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.



  1. Hi There,

    More power to you. I couldn't agree with you more and really admire that you are doing something about it. I think it is pretty depressing when I go to a cafe and I see everyone sitting there, tuned into their laptops, or texting and twittering away. And they are sitting there with a friend, doing the same thing? Shouldn't they be talking to each other or someone else? Isn't that the point of getting out of the house? To see and to learn and to interact with our environment?


  2. I'm super stoked about coming in this weekend getting a ton of knitting done. :)

  3. Beautiful post, John - er Sal.

    From another natural introvert.

  4. "When all the hoopla blows over"
    You mean when all the self-created, publicity-seeking hoopla blows over?

    you seriously need a reality check bud.

    You are well within your rights to regulate how long people use your free internet, and require minimum purchases.

    You are totally out of line to presume to tell me, or anyone, that I should be 'socializing' with my neighbor. You're a coffee shop, not a church group.

    Or maybe you're not totally out of line, but you bet your bippie that I am totally within MY rights to take my business elsewhere. But I have a suspicion that'd suit you fine since you are *clearly* not interested in running a business, but rather some kind of social utopia.

  5. When you said removing laptops will create a space where other things can happen, it made me think about what I used to do in cafes before we had laptops and internet. (I am not a laptop in cafe user now...I just rarely seem to go to cafes anymore, and if I do it's to get together with someone-not just to hang out.) I used to read, and write, or doodle and watch people. You can be interactive with the public without having to talk to strangers. It's just a matter of being aware of what's around you. I get a great kick out of watching people come and go and life just happening around me. A room full of people on laptops, people plugged into their own separate private universes...well, that's not as exciting. I tend not to watch the people with laptops.

  6. I think "J" is missing the point...

    Running a business that acts as a "social utopia" is a brilliant idea. Especially one that is focussed around food. After all, it is often food and drink that draw people together. What spurs from that is the exchange of ideas, creativity, and community building. I second all that Sal is attempting to do.

    I am not a cafe laptop user, and never have been, thus I completely support laptop free weekends. You can count me in for supporting your business on weekends and during the week, as well as your effort to support community!


  7. What a load of smug, self-congratulatory horsecrap. I should hope any business proprietor would be HAPPY to walk out into his establishment and see every table filled (assuming people are either paying for wifi or continuing to make purchases). Where the hell do you get off telling people (not just people, your customers, the ones who are giving you money for goods or services) how they should interact with other patrons (leaving aside being disruptive)? What is so threatening about someone sitting and reading? Working on their laptop? As long as they pay their way, how is it any of your business? I really hope I'm there to see it when the cold hard light of reality hits and instead of a full house you find your joint empty, everyone having taken there business elsewhere where, you know, they're not told what to do. Get over yourself.

  8. Sal, do you see the correlation of people who support Laptop-Free Days, with your patrons who don't primarily use computers or laptops. While I view your desire to differentiate your place of business as a more social-club centric atmosphere as noble, I believe you've cross some invisible line into the a weird abyss.

    Why do i as a customer, have to actively feel "worried" about whether my patronage fails your interactive objective in some way, (from the period of time i spend time at the cafe (while also spending $$$ i might add) to whether my usage of a laptop on a laptop free weekend will be forbidden.

    Sal, Your actually supporting a position of pushing a customer away at your door on a Saturday morning who wants to by your goods, while using Wifi (but he cant) so he's inconvenienced. He looses, you loose and your employees loose.

    I think the experiment will give you a false positive result, it may seem like a great idea on the surface, but your silently failing below. Please reconsider your policy experiment, please adopt more outlets so people dont have to put their powercords in bad places, so you can tell them its a hazard.

    And most of all, stop micro managing my cafe experience.

  9. Hmm. I didn't think you were trying to micromanage my cafe experience. I thought you were just trying to create a certain environment, and that you were inviting me in to try it out. I suppose I'd be upset if you were forcing a way of life on me in exchange for an experience I can't get anywhere else but desperately need as a basic human right. But I didn't realize you were doing that. Did you?

  10. Maria why do you insist on conflating:
    - having and expressing an opinion
    - railing against the cruel oppression by a dictatorial martinet who is denying us our basic human right to have our laptops with us

    Are you seriously that un-nuanced that you can't see that nobody-but-nobody is defending the position you're attacking?

  11. @RealityBomb - 4/10. Too much over-the-top indignation. "railing against the cruel oppression by a dictatorial martinet who is denying us our basic human right to have our laptops with us." Could you be any more of a horses ass? I do have to thank you though. Pseudo-intellectuals like yourself make the internet the amazingly entertaining place that it is.

    I personally applaud the experiment, and while I don't actually anticipate it will actually benefit the cafe in the long run, it's good to see that you actually do have some supporters.

  12. Shame on me for even responding to someone who calls themselves 'festeringturd' but I do have to point out that, pseudo-intellectual or no (in your case: no) -- my comment to Maria was asking why *she* cannot distinguish between the two, not that I was holding that view. But sorry there were probably too many big words for you.

    And no, I probably couldn't be more of a horses ass. . .than you are. Thanks for that.