SPARE A BYTE?
Urban blight comes to the Internet.
BY JAMES TARANTO
New York Press, Wednesday, March 1, 2000
There's only one good reason to vote for Hillary: her victory in the Senate race would give us an extra year of Rudy Giuliani as mayor.
It's hard to remember now, but New York was not always America's pleasantest big city. Not long ago whole sections of Manhattan had a sex shop on every block and a panhandler on every corner. Giuliani hasn't completely eliminated these scourges of urban life, nor can any mayor. Activist judges have deemed it constitutionally protected "speech" when a bum gets in your face and demands money or a woman makes money by putting her bum in your face. Nonetheless, through the legal expedient of "reasonable time, place and manner" regulations, Giuliani has made these problems manageable.
Sex shops might not come back even under Mayor Mark Green. After all, such businesses continue to thrive, in a less obtrusive way, even in Rudy's New York. Phone-sex and outcall services are free from the expense of storefront rentals, and their customers surely prefer the relative anonymity they make possible.
Technology, too, helps push sex businesses off the streets. Just as the advent of videocassettes sounded the death knell for X-rated movie theaters, the Internet brings all manner of smut straight to the consumer's desktop. There's no need for furtive visits to the local porn palace; today a pervert's home is his castle.
Internet porn raises its own problems. Toddlers can watch live sex shows at the public library, cheered on by the lunatics at the American Library Association, who adamantly oppose filtering software. But no one can deny that the effect on street life is salutary.
If only we could get panhandlers off the street and onto the Internet, too. Isn't that a ridiculous thought? Well, not so fast. The Public Broadcasting Service has set up a website called NeedCom, which offers--I'm not making this up--"market research for panhandlers." (The site is found at www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom.) Leftists used to denounce advertising on the grounds that it manufactured desires for things consumers didn't really need and would never think to want absent the manipulations of marketers. What would they have made of PBS' NeedCom? Here we have a government-subsidized noncommercial tv network proposing to bring sophisticated marketing techniques to people who are eager to separate you from your money but have no product or service to offer in return.
Sign on to NeedCom, and you're presented with a series of six screens. On each, a bum is photographed and his pitch quoted, with a link to an audio recording. You are asked to decide how much you'd give to the beggar, zero to $1, in 25-cent increments. This is a rather simplistic survey. You don't have the option of a glower or a firm, loud "no." You can't say, "Get a job," or refer the beggar to a soup kitchen. (Try that last approach sometime with a real panhandler, especially one claiming to be hungry. In my experience it has never drawn anything but a hostile response.) Even so, users who explore NeedCom will find ample opportunities to express their distaste for panhandling.
The site features "quick polls" that ask users their opinions on various panhandling-related questions. These are unscientific surveys, but you'd think people who find the notion of "market research for panhandlers" intriguing enough to log in would tend to have a sympathetic view of beggars. Yet 80 percent of respondents say panhandlers are usually lying when they tell you why they want money, 60 percent say they wouldn't give more if they were richer and 83 percent prefer to give to charities rather than panhandlers.
Some of the questions are bizarre, like the one that asks users whether they would rather give money to "Samuel, a black man" or "Andrew, a white man." (Samuel wins overwhelmingly, with 69 percent.) Imagine the uproar that would ensue--and justifiably so--if a real market-research firm working for, say, an automaker asked customers: "Would you rather buy a car from Jim, a white dealer, or Leroy, a black dealer?"
The purpose of all this is hard to fathom, even for Cathy Davies and Drew Gorry, who created the site. In an online statement of purpose, they explain: "The goal of NeedCom is not to encourage or discourage you to give to panhandlers more. Instead it is to provide you with data and context to examine your own perceptions of panhandling and how these perceptions form responses to panhandlers." The whole thing seems about as well thought-out as a much-ridiculed proposal last year to give San Francisco panhandlers credit-card machines.
Still, maybe there's something here, and perhaps porn sites are the model. They have developed online marketing techniques as obnoxious as those used by the most aggressive panhandlers, like opening endlessly multiplying windows on a user's screen so he can't escape without rebooting.
Perhaps NeedCom should merge with an Internet smut merchant so that Web surfers can enjoy one-stop shopping for urban blight. They could call it bums.com.
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