Networking Ourselves to Death

While I was walking around sampling free food and beer during 2012 SXSW Interactive Festival, a quiet man handed me a card inviting me to access paid Wi-Fi via a Homeless Hotspot. After I said a quick “thank you,” I filed this card in my tote bag along with the reams of postcards, press releases and swag. After all, my smartphone worked fine and I could access free Wi-fi via the press office and a number of lounges. Since I didn’t need his services, I just walked on by.

Later on, I passed by another pamphleteer, this one offering me an invite to celebrate the launch of According to their promotional material, “explores the notion of digital legacy and allows us all to extend our digital life through technology and the social web.” After I die, somehow this system will know I’ve left the real world, a sign that they are to send out timed messages to my virtual networks. I can’t put my finger on it, but this sounds more hellish than heavenly.

Can one be too connected? For me this answer came at the end of the day when I encountered a man dressed up in a FedEx outfit. He offered to plug my smartphone into one of the outlets gracing his body. At first, I questioned the sanity of plugging into a stranger, but as my battery was about to die, I took him up on this opportunity to get a bit of juice. While I was charging along with a few other SXSW folks, the conversation turned to the controversy brewing over the use of homeless people as hotspots.

All of a sudden, I felt dirty. That man who handed me a card today was actually homeless, and I just blew him off as though he was one of the countless interactive nerds hawking their wares. And now I was part of that problem. What right do I have to play the self-righteous card when I’m using a human being as a charging machine, on the same day that other humans were employed at mobile hotspots? Yes, I need to be plugged in as part of my job, but clearly I had short-circuited myself somehow.

Then, as if on cue, my computer went from quasi-working to dead. At this juncture, repair was not an option. But rather than panic at the loss of what I perceived to be a critical lifeline to the outside world, I chose to contemplate just how plugged in I want to be moving forward. Still processing.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).