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Computers and Cafes

What do you do at a coffee shop?: So have laptops killed the coffee shop? I can’t go that far. What I will say that it does alter the physical landscape of what a coffee shop looks like, which is that it looks like people are working, which interferes with the idea of the kind of coffee shop people like me see – a place with great mugs, great coffee, friends, or a journal to empty your thoughts… (via Fighting Reality.)

Fighting Reality goes to cafés to read and relax and feels like the preponderance of laptops is a somewhat unwelcome intrusion of the world of work into this space of sociability, pleasure and relaxation. And I sympathize with his/her perspective—it’s certainly not an isolated one.

When the people behind Borderlands Books were opening a café next door, they asked for input from their community of friends and customers on what that café should be like. One of the issues was WiFi (wireless internet access), and the decision was made that WiFi would affect the character of the café in precisely the ways that Fighting Reality raises. They didn’t put in WiFi, so their café would not turn too much into a work space, with a bunch of individuals hunched behind their laptops, beavering away in the digital salt mines of our Web2.0 world. Instead, what they hoped for and largely achieved was a space where people read books (often purchased next door) on the comfy couches or chat with friends at the nice wooden tables.

Just down Valencia Street, the very popular coffee shop Ritual Roasters took a somewhat different approach. They left in their WiFi, but took out almost all of the power outlets. Customers can still surf, tweet, Facebook, but only as long as their batteries last. This approach may perhaps have been motivated more by commercial considerations, pushing for a faster turnover, than at creating a particular ambiance, but in fact it has changed the feel of their space. Before, coming into the café one would be faced by ranked masses of laptops (mostly MacBooks), making the place resemble an open-plan office. Now, there’s less of that, with laptop users mostly clustered around the large communal table in the back, where the few remaining power outlets are.

At the other end of Valencia, another popular coffee joint, Four Barrel, reportedly designed its tables and seating with the aim of limiting laptop use expressly in mind. Again, one suspects crass commercial motives, but regardless there will also be fung shui effects as well.

I love hanging out in cafés. I’m known for it—in fact, it might be one of the first things people would tell you about in describing me. Over my life, I’ve done the vast majority of my reading and socializing in cafés and coffee shops rather than at home (or in bars). When I am arranging to meet someone somewhere, it will almost always be at a café.

But cafés have not just been a sort of externalized living room for me, they have also, since high school, been my office space, the place where I did most of my school work and more recently paid work. Almost all of my studying, as an undergraduate in Berkeley, where it is pretty common, and a graduate student elsewhere, where it was less common, was done in cafés. I wrote my thesis at Espresso Roma in Berkeley and a paper on Picasso at the Mediterranean on Telegraph Ave., in one 12-hour marathon session at a corner table upstairs. When I was teaching, I held my “office hours” in a café.

These days, I find myself particularly dependent on cafés as a sort of office space—for reasons that apply to lots of people, particularly here in the Bay Area, where so many of us have been outsourced, are on flex-time or telecommuting, or have been downsized.

Cafés with free wireless have become important sanity- and money-saving aspects of our lives. Rather than spend all day at home, doing some sweatshopped symbolic manipulation task (say, on Mechanical Turk) or looking for work, we can go out and sit with others. We can attempt to recreate some semblance of the collegial workspace we were booted out of, and perhaps connect (f2f) with others in similar circumstances. We can keep the anxiety and desperation of our seemingly endless job hunt from infecting our homes. We can save money by not having internet at home (though with the extra cost of the coffee, this may be a false economy for most).

As housing and our housing budgets become tighter, we more and more find ourselves sharing flats and apartments with little or no common space—and sometimes even sharing our bedrooms—so it can be really important to have these cafés and coffee shops we can get escape to for, somewhat perversely, a little privacy or peace and quiet.

I think this is part of a larger trend in the big cities of the developed countries, away from the private home and towards a more complex interplay of our personal lives and public, commercial spaces such as cafés—and gyms and libraries and cheap eateries, all the public establishments that we are increasingly turning to for activities that used to be part of the private life of the home. To the extent that this is a commercialization of our personal lives, I see it as problematic, but more generally, as creating potential for new forms of community and as a way of reducing our private consumption and ecological footprint, it is a trend to be welcomed.

So while I can relate to Fighting Reality‘s view of cafés—there are some I never go to for work, only to read and socialize—the use of cafés as places of work, particularly for those of us downsized and marginalized by the economy, is not going to go away. And is in fact, important—vital even—for those of us who do it, in many cases have to do it. And it is also a sign, an aspect, of larger trends in urban living that bear watching, and thinking on, for their positive and their negative aspects.

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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