Nuts to your poncey hipster coffees, I want a TESLA ELECTRO-CAFE
Examining the frothy disconnect in indie cafe culture
Something for the Weekend, Sir? Tales from Bohemia, Silicon Roundabout style: in which intrepid explorer Alistair Dabbs goes in search of a cup of coffee in London's Silicon Roundabout tech district traffic feature...
Indie cafe 1: Large soya latte, please. Am told they don’t do them in large. They weren’t wrong – drink is served in a vessel smaller than a single-portion tub of cinema ice cream. It costs £3.10 and smells like someone set fire to squirrel shit.
Indie cafe 2: Large soya latte, please. They don’t do soya. By the look of the waxed paper thimble it comes in, they don’t do large either. Nor apparently do they keep any change in the till. Thimble of coffee goes cold while barista ambles off to newsagent.
Indie cafe 3: Large soya latte, please. Drink arrives in an espresso cup. Suggest that barista has made a mistake. Barista shrugs, tips it into a larger cup and hands it back to me.
Indie cafe 4: Large soya latte, please. Yes, they do soya, am told, but they don’t have any at the moment. Insist that from the point of view of someone who has just asked for a soya latte and can’t get one, this is the same as not doing soya. Blank stares.
Indie cafe 5: Large soya latte, please. Am served a cup of froth. Virtually weightless. Cup needs to be held down with a stapler to stop it floating off my desk.
Indie cafe 6: Large soya latte, please. Back in the office, discover they took me literally and served me a big cup of hot milk. Very nice but feel sleepy all morning and at lunchtime nip out to Boots for some rusks.
First-world problems, eh? This is what it is like to ‘support your local independent coffee house’ – stumbling from one bunch of hopeless clowns to the next in an ultimately doomed hunt for a decent morning beverage.
Long-term readers of this column – you may wish to refer to yourselves as ‘repeat offenders’ – may remember how last year I nabbed 2,200 square feet of cut-price office space in London’s so-called Tech City. I lived the dream, rode the curl and tripped the shite fantastic, then grew royally bored with earning a living by recounting clichés and took my leave. Two enduring memories abide with me from my year in hipster Hoxton: the net access infrastructure in London’s Tech City is utter pants (despite ignorant pontificating by a nob-end mayor) and the coffee is much, much worse.
Now, if only they'd add a Wi-Fi button, we'd be sorted
One might expect indie coffee house culture and connected-device culture to converge in a place like this. After all, about two thirds of the businesses round here are app startups, fintech pioneers or cloud dev investors, while their entrepreneurial employees make a point of expressing their hip independent credentials by uniformly growing Edwardian beards and getting David Beckham haircuts. But if you wander into almost any of these indie cafes and ask for their Wi-Fi password, you’ll be met with anything from bafflement to scorn.
In this happening centre of tech excellence, it seems, offering crap coffee and bugger-all internet access is effectively a badge of honour. There’s even one place that has a hand-chalked sign outside with which it presents slippery slogans such as ‘No Wi-Fi! Talk to each other!’
Intrigued by this invitation, I took them up on this offer, ordered a cup of frothy sick and a pastry so old it must have been unearthed during an archaeological dig and did my best to initiate what turned out to be a series of disappointingly one-sided conversations with strangers sitting at adjacent tables. I began by leaning over to talk to people and even tried sitting next to them, announcing: “So, talk to me!” For some reason I cannot fathom, they did not seem to be interested in keeping the conversations going. It was as if they preferred to mind their own business and get on with what they were already doing. Some of them were even reading books, for heaven’s sake! What were they thinking of? Hadn’t they seen the sign outside?
Caged and confused
In Vancouver, an apparently irony-free pop-up coffee shop recently opened under the name of Faraday Café whose unique selling point is total disconnection. Not content with just failing to offer customers the weediest of Wi-Fi, Faraday Café has been purposely enclosed in mesh (it says here) to shield customers from electromagnetic signals. This renders all digital devices redundant (it says here) while you’re inside. You can’t even use a phone.
The principle is to ‘encourage digital downtime’. To help customers enjoy the experience of bonding with their fellow Johnny-no-mates and striking up conversations with potential stalkers and psychopaths, the venue hosted a series of themed events during July. These included such nipple-hardening excitement as an ‘evening of meditative inquiry’ and the roller-coaster thrills of an ‘experimental jazz quartet’ whose ‘unique sound-scape’ (no mention of music, I note) is said to go to ‘far off places’ or ‘stay safe at home’. Dig it, daddio?
Why bother going to all that trouble to shield a coffee shop from Wi-Fi when pretty much the whole of London E1 and E2 postal codes have been successfully achieving exactly the same thing for the last few years through sheer apathy? Building an anti-signal mesh (aka. a Faraday cage) seems unnecessarily expensive when London’s indie coffee shops demonstrate that you can do it simply by not giving a fuck. Most of them don’t even open for breakfast until 8.30am, by which time I, along with just about everyone else who works in the City, have already been at work for at least an hour.
What gives me cause for concern is that far from cities needing a digital-downtime escape venue populated by bongo-thumping wankers, getting connected in public places is actually getting harder all over the country. Visiting my mum in Leeds during the Grand Départ of the Tour de France – pure coincidence, of course – I discovered that getting online as a free agent is as difficult back home as it is in London. Mater refuses to permit any kind of internet connection to be installed in the house and I was struggling to obtain a consistent 3G signal for a scheduled Skype call, so I headed off to the local pub. This pub has its own cafe, too, which must be a good sign. Pubs in the year 2014 have Wi-Fi, don’t they? At least, Trip Advisor said this one did.
Except it didn’t. It had strong Wi-Fi, sure, but only for kitchen staff, not for – pah! – customers. And not only was the 3G signal there worse than at the house, it proved impossible to obtain even creaky GPRS let alone Edge. I had to stand on a wall out the back simply in order to send a text to tell colleagues to go ahead with the conference call without me. Anyone would think I’d stepped into the ‘Slaughtered Lamb’. They should rename it the ‘Faraday Pub’.
So what do I invariably end up doing? Caught between offices, I move with the herd and head for an untrendy chain coffee shop. In fact, half my business over recent months was conducted from a variety of Costas, Starbucks and Neros, ranging from Glasgow to Canterbury. Naff, perhaps. Bland, of course. Connected, absolutely. I spent a toe-curling sum of money on drinks and snacks at these places, too, but that’ll be of no interest to indie coffee shops, I’m sure.
You can keep your Faraday Cafés and evenings of meditative inquiry. What I want is a Tesla Café. I want it so powerfully wired up that all the teaspoons end up pointing north, migrating birds flying overhead get disorientated and there is a risk of any spike in the mains supply causing a puncture in the fabric of time itself. The strength of the Wi-Fi signal would be indicated by a row of crackling Tesla coils. Every email sent or message posted by a customer would be accompanied by a gigantic flash of ball lightning screaming across the room.
If it also serves coffee in popcorn tubs and sells pastries that have been baked within living memory, I’d consider moving in permanently. ®
Alistair Dabbs Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He is often asked why he always orders coffee in large size. He replies that it’s because no-one sells coffee in extra-large. As for wondering why he insists on fluffy, girly, milky lattes, he suggests that you perhaps sort out your anachronistic gender issues. He drinks coffee for pleasure, not for a bet. ®