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?