Wherever he laid his laptop was home: the internet and homelessness

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2009

I dare say many of you have already seen this Wall Street Journal piece that documents the increase of internet presence in San Francisco’s homeless population… but if you haven’t, I think you should go read it, especially if you’ve ever found yourself fretting over the horrible sense of disconnection from the world that a temporary loss of your broadband connection can cause.

Cheap computers and free Internet access fuel the phenomenon. So does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Many job and housing applications must be submitted online. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn is pushing more of the wired middle class on to the streets.

Aspiring computer programmer Paul Weston, 29, says his Macintosh PowerBook has been a “lifeboat” since he was laid off from his job as a hotel clerk in December and moved to a shelter. Sitting in a Whole Foods store with free wireless access, Mr. Weston searches for work and writes a computer program he hopes to sell eventually. He has emailed city officials to press for better shelter conditions.

Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can’t even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. “It’s really a symbol in today’s society of being OK and connected,” she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.

What’s most interesting to me about this is the way that the ‘freeconomics’ model of most web businesses is providing opportunities for social interaction to those who have dropped out of or been abandoned by the traditional meatspace support systems; homelessness no longer equates to invisibility, in other words, and a lack of fixed address no longer excludes you from a complex social life with people from a vast variety of social and political backgrounds. These people are using free services that are funded by payments from the better-off… smells a little like socialism, no?

If this isn’t a tangible example of how geography is dissolving under the influence of ubiquitous communication media, I don’t know what is. Which do you think you’d find easier to live with – losing your home, or losing access to the internet?


Author decides to copy Radiohead’s business model

Paul Raven @ 03-03-2009

Here’s an experiment to keep a close eye on, if you’re curious about new business models for publishing books in the digital age. Publishers Faber and historian Ben Wilson are taking a page from Radiohead’s playbook and releasing Wilson’s latest book in digital form on a pay-what-you-like basis:

Wilson’s examination of the value and meaning of liberty will be available to download on 27 April, six weeks before it is published on paper at £14.99, with readers given the freedom to set their own price, or even download it for free.

It’s a strategy Wilson, whose two previous books were published conventionally by Faber as hardbacks, admits is “a gamble”. When he first heard about the “frightening idea of giving the book away”, his reaction was surprise. “I’ve published before,” he explains, “and you have that excitement of a book in physical form, so that’s what you expect”. But after a while “it clicked together so well with what I wanted to do with the book – the campaigning edge – that it made a lot of sense.”

It’s good to see that Wilson and Faber haven’t made the usual mistake with the Radiohead experiment, in that they’re plainly seeing it as being a publicity play as opposed to the main income stream. However, I think it fair to say that Wilson isn’t quite a household name like Radiohead (hence there’s nowhere near the same level of expectation around the launch) and that the books business is still very different to the music business (although they’re getting closer), so while the model is similar we’d all be foolish to expect a similar pattern of results.

But it’s very interesting to see Faber taking this step, not just grappling with the new technology of ebooks as a format but with the new economics of electronic media, where free is – for better or for worse – the best way of getting your product into people’s minds (and memory sticks). It also makes Harpercollins’ claims about ebook pricing look even more ropey… [via GalleyCat]