03/23/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

"Homeless Hotspot" -- Right Meets Wrong at 4G Speed

Last week or so, the South by Southwest Technology Conference in Austin, Texas (SXSW) caused a tremendous amount of controversy by employing homeless people to walk around the conference space as human 4G wireless hotspots. The conference, as described by the New York Times, "has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends." This year, thanks to a promotional idea by BBH Labs, conference-goers could make a "donation" to one of these "Homeless Hotspots," as they were called, to obtain the privilege of Internet access. The employees, from a local homeless shelter, were paid $20 per day for the work and were allowed to keep the money people paid to use the hotspots.

Much ado -- and I mean much -- has been made about the Homeless Hotspots. Most pieces have been a jumble of confusion trying to sort out whether this was a bad thing because it belittled the people employed, or a good thing because it employed them. The answer is both. And if we comb it out, we can see why.

Let's start with the good part. Employment is good. Income is good. People engaging in gainful, legal employment that offers them a sense of control over their work and earns a wage that can be used for food, shelter and items of aspiration, is good. It's OK to say that and think that, even when we are vaguely, or maybe acutely, uncomfortable with some of the circumstances around the employment. The Times summed that part well with this quote from one of the workers:

"Everyone thinks I'm getting the rough end of the stick, but I don't feel that," Mr. Jones said. "I love talking to people and it's a job. An honest day of work and pay."

As Johnny Depp said in Rango, (yes, I'm at that place in life where I'm quoting kids' movies,) "Ain't no shame in that."

Unfortunately, there's also a troubling undercurrent to the way this idea was executed. It played out in two ways. First, work is dignity. So why wasn't this just treated as work? Second, people are people, not objects. There's a difference between, "I'm a Homeless Hotspot," and "I'm carrying a 4G hotspot."

The organizers and users of the Homeless Hotspot idea tried to have it both ways. They made it about charity for homeless people and a transaction to get wireless connectivity. That gets messy. You can't say, "Hey, we're just employing people," on the one hand and then call the payment for hotspot usage a "donation." Which is it? Is this charity or work?

The truth is, it was work. The $20 per diem paid for labor, and the money handed over on the spot paid for the Internet connection. Who kept the money was a contractual question between employer and employee. The problem came in trading on the workers' economic status outside of the conference to gain a patina of social good inside the conference. Effectively, it shrunk the dignity of the work. It devalued the labor in favor of showing off the workers' economic vulnerability for reputational gain. Not cool.

Then there's the, "I'm a Homeless Hotspot," part. No. That's a person, actually. I know some readers will think this is an overreaction. But it isn't.

Poverty is a dehumanizing force. National sage Maurice Lim Miller describes it as a problem of self-determination. Self-determination is what makes us free and complete. It's the chance to rise in the ways we choose, to make of our lives what we want. Extreme poverty blocks that progress at all crossroads, and it takes away our dignity over time.

That means we should set the bar even higher for avoiding dehumanizing experiences for our neighbors in poverty. Life is doing it enough as it is.

In the best of economic circumstances, turning people into products for profit or entertainment is troubling. People experiencing homelessness are not in the best of circumstances. Out of respect, we have an obligation to participate in commodifying the person even less in this case. "I'm a Homeless Hotspot," doesn't pass the test.

In life, things really can be good and bad. To BBH Labs and SXSW I say: Kudos on the work. Raspberries on the execution. In this case, work could have come with dignity, and it didn't. Ironically, the 4G hotspot would have worked -- and people would have paid for it -- either way.