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The New Culture of the Cybercafe: Internet, Ideas and Cappuccino

Ian Hooper

In the short time that coffee has been a major drink (really only about 300 years) it has had a very significant impact on civilisation. The depth of this impact is arguable, but most will agree that at certain times and in certain places the forces of politics, science and art coalesced around the increasingly popular coffee house or café. The fruit of these coffee fuelled debates is no less than democracy itself some would contend. It is certain however, that the café environment promoted freedom of expression, equality of access and a dynamic venue for debating everything from the mundane to the magnificent. Today these qualities could be used to describe another venue: the internet.
The internet may be the last true bastion of free speech, and the disembodied forum of cyberspace provides the first place of discourse where sex, race, age or religion does not have to create unfair prejudices. As the internet grew, it began to link people together from many different countries and many different cultures, but the one thing that was lacking was freedom of access.

Today this is more true than ever, as the internet becomes increasingly privatised and more graphically oriented. In order for a person to get on the `net they need at least a $2000 computer and a $10/ month service charge (these are Canadian prices, but I expect it is even more in most places). This is simply too much for many people to get involved in, thus limiting the internet to the people with money or those in the ivory towers of education.

It is here that the future of the café emerges in the creation of a new hybrid, the cybercafe. The cybercafe can provide the hardware and the connection so that a person can at least experience what the internet has to offer, without having to put out a major capital investment.

The cybercafe combines the culture and social dynamic of the traditional café with the more global perspective that the internet provides. This is a vital coupling that creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The internet alone, while it links people up from around the world can be a very isolating "place" in terms of the immediate physical experience. Therefore, in order that people do not take another step towards the home cocoon that is so promoted by the sellers of T.V. and other home entertainment devices, the internet must be brought out of the home.

The café also gets something out of this new mixture. In the early days of cafés, when communication and information was hard to come by, the café became a centre for these services. Many early newspapers found their origins in the flyers put out by the cafés. The telephone, television and radio have taken this job away from the café. People no longer need to leave their homes to find out the latest news or know what is going on in the world.

Mass media, however is increasingly coming under criticism (is O.J. Simpson really NEWS?), and the selective personalised nature of information on the internet is quickly becoming more favourable. This empowers the individual, while the global perspective of talking with people from around the world broadens their horizons.

With the rise of the right extremists in the United States, the passing of such totalitarian bills as the Criminal Justice Act in England and the atrocities occurring in former Yugoslavia, it is clear that the first wave of democracy to be born in a café was not wholly successful. Perhaps it is time that a new perspective is born, one that captures the spirit and idealism of the cafés of old and combines it with the broader perspective that modern communications allow us. This new philosophy might just come together over a hot cappuccino and an Amiga ... in a cybercafe.

Ian Hooper is a graduate student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is currently finishing up his industrial design thesis on better cybercafe activity stations. He spends a great deal of "research" time in various cafés in order to work out details of his new Magna Carta. You can contact him at hooper@evds.ucalgary.ca.

 


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