Future Tense

Naïve Techie’s Attempt to Help Homeless “Hacker” Unleashes Internet’s Self-Righteous Wrath

A homeless man sits covered in snow as pedestrians pass by on March 25, 2013 in Washington, DC.
A homeless man sits covered in snow as pedestrians pass by on March 25, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The Internet outrage machine lit up this afternoon over a short post by a relatively obscure New York software engineer on a relatively obscure website called Medium. Why? Because the post—which described the author’s ham-handed attempt to help a homeless guy by teaching him to code—presented an opportunity for other techies to vehemently distance themselves from a Silicon Valley ethos that is quickly falling out of fashion. For the self-righteous, it was an opportunity too perfect to pass up.

The post’s cringe-worthiness starts at the headline—“Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code”—and doesn’t let up. The author, one Patrick McConlogue, writes off most of the homeless people he sees every day, but there’s this one young guy whom he senses is different. McConlogue dubs him “the journeyman hacker.” Eventually he is inspired to help:

The idea is simple. Without disrespecting him, I will offer two options:

1.       I will come back tomorrow and give you $100 in cash.

2.       I will come back tomorrow and give you three JavaScript books, (beginner-advanced-expert) and a super cheap basic laptop. I will then come an hour early from work each day—when he feels prepared—and teach him to code.

McConlogue then asks his readers, “What do you think he will take? And do you have any other suggestions/gear he would need?” He promises: “I will update you Medium readers on what he says after tomorrow.”

The problem here is that McConlogue has taken what he clearly considers a bold and genuine act of kindness-reaching out to a homeless man in a personal way—and turned it into something ickier: a social experiment, and a self-congratulatory blog post to boot. And though he doesn’t say as much, McConlogue seems to imply that if the homeless guy takes the money, he will be letting McConlogue down. He will go, in the author’s mind, from “unjustly homeless” to “justly homeless.” In retrospect, apathy toward his kind will have been justified after all.

So, yes, McConlogue’s approach is suboptimal, as a software engineer might say. But to judge by the reaction he got from tech and media types on Twitter and elsewhere, you’d think he had stolen the homeless guy’s lunch and punched him in the face.

Really? REALLY?!?” spluttered one interactive news developer. “Medium is a cesspool,” declared the head of an open-source news project. “Does it get worse than this?” asked frequent Slate contributor Evgeny Morozov, who went on to dedicate his next six posts to lampooning McConlogue and those like him. That was predictable, since it’s Morozov who has helped spearhead the recent backlash against the type of breezy “technological solutionism” that McConlogue’s post seems to embody. You could almost tech-media types thinking to themselves as they typed their outraged tweets: “This ought to keep me out of Morozov’s next book.”

But to me, the most illustrative outrage-tweet came not from a techie but from Daily Beast columnist Jamelle Bouie:

I don’t know Bouie, and perhaps I’m reading his tweet too literally. But the unmistakable implication here is that he cares less about what’s actually helpful to “the homeless guy” than he cares that “this condescending dick-face” get a comeuppance for his clumsy attempt to help. And I suspect Bouie is not alone in that respect. McConlogue’s post makes people uncomfortable not only because it is naïve and condescending, but because it raises an issue over which many of us quietly harbor guilt and doubts of our own. What is the proper response when your heart aches for a homeless person you pass every day on the way to work? Is it to flip a few coins in the guy’s direction now and then? Maybe buy him a sandwich or two? Resolve to donate some money to a local shelter this year? Turn your head and walk on? And if your answer is any of the above: What makes you so sure that your approach is doing any more good than McConlogue’s?

My colleague Matt Yglesias offers some practical policy suggestions, which are worth considering, but also outside the direct purview of the average citizen on her daily commute. And of course there are people out there, perhaps including some of McConlogue’s vocal critics, who really do go out of their way on a regular basis to help homeless people obtain things they need before they can even think about learning to code. Things like reliable sources of food, shelter, and medical care. But the sad truth is that helping homeless people—even one homeless person—in any real way requires a level of commitment that many of us are not willing to undertake. McConlogue, misguided as he is, dared to proclaim in public that he is willing to undertake that level of commitment. For that, we cannot forgive him.