Shielding, undistraction and conviviality, and my central dogma

In our Urban Computing class this year, I’ve gone out on a limb and offered our students the following “central dogma”:

That which primarily conditions choice and action in the urban environment is no longer physical, but resides in the invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds it.

At first blush, this is not a particularly timid way of framing our concerns. But while I think there’s plenty of room to demur as to whether this is already fully the case, or merely a matter for the near future, I genuinely do not believe the central argument is open to question.

Or maybe it’s not such a bold assertion? As has so often been the case as I’ve thought and written about ubiquitous technologies, an argument that sounds dramatic and science-fictional when stated formally like that turns out to be much less controversial – in fact, all but trivial – when moored to the real-world examples that substantiate it. Here’s an everyday example of choice and action being conditioned by the invisible informational layer that brings it all back home.

We’ve all heard by now of those cafés that have instituted a “no WiFi” policy, generally at peak hours or on weekends. In some cases the establishments in question have gone as far as to physically remove the routers they’ve not too long ago paid to have installed. And what these cafés are reacting to is the empirical finding that WiFi changes the way we use public space.

In many cases, I’m sure we’ll find that owners and operators are doing this out of an understandable commitment to their own profitability: there’s an imperative to turn the tables inscribed pretty implacably in the calculus of commercial real estate, and margins are already vanishingly thin. Since every nomad knowledge worker that springs three bucks for coffee and a bagel and then sits there officing for the next two hours is a direct hit on the bottom line, this is behavior you’d understandably want to discourage if your financial viability is at risk.

But I think we’ll also find that to some extent such decisions are motivated by a recognition that technologies of abstract interconnection undercut the logic of place pretty badly. Consider what Seattle coffeehouse owner Jen Strongin had to say on the subject way back in 2005, when she made what was at the time a strangely radical-seeming decision to deny her customers network access on weekends: “[W]e noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe…nobody talks to each other any more.”

The digital layer’s availability or nonavailability demonstrably toggles behavior in the space between two different conditions, and it changes what the café is in the profoundest sort of way. I’m sure you could feel the difference blindfolded, and with ears plugged. It’s not necessarily what Kazys Varnelis means by “network culture,” but it sure is an example of same.

This accords entirely with the idea of “multiple adjacency” that Mark Shepard and I discuss in our “Urban Computing and Its Discontents” pamphlet, and our thinking as to which end of the equation generally suffers under such constraints. The mere existence of options that allow for a customer physically present in the room to invest the weight of their consciousness outside of it changes that place, changes what is done there, changes what sorts of options it presents to you as someone walking through the door for the first time not so equipped.

This goes back to the joke I always make about opening a chain of coffeehouses called Faraday’s: under the condition of ambient informatics, we will need to consciously create platforms for the specific kind of conviviality we recognize as animating our “third places,” and we will generally have to do this by physically denying, buffering or mitigating the Hertzian overlay. And this will be true at least as long as we recognize that there is an inherent value to the specific kinds of interactions we only tend to have when confined to the possibilities physically present in the room. Or to the degree that we do recognize that, anyway.

Simple, concrete example. No need for the maximal case of perfect, seamless, context-aware inference-engine ubicomp, let alone (cough) “utility fog.” We see here how the presence or absence of an invisible informational overlay changes behavior in this place in every important respect. That’s what (and all, so far) we’re arguing. What do you think?

19 responses to “Shielding, undistraction and conviviality, and my central dogma”

  1. Christopher Fahey says :

    RE: Faradays’s: There are two types of “users” of the cafe-as-public-space: those who go out in public to have private time away from people who know them and demand their attention, and those who go out in public to talk to other people of their choice. Both groups enjoy the presence of other people, often strangers, surrounding them. A certain segment of both groups, too, might also enjoy the hub-bub of hearing conversations occurring around them. But has there ever been a dynamic to the coffeeshop where people meet each other, as at a party? The Paris cafe culture of a century ago may well be a myth, or at best a blip, to the dominant dynamic where people simply don’t usually meet new people, strangers, in public spaces.

    Will wifi-free cafes really change the real underlying social dynamic of people, or will such places simply attract people with a deep love of the hub-bub and a nostalgic desire for a non-plugged-in space?

    Is it wrong for people to want to plug in, get work done, and be asocial in a public space? Especially when the alternative might be doing the same thing alone at home, or at a high-pressure office environment?

    From the perspective of the owner of the cafe, the hub-bub of a chatty room might correspond to a friendlier atmosphere and thus to higher sales, but after seeing countless Starbucks crowded to the gills with silent solo people, most of them plugged in to some thing, I’m not so sure even the chattering space is a draw anymore.

