Laptop Zombies

Via “Slashdot”:, I found “this article”: about Victrola, a coffeeshop in Seattle, that is now shutting off its wifi on Saturdays and Sundays in order to “take back its culture.”

[The owner] said that the five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year “we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe.” Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. “Those people co-existed with people having conversations,” [she said].

But “over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more,” she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn’t on the way to anywhere; it’s in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill’s 15th Ave. It’s exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through.

My first thought upon reading this was that the “solitary sea of laptops” vibe is exactly the thing I get from “murky coffee”: these days. When I stop by with Ella on weekdays, the place has plenty of people, but the background hubbub of conversation is often missing — people aren’t interacting. My second thought was “it wasn’t like that with “Common Grounds”:”

Maybe it’s just kneejerk nostalgia on my part. Common Grounds had wifi too, and I was overjoyed when they got it, but I don’t recall it having the same effect on the vibe/culture. Were those first couple of years, before it got wifi, somehow crucial in establishing a culture and providing a context for meeting other people — one which endured _with_ wifi for a time, but would eventually have eroded? I don’t think so. Even pre-wifi, I still always had my laptop along (and open) when I went there, as did many of the people I met there and eventually befriended.

I think the most you can say is that getting that genuine, cool, community-spirited coffeeshop vibe is much harder than it looks. At CG it happened in large part due to a concerted effort on the part of the staff — something that easily might have resulted in disaster, but in their case worked, and worked well. That’s the sort of thing that makes a place less likely to become a nest of laptop zombies.

I have no idea whether Victrola’s experiment would work at all at murky. But it’s notable that both places, whatever their “culture,” share one principle that sets them apart from your corner Starbucks: that they exist for people to _linger_ in, and that hurrying people along (or disencouraging them from staying long with, say, ridiculously small tables) is anathema.