Photo by Unsplash user Alex Robert

People will just use their phones, anyway

Matthew Kassel
May 12, 2017

Please let this not be a trend: around the country, more and more coffee shops are getting rid of Wi-Fi. At least, that's what the New York Times claims, citing a number of coffee shops—including, perhaps most recently, HotBlack Coffee in Toronto—that are forgoing Wi-Fi with the hope that their customers will socialize with one another instead of silently staring at their computer screens and clicking away on their keyboards. While this isn’t necessarily a new trend, it does seem to be happening more frequently at certain types of artisanal cafés that are going for the vibe of a coffee bar over a coffee house. And understandably so. Coffee shops aren’t offices, and café proprietors have every right to dictate the terms of their establishments as long, of course, as they don’t discriminate against customers or violate health codes.

But eliminating Wi-Fi is a futile effort, for a variety of reasons. For one, as Mele points out in his piece, citing a 2015 thesis by a former Swarthmore student named Rose K. Pozos, working on a computer at a coffee shop isn’t an entirely antisocial act because it still involves going out in public. As a work-at-home freelance writer, I concur. While I don’t normally work at cafés, sometimes it’s refreshing to leave the house and sit at a coffee shop with my laptop just to be around other people working.

I would describe this as a kind of adult passive play—there’s a lot more going on than just web surfing, email checking and Facebook scrolling. Eyes are constantly darting around as different workers size each other up, sometimes flirtatiously, sometimes enviously, sometimes menacingly. I often wonder, for instance, if those around me who have a word processing document open are also writers or if they are merely wannabe novelists fulfilling the writerly stereotype of working in a café. I also often feel sorry for the freelancers staring at spreadsheets. Regardless, there’s a lot to think about, and if café proprietors believe laptop users go to cafés to ensconce themselves in their own private world, they are, for the most part, mistaken.

Another reason eliminating Wi-Fi is futile is because modern workers can easily get around that obstruction, with data plans and mobile hotspots that render in-house Wi-Fi obsolete. If café owners really want their customers to get off their computers and talk, they should ban electronic devices altogether. Because customers are more likely to have their faces buried in their phones at any given moment than in their laptops.

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