  2. Kazys Varnelis says :

    Great post Adam. Although the Network Culture work is indeed, a bit more broad, I think you’re nailing what Anne Friedberg and I talked about in the essay on place in our upcoming Networked Publics book.


  3. Kazys Varnelis says :

    For anyone who follows that link, when MIT publishes the book, there will also be a set of sidebars by other writers expanding on points raised in the text.

    Appropriately enough, Adam’s Thesis 77 Everyware must be deniable is one of these.

  4. AG says :

    Chris, I guess I just don’t agree with your conclusion. It’s probably the case that, historically, people did not often initiate encounters with absolute strangers in places like these, but the low pressure to commit afforded by the easy conviviality of a classic third place did allow those relationships to be pushed one subtle notch up the intimacy gradient: from utter stranger to “familiar stranger,” from nodding acquaintance to drinking buddy, and so on. And we know that it’s just these weaker, lower-commitment ties that actually bind a community together.

    Empirically, this knitting-together function has been served by the British “local,” the Viennese coffeehouse, even (I’d argue) the Finnish sauna and the Korean jjimjilbang, and it’s explicitly what Howard Schultz set out to do with Starbucks. But the solo, heads-down café is incapable of being that kind of platform – the necessary threshold of interruption is much higher, and therefore the chances of casual involvement much lower.

    I don’t think this is actually open to question: it’s an observable facet of just about any wireless-equipped coffeehouse in the developed world. The real question is what kinds of publics are organized differentially by these divergent technosocial contexts, and which do we value and desire?

  5. Abe Burmeister says :

    Chris, having moved around quite a bit the past few years I can say pretty definitively that a good coffee shop that functions as a “chattering place” is the single most determining factor in how much I like the neighborhood. And while laptops are inevitable, my local doesn’t provide wifi, yet people have been stealing signals from neighbors for years, the cafes that look more like mobile offices than cafes are rather alienating places. Not for the people who have turned them into offices surely but for anyone else.

    Banning laptops is a bit of a draconian measure, a legalistic response to a problem that probably requires more of an architectural & cultural response. The ability of the laptop hordes to take over is a direct response to the number and layout of tables and power plugs. A properly designed cafe, can make it apparent that while a little laptopping is ok, camping out isn’t really the plan.

    Starbucks I’m sure has an incredible amount of data on this exact stuff. How many plush chairs does a location get? How many tables and what type? The balance between what draws people in and what keeps them flowing through to the cash register is the make or break one for a cafe, and Starbucks has made it a science…

  6. bryan says :

    No doubt SBUX has the data on how placement of plugs and tables effects their sales! I bet JCDecaux collects similarly interesting info from their various airport contracts, another site that makes the impact of power/signal availability readily apparent. I’ve been thinking lately of these dual dependencies as the ubicomp equivalent of William Whyte’s sun and shadows guiding the use of public plazas.

  7. Adam Rice says :

    I don’t disagree with the conclusion, exactly, but I think coffee shops have other ways of mitigating the impact of laptops without turning off the wife. The tables and chairs, for example. If most of the chairs are low and slouchy, and the tables too small for a laptop, people will simply tend not to use the place as a work-away-from-work space. There’s a coffee shop not far from me that was one of the first to have open wifi (around here, at least) and they consciously divided their space into “work” and “lounge” zones.

    Availability of electrical outlets is another obvious one.

    It would be interesting to design a router’s software so that the more you used the wifi, the slower your connection ran. This would not penalize people who want to check their e-mail or other lightweight uses, but would subtly discourage serious work.

  8. Adam Rice says :

    err wife = wifi

  9. AG says :

    Banning laptops is a bit of a draconian measure, a legalistic response to a problem that probably requires more of an architectural & cultural response.

    I should point out here that I’m not talking, at all, about “banning” anything, but about the deliberate creation of environments more suited to conversation and concourse. There will always be plenty of environments appropriate to (designed specifically to accommodate!) the needs of networking and the networked. But there should also be places for the affirmative support of other values.

  10. Christopher Fahey says :

    I guess I just wanted to point out that you are making a value judgment here — that a public place should be one where people interact with each other — and that that judgment may not be one that most other people share. I’m sure you’ve been in internet cafes, or video game arcades, or hell even at a fast food restaurant, where hundreds of people gather together under the same roof with the express purpose of isolating themselves from each other. I agree with your value judgment, too, but I fear that you and I might be pissing in the wind here against either (a) some unstoppable trend in technology-mitigated society, or (b) eternal human nature.

