Tuesday, February 16, 2010

more time elapses...laptop-free weekends continue

It's been an interesting few more days over here. We continue to have lots of people coming through the doors who are really excited about laptop-free weekends, and also creating a space that's a bit different from the average cafe.

On the other hand, I've steeped myself in the negative opinions about what we're doing, and I'm sad to see that the one thing I wanted to avoid has come to pass: people have become polarized, which doesn't lead to any kind of solution.

The negative feedback I've seen and heard about seems to fall into a few general categories:

1) Technology is unequivocally good, and I'm crazy to want to limit it

This is an argument that I expected, and it's surprisingly a very small part of what folks seem to be upset about.

2) I am an annoying publicity-hound, and should shut up.

There's something to this, honestly. I did want attention on what we were doing here. I had been interviewed for a piece on oaklandnorth just after I had announced the laptop-free experiment. I sent out a press release about it, which I expected would be largely ignored.

I was interviewed by the Chronicle on Friday, and knew there was going to be a story in Saturday's paper. I had no idea that story would end up on the front page. I'm not sure it belonged there. I had no idea that that front page story would lead to so much other press. To be sure, I didn't turn down any interviews, and I took the attention to mean that there was a positive interest in what we were doing, which made me excited about it. Who would have thought that a brand-new little cafe in oakland trying out a slightly different technology policy would garner so much attention so quickly? Clearly, what we were doing struck a chord with some people.

With the space of a couple days, I feel like all the attention just got on some folks' nerves. For which I don't blame anyone. It probably also swelled up my head some. Sorry about all that.

So far, I have had great success with this project by being really open and direct. I don't plan to change that, at least not yet.

3) I don't have the right to make people talk to each other.

This is true. I can't make anyone talk to anyone else. I like it when it happens, but it's not something I can compel, nor do I want to. I'm only trying to create a balanced environment inside this place. Talking, working, reading, eating, whatevering all together, like ebony and ivory. Or something less corny.

4) I don't have the right to ask them to turn off their laptops, either.

This, I'm going to have to disagree about. There's a libertarian argument that crops up whenever there's the threat of regulation limiting some behavior (like smoking, for instance): that business owners can restrict behavior and customers can decide who to patronize - the market will sort everything out. In this case, I'm the business owner making a decision about how I run my business. I'm doing it for community-minded reasons, but the community won't fail if I do the wrong things - the cafe will.

Businesses restrict all sorts of activity all the time: no eating in your favorite boutique, no outside food or drink at the movie theater, no kids during school hours...I can go on and on. What's so different about limiting laptop use?

5) I'm a hypocrite.

I'm a technology guy. No doubt about it. I run my business on technology. I promote it using technology. I think the world is a better place in a lot of ways as a direct result of the widespread dissemination of technology. I think that the developing world's increasing access to technology is a great thing. I think my personal access to information when I need it is a great thing. It's so much easier to settle bets these days than when I was a youngster.

And, by the way, I first programmed a computer in something like 1978. I've been around and used computers most of my life. I managed a messaging hub for a thing called Fidonet back in the early 80's, out of my bedroom. I've evangelized broadband access, and helped build it. I've evangelized cheap cell phones, and helped build them, too. I've also spent a lot of time doing non-technology things along the way.

What's hypocritical about a guy like me wanting to create a space that's not all about technology? If anything, my experience should give me the right to have an opinion that includes some critical views. No?

One solution to this problem would be to turn off wifi altogether - like every day, not just weekends. I don't want to do that because there's utility in having it, and because lots of folks appreciate their ability to come on in and do wired things sometimes. Because I think technology is often a good thing, I want to create that balance that I think most other folks also appreciate.

6) I'm an idiot, and my business will fail because of it.

Possibly true on both points. The fact is that I (like any business owner) make great decisions and stupid ones constantly. When the great decisions outweigh the stupid ones, a business thrives. When the opposite is true, the business fails. Only time will tell which side I'll fall on.

7) Cafes should be wifi shacks. Period.

This strikes me as completely wrong. Cafes should be diverse and interesting, and should serve their own respective markets. There's room for all sorts in this little world of ours. I think we've experienced too much of the same in the last decade or so, and that a bit of variety is long overdue. For those that just want more of the same, it's easy to find out there as well.


I'm sad (although not surprised) to see that some faces that I used to see around here every day have stopped coming by. Obviously, they believe one or more of the seven things above. There are some new faces, which is nice, but I'll miss the old ones. I never wanted to drive people away - I just wanted them to leave their laptops at home a couple days a week.

Someone called me on the phone the other day, cursed me out, and hung up. This was a bit unnerving.

I've had angry comments on the facebook page, have a couple nasty emails, got some bad yelp reviews. Many from people who haven't been here, and maybe never will. I wish they'd stop by before they complained.

