Just Say ‘No’ to Wifi

Elle Metz writes for BBC [6] about cafes that are eliminating wifi and banning laptops, aiming to get people off the screen and talking to each other.

Swimming against strong currents of contemporary urban life, these places hark back to pre-digital “third places”, where people met, talked, and hung out. Together. In person. These places are recounted no only for neighborhood chat, but also as hot beds of innovation and even revolution.

These folks have a lot of good intentions. Today we sit together, but focus on our screen. Metz quotes café proprietor Jeff Excell,

“’These days, people can have anything delivered to their homes’, [he] points out. ‘Isolation has never been so convenient.’

Metz sketches are some interesting ideas for how to make this concept work.

Step one is deep-sixing the wireless and somehow banning computers ( how do you ban phones?)  But there is more

The article cites some interesting “nudges”.  Metz describes  the thoughtful design of a café in Ohio,

hired baristas who would be good conversationalists. They also lowered the counter so customers wouldn’t feel cut off and removed pastry labels and prices to spark questions.

The contemporary coffee shop, and many public spaces, have become, by default, a sort of multi-purpose space, part social space, part work space. This strategy has been enabled by ubiquitous and inexpensive digital technology, and rapidly evolving social norms (see New Tech, New Ties [4], Breakup 2.0 [2], Modern Romance [1], Reclaiming Conversation [8]). But it is also a business strategy, a play to capture as much business as possible. And it has worked remarkably well.

As an engineer, I watch out for design compromises like this. This model of coffee shop is “good enough” conversations pace, and “good enough” work space, but it is not ideal for either. Sometimes this works kind of good enough works, and sometimes it fails.

The contemporary explosion of coworking spaces, which I have blogged extensively about, is a sign that people are not  satisfied working at home or in a coffee shop for an office. Coworking spaces offer very much the same infrastructure as a coffee shop, plus a community of peers, coworkers. A “respite from our isolation” as Zachary Klaas put it [3]. (A “Serendipity Machine”, as Olma puts it [7].)

These new refusenik cafes described by Metz represent a rebellion from the other direction. Put away the work, and talk to your neighbors. Be here, now. Pay attention. A community place. A respite from our isolation. (Probably a serendipity machine, too.)

I can see that we may well see the development of a range of spaces; turn-it-off social spaces, connected on-demand coworking spaces, and a variety of mixed, in between spaces.

We’re trying to figure out how to live in this digital world, searching for a New Better Off [5].

  1. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  2. Ilana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010.
  3. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  4. Richard Ling, New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008.
  5. Courtney E. Martin, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, Berkeley, Seal Press, 2016.
  6. Elle Metz, Some cafes are banning wi-fi to encourage conversation in BBC Capital. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170224-some-cafes-are-banning-wi-fi-to-encourage-conversatio
  7. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.
  8. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press, New York, 2015.

(Note: this post is being written in a coffee shop.)

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