    The cafe society of yesteryear, or the saunas, locals, and coffeehouses you describe, might attract only those in the “I-find-other-people-interesting” minority to which you and I belong, where the fluorescent-bathed Wendy’s or the berths of the Chinatown internet cafe or the laptop-sized tables at Starbucks seem far more appealing to the leave-me-alone (“Fuck you, I’m eating!“) majority.

  11. Greg Borenstein says :

    I think there might be a middle ground between the AG and Christopher Fahey positions here, namely in Baudelaire’s idea of the flaneur. An ideal Baudelaire proposed for the artist of the late 19th century, the flaneur operated as a subject navigating a communal public space, but his main way of interacting with this space was through observation. While strolling passively through the city, he absorbed all of the activity and characters of life on the modern street through his eyes. He was moved by what he saw, both aesthetically and personally, but he did not necessarily engage it in discourse directly, instead he often reserved his observations for other social mileus and literary and artistic forms.

    In my experience, a lot of the social interaction that goes on in wifi-enabled cafes takes the form of flaneurship — stolen glances observing our fellows over the screens of our laptops.

    I wonder, then, about the design challenge of transforming this contemporary flaneurship into the kind of written artifacts that constitute a bonefide cafe culture. In other words, could we stimulate internet cafe goers to document the products of their flaneurship in cafe-specific online publications in the same way that Baudelaire’s peers used their literary journals and newspapers?

    I was actually briefly involved in a project towards this end in co-ordination with Portland’s free public wifi effort, Personal Telco. The idea was to outfit cafe hotspots with wikis and other social software that would only be accessible from within the hotspot itself, constituting a new kind of virutal public space in which the allegedly lost verbal discourse could take place. I wonder if anyone’s pursued this train of thought any further since that time…

  12. Paul Mison says :

    A small cultural thought: in the UK, there are both coffee shops and pubs, with very different attitudes to laptop use- it’s fine in Starbucks, but not your local, basically. The US has, from what I hear, a far smaller role for bars, and coffee shops are open later into the evening, so that may affect the way people feel that computing is affecting their social spaces.

    A second thought is whether the sheer physical size of a laptop – the barrier an open screen presents – is part of the problem, or if the use of the internet on phones is just as much of a problem simply because it takes people out of the shared (real) space.

  13. AG says :

    Thanks for the insights, y’all.

    A couple of things jump out: Greg, it’s not so much that I disagree with you as to some of the specifics of coffeehouse interaction, as that I feel like we need to move decisively beyond the flâneur as a figure of reference. The line I’m drawing in the book – and remember, it’s not a scholarly tome – is flâneur > consumer > “user.” I’ll be saying a lot more about just who this “user” is, or is supposed to be, in short order.

    Paul, I’m totally onboard with the idea(and I’ve always argued, in the context of class and corporate meetings) that it’s the physical artifact of the screen that primarily undermines the sociospatial logic of human connection. (Mouthful.) That’s why I’d like to see some empirical observation of people conversing and otherwise interacting when the informational layer arrives via, oh, say, a contact lens. But, just as it turns out that what makes talking on a mobile while driving dangerous is not the physical commitment to the phone but the psychic commitment to the conversation, I’m also prepared to accept that the different valence of human communication in a networked environment will predominantly be a matter of schizolocation itself. Only one way to find out, of course. : . )

    Finally, yeah, I make absolutely no bones about the fact that these are all value judgments, that they arise out of my own personal experience and contingent historical perspective, and all that. No question, and no point dissembling about it.

  14. igj says :

    While I find these comments interesting (and living in Los Angeles, a city with numerous cafes that seem to court the hermit-like screenwriter (or screenwriter wannabes)and their heads-down laptop use, maybe even moreso than most), it seems like everyone jumped on the trees in the argument and missed sight of that forest. I’d be interested in what others think about the central argument removed from the debate about the direction cafes are moving/should be moving.

    At that more abstract level, I have often thought about Adam’s Faradays joke – and stolen it repeatedly – while maneuvering in the public arena. It has popped to mind whilst trying to navigate retail spaces where half of the consumers are heads-down looking at some PDA/smartphone checking reviews/prices/whatever and another third are speaking on their mobile phones; it comes up in every airport I have been to in the past five years, where there is now always some nomadic hunter/gather tribe roaming around rooting around for power points. I am not saying that airports are particularly convivial places, but the forced intimacy of the ‘we all been screwed’ mentality that often permeated airports–especially during long delays–has been mutating into an ‘every technonomad for herself’ type of place.

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