A guy came in the other night to pick up a friend who had been in the Cafe working for a while. When he walked in, he pointed the laptop-free weekend sign out to his friend, and without looking in my direction, hustled her out the front door. Which was a bit strange.

Apparently, a bar in SF had a trivia night last week, and one of the questions was about our new weekend policy. Lots of people knew the answer, and a heated discussion broke out afterward.

I don't want a fight.

We're going to continue our experiment, a bit more quietly, for the rest of the month. Jury's still out on the relative merits of this approach, and I'm still open to others. Cue the suspenseful music...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

the first laptop-free day - a status report

What a day.

We had an incredible response to our laptop-free weekend experiment. Not everything went perfectly, but a lot went really well, and I'm excited about what comes next.

First of all, we had a really great first Friday party last night - a great turnout of neighborhood folks, photographers, musicians, cyclists, and other art murmurers. Great DJs, great accordion, great sewing, great photographs. I'm so excited to see that we *can* throw a party on San Pablo, and people *will* come. I'm really looking forward to next month's party and show - it's going to be a special one, I think. Stay tuned for more on that.

And then today. I walked into the Cafe this morning, and found a copy of today's Chronicle, which had a story about us on the front page. Big pictures, and really interesting. The reporter talked about how our laptopless weekends echo the idea of the jewish sabbath, and of leaving work behind for one day a week. She also said that we're revolutionary, which I'm not sure I agree with. But anyway...

That story led to all sorts of other press - I was interviewed for two different TV news shows and one radio show today, and I have another radio interview in the morning. Clearly, we've hit on something. People are really interested in the problem of ubiquitous technology, and the adverse effects it's having on our human lives.

And, of course, we had lots of new visitors today. Customers who drove from other cities to come see the freaky cafe with no laptops. A lot of them expressed their support and excitement. Which was nice.

I had one interesting conversation with a couple who was leaving after they had finished their meal/snack/coffee...I asked how everything was, and they came back to the counter and said, "it was a bit quiet - we thought there'd be more conversation." They went on to say that they wanted to talk to people in the Cafe, but they were shy, and didn't quite know how. Which I thought was really interesting, and started me thinking about all sorts of things.

I had to tell exactly one person that we were laptop-free today, and that he needed to close his laptop. After which he left (and not so happily, I think). I saw a few other people read our sign on the door and leave. And one person asked if we had wifi, and when I said 'not today,' he ordered a drink to go, and went elsewhere. These things didn't make me happy, but I wasn't really surprised by them.

A woman posted on facebook something to the effect that we *are* just another wifi shack, and that all this stuff is just hot air. Which hurt my feelings a little bit, I have to admit.

I also just saw a blog post by a woman who was a bit worried that we would somehow force her to be social, even though she's a bit introverted. And didn't love the idea.

And, after reflection on all this, and a few other things, I wanted to quickly jot down some thoughts:

1) The removal of laptops from a room which might have otherwise been full of them does not result in a magical cafe wonderland. It only creates space in which other (I think more interesting) things can happen. And it's up to all of you people to make them happen. If you want conversation, start one. If you want art, make some. If you want smiles, give some. It takes effort to build a community. Expend some.

2) I can't (and don't really want to) force anyone to socialize with anyone. But there's nothing I love more than watching strangers find something in common. And I've seen it happen so many times in the Cafe. Some may find it difficult to believe that I'm actually pretty introverted, and that's it's really difficult for me to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But it's important. Technology has made it much easier for natural introverts (like me) to feel social without making much effort. But it's a false sociability - in the end, it's not really fulfilling, and by not practicing social skills (which, like all skills, work best when used often), we make it increasingly more difficult to make real connections. Which leads to all sorts of bad stuff in the long run.

3) I am not anti-technology. I am anti-isolation. I think we have lots of great tools and that we often misuse them. I also think that our obsession with staying constantly abreast of whatever interests us is silly, and leads to a crappy quality of life. Sometimes, it's OK to wait. I also think that we (and I say 'we' because I'm guilty of this as well) forget that we have certain obligations to each other when in public spaces - that we've forgotten good manners. Shame on us all.

4) We may not be doing everything right, but we're trying. If nothing else, this experiment has led to a ton of conversation. I've made new friends along the way. I've seen customers engage each other over this issue. Just like having parties on first Fridays, we're doing this experiment and others, trying to find ways to bring people together. Excising laptops and wifi entirely from the Cafe is something that some people seem to be advocating for, but I think that's a bit extreme. Why can't we create a balanced environment, where our devices are tools, and don't run the show? Does it have to be so black-and-white? Are we so dependent on these gadgets that we need to keep them out of sight so we don't fall under their spell?

So, anyway...I'm interested to see what happens when all the hoopla blows over. Will the place turn into a ghost town on the weekends? Will conversations spontaneously erupt? Will folks post lots of annoyed yelp reviews about us? Will it matter if they do? Maybe it's best that we be the quiet neighborhood joint that no one really knows about. And that pretty cool things happen inside.