It's hard to picture a coffee shop these days that doesn't offer WiFi to its customers with the purchase of a drink. It's become common practice to have it, and many times if you don't, customers won't be breaking your doors down. And the more patrons you have, the better your WiFi and the more expensive your running costs can be. So some coffee shops have decided to do without it, and, it's actually not as bad as it sounds for a few reasons that we'll discuss today.
One of the biggest issues with having WiFi in coffee shops, a coffee shop owner told me, is that customers tend to stay for prolonged periods of time without purchasing goods continuously. So they tend to take up space and spend less, which for the coffee shop owner is a no go. You'd be hard set to find a coffee shop right now, where half the people are not listening to music in their pajamas doing homework or working from home with a single cup of coffee to show for it. It's definitely a long way from what coffee shops once used to be.
It's a new trend that can hopefully be reversed and steered back towards its original roots. Before coffee shops became associated with sugary snacks, bad but strong coffee and homework, they were a place where ideas could be discussed and where stories were shared and spread by anyone willing to partake in that culture.
A quick history of coffee shops
Before we too far into the current state of coffee shops, let's discuss how coffee shops once were during their first days centuries ago. A good visualization of coffee shops, or coffee houses as it were, of the past can be glimpsed by the words of French writer Jean Chardin, which stated the following.
People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say.
So some things never change. You can picture a lively place full of chatter and stories. Full of political and philosophical debates over freshly imported coffee beans. It's where traders met to discuss business and where politicians met to discuss law. A grand time. Many people still use the coffee house in this regard mind you. But more than likely, when you go into your favorite coffee shop in the morning, it's about the pastries and the pick me up, or again, about homework.
As time progressed, the coffee house became a place for the enlightened to partake in philosophical conversations. Those like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were said to frequent coffee houses in their time. It makes sense, if you can think of the stimulant effects of coffee and combine them with grand thinkers.
The 19th and 20th century saw more of a rise in writers and artists visiting coffee houses. JK Rowling for example is said to have frequented The Elephant House in Edinburgh when she was writing Harry Potter. And the rest of that as we know is history. So needless to say, for a very long time, coffee shops were places to meet to discuss ideas. To get those bits of information out of your head and into the air. Hopefully that painted a good picture of coffee houses throughout history.
The current state of things
Now let's jump to now. Because it is an absolutely different time, for many many reasons. Technology being one of them. The mentality going into a coffee shop these days are of need of coffee and/or pastries. And every now and then this thing we call WiFi, which isn't free. And it is totally understandable from a consumer stand point. Internet is not free. Most plans will run you a good 60$ a month, and if you're a college students, that's not exactly chump change.
With a click of a button and a 7 digit string, you can surf the web while hearing your favorite music and ignoring those around you. In fact, next time you're in a coffee house, notice when the music goes down that every patron goes silent. It's like, they don't want to bother those around them with speech. This is great for the customer, as they get to surf the web for free with the purchase of a 2$ drip coffee. But very quickly..it only becomes that. Every seat in the house is a person listening to music hanging on to their last sip of coffee for 3 to 4 hours. And again, this is a recent phenomenon. Even a coffee house in the 50's was a lively place of political discussion.
Based on the coffee shop owners that I know, which for some reason is more than a few, that's not why they got into the business. Many of them work in their shops daily in the early morning hours to get everything prepared. And the last thing they had in mind when opening their shops, was that it would become a place of silence and stress. The coffee house is still one of the last few options where friends can go to unwind and to share knowledge from afar. To share in current events. And to discuss new ideas.
Let's try doing without it
As someone who writes code all day, or some parts of the day, for work, the coffee shop is no place to work. It's a place to meet my comrades and discuss the latest books on astrophysics and the newest programming languages. We talk about family and friends and upcoming events. No WiFi required. There's a time for work and there's a time for the other aspects of life. I'm 100% fine with walking into a coffee house for a good cup of coffee and spending an hour talking with a friend while a guy next to me discusses Michio Kakus newest book.
Each person in a coffee shop is a part of the whole atmosphere. If 90% of the people are quietly sitting there typing and doing work, you won't be having any lively discussions with anyone. You'll sit quietly on your phone waiting for a moment of noise so that you can blend into it. And if getting rid of WiFi in public places leads us back to a place of conversation, debate, knowledge and intellect, then I for one, am just fine with that.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.