Homeless 2.0

A version of this article titled “Technology a Hero” originally appeared on the former news site Ryot in October 2013, long before the company decided to pivot to 360 degree VR news (and dump its archives in the process, apparently).

Several years back I attended the first session of a class at Columbia called “Science, Technology, and Society” that I assumed – incorrectly, it turns out – would explore the effect of technology on culture and the economy. Instead, we were treated to instruction by a slick-haired Wall Street huckster doing his best to achieve every pinstripe-stiched stereotype from an 80s movie. He trotted out an executive from Microsoft, who proceeded to tell the students how digital technology was changing the world. “In Africa,” he began, “people are using pre-paid phone SIM cards to save and wire money.” Never mind that this wasn’t by design, or that it was a simple kludge indicative of deeper systemic problems. The point was to instill the most obtuse values of Silicon Valley in the next generation. Forget the UN, the global NGOs, and the international political system. It’s a garage full of 20-year-olds armed with laptops and smartphones who are really going to “change everything.”

Or so the wisdom goes.

Fast forward to a month ago, when programmer Patrick McConlogue incited an online shitstorm for writing an article in which he chronicled his plan to teach a homeless man how to code. The premise seemed innocent enough: McConlogue would offer a man he passed on the street every day either $100 or the chance to learn Javascript. Leo, the man in question, took up the offer to learn, and was given a laptop and a series of books for instruction.

McConlogue writes like an 18th century explorer who has brought back a “natural man” from some Pacific island to show off in the courts of civilized society. He is “stunned” to discover that Leo has interests in international trade, follows environmental and energy policy, and is “smart, logical, and articulate.” But his broader point isn’t clear. Is it to show that people can engage others in their community through teaching? Or is it instead a tacit acceptance of the widely dispersed truism that everyone should know how to program because it will improve lives?

It’s not just naïve programmers-turned-bloggers who fall into this trap. An equally absurd article appeared last week on Wired called “Homeless, Unemployed, and Surviving on Bitcoins.” Writer Daniela Hernandez tells the story of Jesse Angle, a homeless man in Pensacola who spends his days using a laptop and free WiFi from a local park to repeatedly click icons, earning him fractions of a Bitcoin – the decentralized, digital currency that has cyberlibertarians everywhere foaming at the mouth. “Bitcoin is changing the world in more ways than you might imagine,” writes Hernandez, who believes that “the Bitcoin system could become the great equalizer for the country’s homeless.”

Despite quite noble intentions, both writers have drunk from the Silicon Valley punch bowl of techno-optimism, the one that leads perfectly smart and rational people to slur phrases like “networked society” and “geosocial universe” as catch-all solutions to our most pressing social problems. This philosophy points to “The Internet” the way a high school sophomore writes “the printing press” as the answer to every question on the AP European History exam. It’s a style of thought that has generated poignant rebuttals in recent months from writers like George Packer of the New Yorker, whose recent article highlighted the tone-deafness of startup culture to real economic and social problems, and prolific critic Evgeny Morozov, who in his latest book To Save Everything Click Here calls this type of thinking “technological solutionism.”

Packer tells of the widespread belief – among both the tech elite and idealistic startup entrepreneurs – that by merely getting everyone connected by mobile phones or signing them up for accounts on Facebook, the community can solve all kinds of problems, from terrorism to transportation. This belief extends to the upper-echelons of the industry, as Morozov highlights in his devastating review of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s book The New Digital Age, whose author says seriously and without irony, “The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.” Those Peace Corps volunteers have been going about it all wrong: all anyone needs in the most poverty-stricken regions of the planet is an Android phone with an App that points them to clean water.

The relationship of the country’s poorest with technology is far more complex than the McConlogue and Hernandez articles indicate. In a video posted to Business Insider, Leo talks about how easy it is for him to charge his laptop at a nearby apartment building, while Hernandez describes battery power as “not hard to come by.” But a study from the University of Washington examining the relationship between the homeless and technology found that the need to recharge “often drives homeless young people to trespass on private property to connect to electrical outlets” which in some cities “can result in incarceration.”

What about access to devices? It’s true that many homeless have mobile phones, which provide an all-important social connection to family and friends. But it’s absurd to think that giving the homeless laptops will solve anything. That same University of Washington study gave 12 homeless youths iPods and checked in with them a year later. Only two of them still had their devices. The rest had broken, traded, or sold them. “Homeless young people’s ability to hold on to personal digital technology is contingent on meeting immediate needs,” write the authors in a conclusion that should come as no surprise to anyone except those blinded by the optimism of giving people digital devices and assuming it will all work out.

The focus on the homeless in the McConlogue and Hernandez articles is all the more puzzling, considering that, according to the oft-repeated mantras of Silicon Valley, we are living in the “information economy,” the “knowledge economy,” or the “sharing economy,” all of which seem to be much peachier than the real economy. Over the past three decades homelessness has increased, but it has also shifted to include more families and single mothers. A recent New York Times piece highlighted this trend, pointing out that 28 percent of homeless families have working family members. You read that right – more of the working poor are now homeless. Trends like this are what led Packer to ask his most obvious and hard-hitting question: why is it that during the decades of the rise of digital technologies that were going to make the world a better place, wages have declined and regular people have faced the brunt of a stagnating, perilous economy?

Perhaps the opaqueness of the real world to those in the “sharing economy” is what led to McConlogue’s surprise that Leo had previously worked for a large insurance company and was laid off. More interestingly, Angle, the Bitcoin hound from Pensacola, used to work as a network engineer and technician – an anecdotal contradiction of the business world’s constant blathering about the need for more STEM degrees, a talking point that the IEEE has recently exposed as a myth. It’s not about what is good for the homeless or what can solve our present economic stagnation, but instead about the tech industry wishing to remodel society in its own optimistic image by convincing everyone that their products are inherently good and will improve everyone’s lives.

Worship of digital technology can have negative consequences, especially for the homeless. In a shameless display that could only occur during a time of rampant inequality, two homeless men were arrested in Pasadena after they’d been bussed in from a nearby shelter to wait in line for the next iPhone at the sponsorship of a wealthy businessman. It’s a reminder that technology is not just about access and openness, but also status and power. Nothing could be more indicative of this fact than the incident at SXSW last year in which a marketing agency hired homeless people to be human WiFi hotspots. The dehumanizing scheme brought new meaning to the idea of bringing people together by improving digital connections. One man’s t-shirt read “Hi I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” Solutions indeed.

To be fair, McConlogue and Hernandez have their hearts in the right place. They want to find ways to help. But in a time when even the vanishing middle class is experiencing the lowest social mobility in a century, can we really expect the homeless to live out some kind of Horatio Alger, up-by-the-bootstraps success tale merely by learning for loops and clicking for digital currency? Blind technological optimism absolves us of the much more difficult task of dealing with social problems through institutional and practical means. Because of its ease and comfort it can be tempting to throw our faith behind the idea that these technologies will solve everything, especially in the midst of economic stagnation, an intransigent political discourse, and what can only be described as congressional buffoonery.

Governance and real world politics are not some obsolete hangers-on from centuries past. They’re the best and most effective systems we have for organizing our societies, refined over the centuries in the face of tremendous struggle, oppression, and self-discovery. Yes, technology plays an important role in our ever-changing society, but it merely provides tools – not an ethos. So while real world governance is scrappy and at times dysfunctional, to put all of our eggs in the basket of utopian techno-optimism, which is in fact a series of slogans that create fodder for venture capital, is complete nonsense. Humanity at its most desperate won’t be rescued by Apps at their most cunning.