwashed, serendipitous interaction, quirky content, and at least the illusion of egalitarian elbow-rubbing."

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