Raise your hand: who here has ever booth-squatted for hours in a Panera, nursing that bottomless cup of coffee, using the restaurant’s free WiFi connection the entire time? It’s a common enough scenario that cafe and coffee shop owners, long used to offering free WiFi as a way to get customers in the door, are fighting back.
The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on these “WiFi wars.” Cafe owners have found that WiFi brings customers, but also a host of problems. Some people purchase nothing at all, some buy the cheapest item on the menu, and most stay for hours at a time, tying up tables that are especially needed during the lunch rush. Others park outside and surf the Net from the comfort of their vehicles—for months on end.
But the issue is not just an economic one; it has a cultural side as well. Cafe owners and traditional patrons are concerned that the shops are becoming offices. Confronted by a sea of laptops and hard-working coffee sippers, other guests may feel less able to talk, laugh, and be sociable. The forest of raised laptop screens might also keep patrons from talking with one another, and that social element has long been a part of cafe culture. It was this problem that led one Seattle coffee shop to start shutting off the WiFi on weekends last year. Not only did revenue go up, but the atmosphere in the cafe changed as well.
Coffee shops raise, in miniature, the essential political question: what sort of society do we want to create? Not surprisingly, there’s a difference of opinion. Customers who use cafes to meet others and to socialize with friends are disappointed by the many laptops and by the shortage of tables. Those working on laptops find themselves wishing that the retired friends at the next table could talk about their golf game in lower tones. And each owner has a vision of her own.
Personal experience suggests that most laptop users who work at coffee shops don’t do so because they are too cheap to rent an office. No, people whose work involves the solitary punching of laptop keys enjoy being around other people, and coffee shops and cafes provide a comfortable and inexpensive environment where one can feel less isolated while working. Looked at in this way, the “WiFi wars” are less over Internet access and more about the type of jobs that we do—jobs that require little human interaction but do require the constant tether of a network connection.